Monday, July 20, 2009


A couple of years before I was born, my parents witnessed the construction of a very significant wall. I want to tell you about it, because of the wall that features in the Epistle to the Ephesians. There Jesus is described engaging in a bit of cosmic vandalism: He is our peace, writes “Paul” to the Ephesians, He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.

It was 1961 and my parents were living in West Berlin as international relief volunteers – a tense time in the history of East West relationships when thousands of refugees where pouring in from East Germany.  On Sunday 13th August 1961 my parents were rostered off from their work in a refugee centre and set out to visit museums in East Berlin. When they came to the underground station, however, they discovered that there were no trains running to the east. Not quite understanding what had happened they went to Potsdamer Platz, that public square in the centre of the city, the point where the Russian, British and American sectors met. There they learnt that the border had been closed. They saw a barbed wire barrier rolled out. People were crowding up against it shouting abuse and throwing coins at a group of rather self-conscious looking East German soldiers on the other side. Behind them the paving stones on the road had been dug up to form a barrier – a barrier which would later become the infamous Berlin Wall.

So my family witnessed the establishment of that wall which defined the age of the Cold War. A dividing wall, a wall of hostility and separation, a sad symbol of human difference and intractability.

Jesus must have been enjoying himself 28 years later on the 9th November 1989 when people swarmed over that wall, climbed on top of it and eventually broke it down. Jesus must have enjoyed that because he is our peace, the breaker of walls.

The specific wall that Jesus breaks down in Ephesians is perhaps not obviously relevant to us – it is that barrier between Jews and Gentiles represented by Torah, the Jewish Law.

In this passage we can hear echoes of the “great debate” that rattled on in the early church. In order to become fully Christian, do “Gentiles” (non-Jews) first need to convert to Judaism taking on the ritual requirements such as circumcision for males and food restrictions? Jesus himself was very Jewish! Surely anyone who seeks to be part of Jesus’ movement must at least understand if not be a part of his own faith tradition? [Daniel Smith Christopher, Jonah, Jesus and other Good Coyotes p. 139]

“No,” writes “Paul” to the Ephesians, “because Jesus breaks through that barrier, demolishes that wall. He has abolished the law with its commandments and regulations.” In other words you don’t have to be Jewish to be Christian.

That’s not a big issue for you and me, that wall has long crumbled away. On the whole, Torah is no longer the wall that divides us. What is? Where is Christ needed today with his spiritual sledgehammer, to break walls and make peace?

I’m sure you are aware of the wall being built right now in the West Bank – 703 kilometres of barrier along the 1949 “Green Line” between Israel and Jordan. The Israeli government says it is necessary for their security, but what a tragedy. In the absence of the Berlin Wall, the world now has another wall to represent our inability to be at peace with one another – a wall that epitomises the central human conflict of this age – a wall against the Moslem world.

Then of course there is Wall Street. What wall is Wall Street named after?

Wall St runs east to west across the southern tip of Manhattan. This area was settled by Europeans in the 17th century – it was part of a Dutch Colony, and the settlement was called New Amsterdam. Wall St began its life as the northern boundary of New Amsterdam. In the 1640s picket fences marked the plots and residences that abutted the boundary. Later, the Dutch West India Company, using African slaves, constructed a stockade there as a defence against attack from Native American tribes. By 1653 it had become a strengthened four metre wall of timber and earth, fortified by palisades. In 1685 surveyors laid out Wall Street along the line of the stockade. The wall was finally dismantled by the British colonial government in 1699. [Wikipedia]

Subsequently, Wall St became a place where traders and speculators would gather under a tree to do business – a trade which eventually evolved into the New York Stock Exchange. George Washington took the presidential oath of office on Wall Street in 1789. And in the same year, Wall St was the location for the passing of the US Bill Of Rights. On the site of a wall built by slaves to keep out Indians – how ironic!

