Saturday, September 24, 2005

Getting the point

This has been a big week for our family.  On Monday, my dad turned 80.  A good, round score – and last week, on Sunday evening the family held a big party, so we met up with relatives we hadn’t seen for donkeys’ years, friends of mum and dad, and when dad gave a speech he remembered the ways in which just about everyone gathered there had touched his life.  He’s been reflecting on his life so far, and I guess I’ve started doing that too.  Because you see, my dad is exactly 30 years older than me, and a bit later this year I’m going to be turning fifty – this last week, Alison has also had a big birthday, she has turned 40, then in a couple of months I turn 50.  So we are all, I guess, thinking about our lives in the way you do when you see the meter turn over with a click to the next decade.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how much I can see my dad in me.  This is one of the things psychologists have a field day with, isn’t it?  Apparently the day I was born, the doctor said to my mum, ‘I don’t often see family likenesses in new-borns but I’ve just got to tell you, this one looks ridiculously like his dad’.  But as I grew up, the last person I wanted to be like was my dad.  I guess it’s the teenage thing, this need to strike out, to be yourself on your own terms, to work out your own identity and insist that who you are is totally unique.  Dad was a Methodist minister, now Uniting Church, so I was pretty sure that a minister was the last thing I wanted to be.  So I left home, and found my own way in life, and I guess it’s been a pretty circuitous route for me to find myself back in the church.  I guess I really started to see what was happening, to see a pattern in my life, when I hit my 40s.  At first it was just little things – a turn of phrase or a tone of voice, and all of a sudden I’d hear my dad.  Scary, at first.  Then I started to realise that who my dad is, and what my dad has always stood for is pretty deeply ingrained in me.  And eventually the time came when I realised that who I am at the very deepest level – my deepest, God-given identity – is tied up with being a priest.  Who I am at the deepest level is also tied up with my relationship with my dad – maybe it’s a lifelong process, but learning to be authentically ourselves, has got everything to do with recognising the depth of the relationships we have with the people who love us.

Our New Testament readings today both have got something do with this question of authenticity.  And with the question of authority, which actually is related, because they both come from the same root, the Greek word meaning ‘author’.  Where does a thing come from?  Where does it get its legitimacy?  How closely does something reflect its source?  In our reading from his letter to the church in Philippi, we heard St Paul’s great statement of who Jesus is in relation to the Father – this very early writing, that St Paul wrote before any of the gospels had come into being, gives us a window onto the very early church who already had come to the conclusion that the question of who Jesus is can only be answered by asking what his relationship is to God the Father.  Being authentic means reflecting clearly the source from which we come.

And the second part of being authentic is this – that there’s a necessary relationship between what you claim about yourself and what you do.  Reflecting the depth of the relationship he has with his Father means that what Jesus does is consistent with that relationship.  It’s not just an armchair thing.  And in Matthew’s gospel the point is driven home relentlessly, being authentic is not just something that Jesus demonstrates, but it’s also what distinguishes real disciples from those who just pay lip service.

We’ve moved ahead a bit since last week.  In chapter 21, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem, it’s the last week of his earthly life, and he’s gone into the temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, he’s cursed the fig-tree that fails to bring forth appropriate fruit.  And Matthew is making the point that Jesus is saying the religious elites, the temple system, isn’t working – it’s no longer in touch with God, the author and source of Israel’s existence, and so it isn’t bearing good fruit.  And Jesus says to them that God is going to bypass them, if they don’t bear good fruit God will find other people to work through, people who might be on the outside of things now but who are listening to what Jesus has to say – listening and allowing themselves to be changed by what they hear. 

Matthew is a good one for insisting that what you believe and what you do are inseparable.  In chapter 7, Jesus says this: ‘Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’  You see, it isn’t just directed at the Pharisees and the chief priests, the gospel writer has also got in mind those Christians who say they believe but who don’t follow through.  Being a disciple is not a armchair thing, it’s about hearing, and it’s about doing – it’s about consistency between what we say we believe and how we live.

So when the chief priests say to Jesus, ‘well, what about you, then?  What gives you the right?’ – and you can just about imagine, after all Jesus has been on their case all week - not only that, but Jesus has been flouting the system, a free-lancer who even though he isn’t a priest has been getting about telling people that God forgives them – well, forgiveness is what the temple is there for, and who does Jesus think he is?  So fair enough, since Jesus has been telling them all week that they’ve lost the plot, they say, well, who are you then?  And he answers them, as he typically does, with a story – actually, in Matthew’s version which is a bit different to the way Mark tells the sequence of events, Jesus comes out with three stories in quick succession.