These days Wall St stands as a great symbol of Western Capitalism. There is so much that divides people from one another in this world, but is not wealth one of the greatest? Has Wall St gone from being a physical barrier to keep people apart, to a symbolic barrier that divides up the world?

Christ comes to break down the walls. How does he do that?

He united us when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall…

The blow which shatters the wall is not one delivered by Christ, it is one inflicted upon him. Let’s sit for a moment with crushing mystery of that. He breaks the wall by being broken. But out of the terrible destruction of that wise and compassionate man comes the creation of a new humanity. He made peace by creating in himself one new people from the two groups.  He breaks by being broken, he creates by being destroyed.

Compare that to the latest round of suicide bombings in Indonesia. What is achieved in these horrors? They blast through walls with their lives and yet nothing creative emerges, only more hard division and hatred. When Jesus gives his life, God’s creativity comes flooding in and a brand new possibility is born for people who once were divided.

Jesus breaks down the wall described in Ephesians not so that all the Gentiles can become Jews or all the Jews can become Gentiles. No, but so that together in their difference they can become a new community, the body of Christ.

East West, Left Right, Rich Poor, Moslem Jew Christian – Christ help us to break down the walls between us and to make peace. Help us to grow together into God’s new humanity. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Immersed, washed, drowned and born again.

I want to reflect on some baptism scenes from three contemporary movies. In each case the baptisms are not obvious – you’ve probably got to be a bit baptism obsessed like me to see them. But each of them spoke to me about the meaning of our baptism.

In the wonderful new Australian film Samson and Delilah, Samson lives out in the desert of central Australia and his life is pretty sad and empty. Nothing much to do except sniff petrol and bother Delilah whom he is secretly keen on.

Once, early in the film, Samson goes down to the dry river bed digs a hole and bathes in the muddy water which seeps into it. He seems relaxed and at peace in that moment – more so than at any other time. It’s like he is immersing himself in the land, being embraced by it, entering into its womb – a kind of indigenous baptism, expressing a spirit of deep connection with that country.


Is there something like that in our baptism too? I think so. In baptism we are symbolically immersed in the life of God. Our baptism expresses deep connection with God and others, a profound unity such as that expressed in the Epistle to the Galatians: As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27-28).


Things don’t go well for Samson and Delilah. After a harrowing journey where their lives fall apart, there is a profoundly moving scene in which Delilah washes Samson. She gently and lovingly washes the dirt from his skin. And it is like she is washing away the soil of his suffering. There is profound hope in that action, a new beginning – perhaps even forgiveness. Through the film Delilah suffers greatly because of Samson’s petrol fumed brain – I read forgiveness in her touch as she bathed him. True love.

Scripture also describes Baptism as washing – washed by the love of God, having sin washed away you were washed, you were sanctified, … in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God, writes Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6.11).

 We are washed, not because we have necessarily suffered like Samson and Delilah, not because we are somehow stained by sin and evil. No, but because God loves us truly and will always love us with a merciful, reconciling love through all that is to come in our lives. We have been washed with that love, sanctified by it, and there is nothing, not even the terrible trials of Samson and Delilah, which can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Another film with a symbolic baptism scene is The Matrix, a film well known for its religious symbolism.

Neo the hero, lives in a dark science fiction world where humans have become the slaves of machines. In the Matrix, the world we see is a computer generated illusion which is fed into our minds by vicious robots who rule the world. This computer program hides the horror of reality from us – we actually live in a post-nuclear-holocaust-apocalyptic-nightmare-wasteland world, but it is veiled by the false screen of normality. Neo is freed from the Matrix by the rebels who fight the machines, and when that happens, the film depicts it as both a birth and a baptism.

Neo is shown waking up in the pod in which humans are imprisoned. He breaks through the membrane surrounding him, disconnects the “umbilical cord” connecting his brain to the matrix computer, then he is flushed down a long drainage pipe (a symbolic birth canal) until he plunges into water below. He goes under once, comes up gasping, then goes down again – three times he goes under and comes up (a significant number when thinking about baptism!), until he is lifted out of the water by a giant mechanical “hand” which carries him high up into the light of the rebel ship.