And the first story is the one we heard today about the boys that change their minds.  The one who says he’s not going to do what his dad asks, changes his mind and does it.  The other one, who seems more agreeable a first, doesn’t follow through.  This one represents Jesus’ opponents, the ones with all the rhetoric of faith, but when it comes down to it, they don’t do God’s will.  Their actions and their words are out of synch, their self-serving actions aren’t consistent with the character of a God whose priorities are compassion, justice and mercy.  And for Matthew, this criticism can also be applied to those in the Christian community who say they believe, but who don’t bear the fruit that real repentance brings.  It’s an uncomfortable point that forces every one of us to examine what we are about – if we say we believe in Jesus we need to ask whether the things we do or don’t do reflect what we say we believe.  And it’s certainly a point that strikes home against the church – is the church’s talk about God’s forgiveness and grace just rhetoric, or do we as a community actually practice the way of forgiveness? 

But then the shallow lip-service of religious professionals is set in contrast, in Jesus’ example, with the tax collectors and the prostitutes – what a shocking comparison!  Not that Jesus is saying there’s something better about being a tax collector or a prostitute than a priest – at least, I hope not! - but because these are the people who heard and responded to what Jesus taught.  Hearing, believing, and living a transformed life is the point.  Maybe they came late, maybe it was a long and circuitous route for them to come to the place where they could be vulnerable enough to hear what Jesus was saying, to let Jesus’ words of compelling compassion really touch the innermost places of their hearts, but this is the point about the response of faith – that it transforms who we are.  And the second point is this – that transformation maybe takes a lifetime.  Responding to God at a deep level isn’t like a set and forget thing, it’s not just a decision we make once in a lifetime and after that salvation is guaranteed.  Rather, I think Matthew’s point is that responding in faith is a process, becoming authentic in faith takes the whole of our lives.  As Christians I think every one of us comes late to the realisation that the deep structure and the real shape of our lives is God-shaped – that even though we didn’t know it, or we resisted it, that who we are comes out of the relationship we have with God our heavenly Father. 

So who are you? the chief priests want to know – how come you’ve got the right to tell us off like this.  Because who I am and what I do are one and the same thing, he tells them.  Because who I am is my Father’s Son.


Friday, September 16, 2005

Industrial relations in the knigdom of God

When I was a kid we lived in Collie for a number of years – so that’s a couple of hundred kilometres down there, about three hours drive or so – and every now and then we came up to Perth for family things, I remember staying with my cousins in Perth, seeing my grandma – I remember sometimes Dad had to come to Perth by himself, wouldn’t that bore you silly?, three hours in a car by yourself, without the kids?

It was always great fun coming up to Perth, there were these different things to watch out for – one way into town I think through Armadale there was this car stuck up in a tree, a bit further on there was a plane stuck nose-down in a paddock, these things were wonderful for country kids who hadn’t seen much of the world.  I guess when I look back it, those three hour trips must have been excruciating for Mum and Dad, four kids in the back fighting the whole way down, refusing to allow the possibility that just once we might actually share something, all the time ‘are we there yet …?’  You’ve had that sort of experience?

I don’t think it’s just kids, maybe it’s human beings in general.  By the time we’re grown up we’ve maybe got it more under control, but I don’t think we’re genetically programmed to share.  It’s not always in our best interests.  One of Mum and Dad’s most diabolical tricks was ‘you cut and you choose’, I mean, how do you get around that?  How do you cut yourself just that little bit extra, because your sister is the one that gets to choose, so she’s going to get it!  The only thing you can do is save it up and use it yourself when you have kids.  Gets ‘em every time.

It’s like the do unto others rule, Jesus’ sets up this fiendish guideline that, no matter how you look at it, you can’t get around it, you have to cut the other person the exact same size slice you want to get yourself.  Maybe that’s where Mum’s rule came from, maybe that’s where we get a lot of the other rules we live by as grown-ups in a society that’s full of rules to keep us playing nicely.  Don’t overcharge, don’t fiddle your timesheet, you work the right number of hours, you get the right amount of pay.  That way everybody knows where they stand, things are fair, the world’s the right way up.  But remember all those parable in chapter 13 a few weeks back, how I said in the stories Jesus tells, the thing that he most seems to enjoy is taking something that seems the right way up and turning it on its head - like deliberately planting weeds, like tricking your neighbour into selling you a paddock with a treasure buried in it – here he does the same thing and he says, in God’s kingdom your industrial relations laws don’t work, God doesn’t think the same things are fair that you do, try this – it doesn’t matter whether you work all day or you turn up at five-to-five, you get a full day’s pay just the same – God’s kingdom’s really good news for bludgers it seems –

The people listening to Jesus’ story would have been poor, Jesus is telling these stories on the back blocks of Galilee where there’s rather a big gap between the haves and the have-nots.  Even more than today, back then maybe 95% or more of the population were have-nots, maybe half a percent were like Rupert Murdoch, the others at various levels from Herod down to the local landowner who maybe had a few acres of his won but didn’t fancy doing the actual work.  So what you do, is you get on your donkey and go down to Centrelink, where you find all the local men sitting around under a tree, hoping someone’s going to hire them today because they’ve got a wife and six kids who didn’t have any breakfast this morning and if they get some work maybe they’ll get some dinner.  That’s literally how it was.  Apart from the Centrelink thing.