It’s just like Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above… born again of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3,5)

Neo is “born again” into the rebel crew – his new family, his “church” if you like – they share a harsh reality, but they are free. We are born again through baptism as children of God, born into the family of Christ’s church. What is the freedom that we embody? – the new reality that we share?


One final cinematic baptism happens in Gran Torino. [SPOILER WARNING! The ending of the film is revealed in what follows!]

Walt is a curmudgeonly old working class widower, a Korean War veteran. He is the only white man left in a neighbourhood of Asian refugees, mostly Hmong people from Cambodia, whom he hates. Walt only really knows one way to engage with the world and to deal with problems, the way he learnt in the army, confrontation and violence – he leads with his gun and follows up with his fist while his mouth pours forth constant abuse. Walt is an angry, damaged man. As his priest says, he knows more about death than life. That is until he meets his young Hmong neighbours, sister and brother Sue and Tao.

 Through the events that transpire, Walt comes to call them friends. Against his better judgement, he finds himself wanting to help them and protect them from a local gang. But violence is the only way he knows, and his violent intervention has terrible consequences. Sue whom he tried to protect is horribly assaulted. Tao wants to lash out with guns in retaliation. What will Walt do? He agonises, and then he makes an extraordinary decision.

 Walt decides to sacrifice his life for Sue and Tao. He will take the violence of the gang onto himself, and die in order to give Sue and Tao life, to set them free, and to redeem his own broken life. In other words, he will perform a Christ-like act.

Having made this decision, the first thing Walt does is take a bath. What might be the symbolic significance of that bath for those of us who go through life looking out for allusions to baptism?

 It’s Romans Chapter 6 all over again! Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? Writes Paul. Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we … believe that we will also live with him.

 And so Walt goes and faces the gang unarmed, he leaves his guns at home. They shoot him down and he falls dead on his back with his arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose. United with Christ in a death like his, a redemptive, life-giving death. The gang is arrested and taken away – Sue and Tao are free.

 In the closing scene a lawyer reads Walt’s will to his family. Tao stands in the background. The lawyer reads, “I'd like to leave my 1972 Gran Torino...” The Gran Torino of the title is a car – one of the few things Walt truly loved. His spoilt granddaughter thinks it is coming to her, but the lawyer goes on, “to my friend... Tao Vang Lor.”

 My friend. “No one has greater love than this, ” says Jesus, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends,” he goes on, “if you do what I command you. And this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” That’s what Walt does. That is what we are called to do. And in baptism that love is made possible. We are united with Christ in his death and his new life.

 Three very different baptisms for three very different characters. But they all have this in common: violence and suffering marks each of them. And love brings new life to each of them. They are immersed and washed in love, drowned and born again through love.

 And these things happen for us in baptism as well. We are immersed in the life of God, washed by the grace of God, drowned into the death of Christ and raised up with him into new life, born again. The fullness of our faith is expressed in the simple, beautiful and profound act of Baptism.

 Thanks be to God.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Acts 4:5-12 – The Power of Life

Last Sunday afternoon there was an icy wind whipping in off the Bay, churning up waves like I’ve never seen before.

I went down and walked along the foreshore. As I rounded the bend at the most exposed part of the coast, I saw enormous waves bursting against the sea wall. The wind was whipping up the spray and carrying it right up the cliff and across Beach Road.

I went back the following day to see the aftermath. Here is a photo of it. Sections of the bluestone sea wall have been smashed.

What sort of power is represented here? The force of a stormy ocean, the power of nature. How is that like the power of God?

The reading we have heard from the book of Acts today deals with power. Peter and John have been arrested by the “Powers That Be” – the Jewish Priestly Authorities – for Peter and John have been performing Acts of Power (healing a crippled man), and they have been proclaiming the Power of the Resurrection. The Powers That Be are challenged, threatened even. So Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, and the interrogation begins.

“By what power did you heal this crippled man? In whose name are you acting and teaching?”

And Peter replies, “Rulers of the people and elders, [you Powers That Be] … let it be known to all of you … that this man who once was crippled is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.’ You crucified … God raised from the dead.

What we have here today is a clash of “Powers”: the Powers that Be on one hand verses the power of God in Jesus Christ on the other.

Speaking of clashing powers, there is a new movie out which the kids and I went to see the other night – it’s the latest X-Men movie, Wolverine. In this movie’s comic book vision of the world, some humans are born with mutations which give them super-powers. Wolverine, for example, is immortal and indestructible, his body heals immediately when he is wounded – he has claws and a nasty temper to go with them (and he’s one of the good guys). Other mutants have diamond hard skin, laser vision, super-strength, mind-reading ability, or wings. One woman can control the weather with her mind (that’d be a good power to have). Lots of powers all pitted against one another, good mutants verses evil ones.

How would Jesus fare if we put him into the world of Wolverine? I said that Wolverine was immortal and indestructible … is he like Jesus with claws? What would Jesus do when faced by Wolverine’s evil brother Victor who loves to kill just for the sake of it? – or the evil super-baddy who has retractable swords that come out the ends of his arms? Would Jesus have the moves, the power to defeat mutant evil?

I sometimes hear people talking about Jesus as if he is some kind of superhero. But, when Jesus faced the powers of his day, they crucified him. And now Peter and John stand before those same powers in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s the Power of Death verses the Power of Life. “You crucified … God raised from the dead.”

Which power is represented by Wolverine? Most of the characters in X-Men, even the good ones, have variations on the power of death and destruction. But Jesus didn’t fight. He never raised a finger in violence let alone a steel claw. Jesus has no claws.

So what kind of power are we dealing with when it comes to Jesus? Back to the real world.

Does this image of the broken wall at Black Rock represent the power of death or the power of life? No one died in that storm. I heard on the news that yesterday was the first anniversary of the cyclone in Burma that killed 140,000 people. Storms certainly can be death dealing.

But then, aren’t storms just a natural part of life, the movement of the atmosphere we breathe. Aren’t they simply a part of the power of life in creation?

On the other hand, storms of increasing ferocity are happening in the world these days, probably as a result of human driven Global Warming and Climate Change. Perhaps this picture shows what happens when human beings exert the suffocating power of death on the atmosphere. Is God in this at all?

Well let’s see if this picture might be a representation of the Easter Gospel, the power of resurrection.

There is the ocean – a place of depth, mystery, and power – like God. It’s full of life (as you’d know if you’ve ever been snorkelling or fishing off there) and it is a source of life – like God.

And there are the walls humans build. We build a lot of walls, don’t we? – literal and spiritual ones – walls to hold back the ocean, walls between people, and walls that keep us from full emersion in the deep, dangerous mystery of the divine.

In the story of God that we tell, the gospel of Jesus Christ, God comes to be with us behind those walls. God comes in Jesus to break the walls that divide.

As it says in Mark 13:1-4 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great [walls]? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

And how does Jesus accomplish this barrier breaking? – by what power?

Matthew 27:50-52 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.

In the torture and killing of Jesus is the rending and breaking of all that imprisons our hearts, all that keeps the ocean of love from flowing through us.

Yes, Jesus is the victim of torture and brutality, the power of death. So to imagine his followers using torture or even debating the appropriateness of its use as they are in America just now is bizarre. To say we will never torture even our worst enemies is to embrace the power of life. It’s a costly path to take as we see in the case of Jesus. But in our story, God takes the place of the tortured, not the torturer – the power of life surrenders to the power of death, but, paradoxically, by that very act the walls are broken and life emerges.

Let me finish with that stormy story from 1 Kings 19:11-12 – the story of Elijah hiding in a cave. ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Elijah is told, Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Is the power and presence of God in the storm, the earthquake, the fire? No, but in the stillness after the storm. That’s what we see here in this picture. The stones lie broken, like the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus. He is not there in the place of death. The storm of his dying has passed and he has gone (probably up those stairs!) into our world. And that’s where we will meet him, that’s where the power of his risen life is at work – on the other side of the broken wall, loving, giving life.

Let us pray:

Jesus, you are the one
who cries out in the storm,
“Peace! Be Still!” (Mark 4:39)
and there is deep calm.
Help us, your people,
to embrace the power of your name,
the power of resurrection,
and to live with you in peace
beyond the broken walls that once divided.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Easter Reflection - an unexpected shock

Mark 16:1-8

Have you ever seen a Bilby? They’re a very rare and endangered animal so I’d be impressed if you had. There’s been a move in recent years to substitute chocolate Bilbies for chocolate Bunnies at Easter time. Bilbies have big ears like rabbits, they’re about the same size. So if you want a pagan fertility symbol that is culturally relevant and environmentally appropriate, eat a Bilby for Easter!

I haven’t seen a Bilby, but I did see a Bandicoot once (Bilbies are part of the Bandicoot family – they’re also known as Rabbit-Eared Bandicoots). It was a notable occasion because I didn’t know what they were at the time. It was in Kakadu NP. I was camping by myself, in a little tent, no one for miles around. In the middle of the night I was woken by movement outside the tent, a snuffling, scratching sound – “there’s something out there!” I got my torch, upzipped the tent, snapped on the light, and there it was, this strange, outlandish creature. It looked like a giant rat with an extra long nose.

It’s the middle of night remember, I was half asleep, still half immersed in dream world, and in my dreams giant rats are the stuff of nightmares. So when I saw this strange thing, which I only later learnt to be a Bandicoot, my first reaction was horror – I stared at it in stunned amazement, grasping for connections, desperately trying to fit it into my experience, is it rabbit? No! Is it a possum? No! It wouldn’t fit, and I suddenly knew myself to be in a strange, foreign place with alien creatures – what monsters might lurk in Kakadu’s dark places? Was I about to be mauled by a giant rodent? – nibbled to death by a Bandicoot?

You might laugh, but fear of the unknown is a pretty basic human response, isn’t it? When things are beyond our understanding, outside our experience, it’s not unusual to feel deeply unsettled, frightened, threatened. And is that what is going on at the Easter tomb this morning?

Those women approaching the tomb don’t realise they are about to enter another world, a strange place where they will see an extraordinary heavenly creature, an angel – for the “the barrier between the divine and human worlds has fallen away” (A Costly Freedom, Brendan Byrne 2008 p255). A new creation is breaking in through that tomb.

Is that what we normally think when we consider Easter? The resurrection of Jesus is not just a weird and perhaps discomforting, but ultimately joyful story about a bloke getting up when he’s been down – it is that, but it is also a sign that the new life of God’s new world is breaking in to ours. And that is stunning and different and beyond what we have experienced before, and for the women at the tomb, utterly terrifying.

They are like new arrivals in a new world. I came to Australia as a ten year old, and I remember the feeling of entering a strange, foreign place. But at least I’d seen kangaroos on TV – all those years of watching Skippy – imagine what it must have been like for the first arrivals in 1788. One early settler, Barron Field, describes Australia as “a land of contrarieties, where the laws of nature seem reversed … where the swans are black and the eagles white; where the kangaroo, an animal between the squirrel and the deer, has five claws on its fore paws, and three talons on its hide legs, like a bird, and yet hops on its tail; where the mole … lays eggs, suckles its young, and has a duck’s bill” [Barron Field, Geographical Memoirs on NSW]. An upside down world – we can hear Barron Field trying to fit it into his experience. Comparing the unbelievably strange with the familiar – kangaroos like squirrels and deer, platypuses like moles. Everything they saw was like my Bandicoot experience. A stunning new world.

But if we take the arrival of the first fleet as an example of the Easter experience, then I wonder whether the women at the tomb are perhaps even more like those people who were already here standing on the shore when the white sails came billowing through the Heads – those for whom Australia was the known, the familiar, their home. Imagine them seeing the strange white men come, in their enormous canoes, with their strange clothes and weird woolly animals. Something radically new was breaking into the world of their familiar experience – it must have been like the barrier between worlds falling away. And the meeting of those two worlds would bring extraordinary transformation, for some, it would be cataclysmic – here we are because of that meeting of worlds. Fear is not the only possible response to such a meeting, but it is a reasonable one.

Come with the women to the tomb. Like a group of aboriginal women walking down to the shore to collect shellfish on January 26th 1788, they come. They have no reason to think that today will not be like any other. The journey to the tomb is a familiar experience, certainly not a happy one, but they know what death looks like, what it smells like, they have no reason to expect anything different today. Or do they?

Yes they do, because in Mark’s gospel Jesus tells his followers, clearly, unequivocally, and frequently exactly what was going to happen to him. He told them, ‘the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ Another time he said… ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again. And once more just to hammer the point home, … they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34)

And today is the third day. Up till now things have gone exactly as he predicted. The women at the tomb should know what to expect, they should be prepared for the breaking in of that different world. They shouldn’t need to ask, “Who will roll away the stone?”.

But to be fair to them, sometimes it is hard to be prepared even when we have been warned what to expect. Think of recent warnings that have gone out around us: “The conditions will be the worst we have seen. Leave early or stay and defend; make a survival plan; prepare and protect, your property and yourself; pack a safety kit and a treasure box”.

And many people living in our fire prone regions were very well prepared, but what confronted them this time was beyond expectation, impossible to prepare for. Even some of the best prepared were caught by surprise, overwhelmed by the horror of what actually arrived. And how hard it must be to prepare months or even years in advance when there is no threat, when all is fine and familiar, when we’d rather be doing other things, when it is hard to imagine that life could be so totally disrupted, that beauty could become terror.

Who would have thought that Jesus, this gentle healer, this wise teacher, could be the victim of such brutal destruction. He warned them, but they still didn’t see it coming. Easter is like a bushfire carried by gale force winds in a time of drought – coming out of nowhere – changing everything – that big, that frightening. We know the paradox of fire in this land Australia: it is destructive and terrifying, but necessary and life giving – growth emerges from the destruction and death.

Easter brings new life, like a fire. It changes everything. And, if we are willing, we could be transformed by it too, and join the risen Jesus in transforming the injustices of the world. But change can be frightening.

Are we like the women coming to the tomb, bringing spices to anoint a corpse – prepared for death, but unprepared for new life, for a new creation? Do our “Alleluias” mask a deep desire to stay as we are and to let the world be as it is? Deep down are we frightened by what God might be asking of us, by the new thing God is doing in our world?

The women ran away in terror. Perhaps on some level we do too.

But this Easter, if we could see our world as the first white settlers saw Australia, and as the indigenous people saw the new arrivals, if we could see God’s wonderful, and unsettling new life breaking in around us – breaking in with healing, reconciling, saving power, like a cleansing fire – imagine how life could be. It would be like seeing a Bilby around every corner – shocking, stunning, amazing – seeing a Bilby every day and never getting used to it, never becoming complacent. “There’s another one!” we’d say with awe struck delight, “There is love! There is hope! There is peace! There is life! There is Christ!”

May Easter shock you this year, stun you, amaze you. For God is doing something new. It begins with Christ, and goes on in us. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Reflection from St Leonard's College Annual Service 31/3/2009 - on theme of leadership.


It’s great to be here tonight to share in this celebration of leadership. We’ve just heard two bible readings, two ancient pieces of writing about leadership. I want to reflect with you further on one of them, the story from the gospel of John. Can this archaic story have anything to say about today? Let’s see. I’ve called this reflection “A leader for our times."

John the gospel writer tells us a story about a leader, a King – a surprising, unlikely kind of King who challenges our ideas of what a leader should be. Let’s put ourselves in that story. The King in question, of course, is Jesus. And here he comes, leading the way into Jerusalem.

A great crowd of people have heard he is coming and have gathered to welcome him. There’s a buzz of excitement – the King they have been waiting for, longing for, is on his way. They’ve got their palm branches ready.

Do you want to join this crowd? Are you also looking, waiting, longing for a leader – the leader who is going to fix things up for you, put things right, turn this problem plagued world around for us?

What sort of leadership do we need right now –personally, globally?

Some people look at the world as it is these days, sinking into economic quicksand, flooding and burning with environmental catastrophe, and they say, we need strong leadership to get us out of this. Some even say that it’s time for a benevolent dictator, a King in the good old fashioned sense, a wartime leader, someone to force change on us for our own good. Our current political leaders can’t do it, these people say, because they are crippled by compromise and the short term electoral cycle – its all about popularity for them and the leadership we need isn’t necessarily going to be popular. 

So some are saying. You might be among them.

When I was a teenager I used to worship Peter Garrett – I always knew he wasn’t really God, I knew it was idol worship, but if you can dance like that and sing with such power and passion at such an extreme volume, and do it all for the sake of a better world, then lead me and I will follow, Pete! He was a prophet … and now he’s a politician.

Does Peter Garrett reveal to us the problems with our democratic party political system in this troubled age? Does it take our prophets and our idealists and silence them? – turn them into yes men (and women)? If Midnight Oil ruled the world, we’d be alright, wouldn’t we? (perhaps). But, to quote the Minister for the Environment, if the blue sky mining company won't come to our rescue, if the sugar refining company won't save us – who’s gonna save us? Good question, Pete. Who is gonna save us? Jesus? Is he the leader we need?

This gospel crowd, in the story tonight, thinks so. They’re waving their palm branches now and shouting “Hosanna!” Hosanna means “Save us now!”

“Save us now, King Jesus. Fix our world. Give us what we need. Hosanna!”

What’s with these palm branches? Do you know this story? In the church we usually tell this story on the day called Palm Sunday – next Sunday. If you go to church then you’re likely to see people waving palm branches. Why?

This story tells of events happening towards the end of Jesus’ life. It tells of the day he comes to Jerusalem for the last time. Jerusalem, the big city, the centre of power, the seat of the Roman Governor. Jesus’ land was ruled from Jerusalem by a very unbenevolent dictator named Pontius Pilate – ruled with oppressive force backed up by the might of the Roman army. But in those days, there was a ground swell of people who were saying, we don’t want to live like this, we want our freedom, we want to be released from this terrible oppression, we want a new king to make our world better, to put things right for us.

And here they are waving palm branches – which is surprising seeing as palm trees don’t grow in Jerusalem. It’s not like they just grabbed whatever greenery was around. They have actually gone to a lot of trouble to get palm branches – they must have some significance.

And it is this, historians tell us, “the use of palm fronds is closely associated with Maccabean nationalism” (Maloney 184). Do you know what that means? No? Neither did I. But then I saw The Life of Bryan (?). There’re some Maccabean nationalists in that film. They’re the ones who say, “What have the Romans ever done for us?! Nothing! Apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health. Apart from that, what have the Romans ever done for us? Nothing!”

In the Life of Bryan we meet the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea and various other revolutionaries, all based on the Maccabean Nationalists, Jewish radicals, freedom fighters, or are they are terrorists? – either way, in the Life of Bryan, they are very idealistic and utterly ineffective. Their leader Reg says, “We're giving Pilate two days to dismantle the entire apparatus of the Roman Imperialist State, and if he doesn't agree immediately, we execute his wife.” That’s if they can get her.

In a similar spirit, the gospel crowd is waving Palm branches – symbols of radical anti-Roman nationalism – like placards: “What do we want? Romans out! When do we want it? Now!!” But this isn’t the Life of Bryan, this is the Life of Jesus, and this is deadly serious. These palms mean the revolution has begun, lives are at stake. The crowd are waiting to welcome the king who will help them overthrow the Romans, the most powerful Empire in human history. They’re waiting for their king, and here he comes.

Crowd’s jostling. Can you see him yet? Is he here? Our leader, our liberator? No, all I can see is some bloke on a donkey. Hang on, isn’t that him? The face looks familiar, but on a donkey? He must have left his war chariot and his stallion outside the gate with his guerrilla army re-enforcements. He hasn’t brought his side arms in with him either, but perhaps he is some kind of ninja – his bare hands lethal weapons.

Or perhaps he is not going to meet our expectations at all, perhaps he is not the kind of leader we think we need. Perhaps he is not the warrior king, not the benevolent dictator, not the rock star president. No. In fact, I think this donkey rider is going to turn all our expectations upside down. Because in this story, a couple of days from now, he’ll be dead and the Romans will continue ruling his land for another 600 years.

That’s kind of disappointing, isn’t it? Not the first quality most of us would put on our “ideal leader” profile: “I’m looking for someone who will die just when I need him the most”. What’s going on here?

Once I was dropping a young child off at kindergarten. And I was in a hurry that day – things to do, places to be. I pulled up outside the Kinda, rushed around to get her out of her car seat, and as I was trying to undo the straps she turned and looked at me with open, innocent, enquiring eyes, and said, “Ian, why did Jesus have to die?” [that’s what we all want to know!]

Little kids can put you on the spot, can’t they? How would you answer that 4 year old? You’ve got 30 seconds at the most to give the simplest answer possible to the most profound theological question in all of Christianity, the question at the heart of our faith.

Why did Jesus have to die? – right when he was needed the most?

How do we make sense of the death of hope? Because that is what has happened – hope has died. He was to be the leader to take us into a new future, to turn our world around. Did that little girl realise she was asking about the future of the world and the quality of the life she will lead as she grows up? Probably not.

But Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, you know. You know there is so much at stake here. Why go and get yourself killed right when we need someone to save us? Here we are longing for a better world, a fairer world, a future without fear, an environment that sustains us rather than constantly threatening us, a safe home for ourselves and for the little children. We all want to lead useful and rewarding lives. We want employment, peace, justice, freedom. We long for life in all its fullness. But you go and die, leaving our palm branches strewn, wasted and shrivelling like the hope in our hearts. Why Jesus?

To be honest with you I don’t remember what I said to that little girl that day. The trauma was too great, I’ve blocked it out. Maybe I helped her down the path of hope and faith, or maybe I just confused her. For all I know, Jesus was the name of her pet mouse. But if I had that time over again, I might just let Jesus do the talking, using the words that he says in this story – a simple, beautiful metaphor. I love a good metaphor, and I reckon a metaphor is the best way to explain a mystery – probably the only way in fact. Will that satisfy you?

[there might be some early childhood educators here who are going to tell me that a 4 year old is too young to understand metaphors. That’s your problem – its your job to talk to 4 year olds with their little concrete minds and difficult questions – I’m steering clear of them! I think we’re all mature enough here tonight to handle a metaphor aren’t we?]

Why die, Jesus – taking our hope with you?

And Jesus says, Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Think about that image. A tightly packed grain bursting with the potential for life – buried and forgotten, seemingly dead and gone – but then sprouting, rising up, growing, flowering, fruiting, supplying nourishment and abundant life for other creatures – making more seeds to fall and to spread and to grow.

That’s the story of Easter. And isn’t that the sort of leadership we need? – leaders whose lives give life? – leaders who will die – metaphorically at least – who will plant themselves in the places of challenge and darkness, and grow themselves and help others to grow towards the light?

Think about it. Who is the leader that we need? What sort of leader are you looking for? What sort of leader do you want to be?

Let us pray