And so you hire the youngest ones, the strongest looking ones, not the ones who look a bit worn out.

And that’s what the farmer does in Jesus story too, except he keeps going back during the day, and he gets more, by the end of the day he’s probably picking up grampas and men on crutches who can’t believe their luck.  And here’s the really silly thing, an hour later, everyone gets enough to buy a family’s food for the day.  That’s what a denarius was worth.  A family gets to eat for a day on a denarius.  What they got didn’t have anything to do with how long they worked, or how hard, or whether their work was any good, they just got enough to feed the kids.

Well it was bound to cause grumbling, and in spite of the farmer’s clever words the ones that worked all day have probably got a point.  You know what I mean by the ‘work ethic’?  You probably grew up with it, I did too, it’s the voice inside that tells you if someone’s paying you’ve got to give value for money.  There’s no such thing as a free ride, even if we have these dreams about winning Lotto, deep down we know it’s fair how things are.  But Jesus doesn’t think so, in God’s scheme of things there’s a deeper level of fairness, he says, that your human way of thinking just doesn’t get.

Usually I just preach on one reading, takes less brainpower.  But today the Exodus reading just jumps out at you.  The Israelites, they’re on the run out of Egypt – they’re halfway across the Nullabor Plain and Moses and Aaron are in the front seat, and the kids are fighting in the back seat, and the whole time they’re saying ‘are we there yet?  … He won’t share! … Can we stop for a drink?’  They are afraid they’re not going to get what they need.

But God gives them what they need, what they need is bread, just enough for today, and that’s what God gives them.  What they want is another thing, and they start trying to save it up, maybe open up a little manna shop, except if you keep it overnight it goes off, even in the fridge.  You just get enough.

So here’s the difference between us and God – we’re focussed on what we want, and on what we deserve.  ‘Give us what we deserve!’ -  do you mind if I rephrase that?  ‘I’ll tell you what I deserve.  Give me that.’

But God doesn’t give them what they want – only what they need.  Why?  Because in God’s economy – in God’s scheme of things – what human beings are created for is to want God.  What human beings are created to rely on – is God.  Stashing a few kilos of manna behind the hump of your camel, means not being quite convinced that God’s promises are reliable.  That’s the point.  God doesn’t give me what I deserve.  Just as well, too.  God gives me what I need.  That’s why it’s in the prayer – word for word - give us today the bread we need for today.

Yes, but.  A few people still don’t seem to be getting it though, do they?  Where’s God when you need him, when at last you’ve worked out just what he is and isn’t promising.  When’s the next delivery of bread in Dafur, how many of the necessities of life got delivered last New Year’s Day in West Sumatra?  Because just think about the story – at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, just an hour before knockoff time at sunset, the only ones left at Centrelink are the lame and the sick.  The old, the blind, foreigners that nobody trusts.  They’re not getting the bread they need today, and even now in 2005, they still don’t seem to be.  The poor miss out, the old and the sick miss out in real life.  But not in Jesus’ story, not in the way God looks at things.  You know very well the rich still get richer in the world we live in, even in spite of parables.  It’s like Jesus’ parable about the man that went our and planted weeds in his back paddock.  It’s topsy-turvy, and why’s that?  Because Jesus is telling us that in heaven things are going to be different?  Oh, yes they are, too, because of all that remains a mystery to us the one thing we know for certain is that in heaven God’s way of looking at things is the only one there is.  But that’s not the only reason.  If it was, I couldn’t look you in the face and tell you that injustice and inequality has to wait until after the next life to get made right.  That’s not what the God who creates and who loves us intends.  The mustard seed kingdom that Jesus keeps talking about, over and over – is God’s topsy-turvy perspective that keeps on peeping around the corners of the world we live in, that keeps breaking in right where you know there shouldn’t be a single crack it could have got in.  It’s the life force, the irrepressible stuff that can only mean the Holy Spirit’s in town, and Jesus says, ‘I have a dream!  The ones that always miss out – they’re not going to miss out any more!  Everyone gets enough!  I dare you to believe me!’  And you say, ‘I’d like to, but I don’t quite see …’  And then he looks at you and says, ‘well, how many bread rolls have you got there?  Any you’re not using today?’  You lose concentration for a second, just for a moment you forget how much you dislike door-to-door salesmen, and you put a bread roll into somebody’s empty hands.  That’s all it takes.  The kingdom of God has just broken in.


Saturday, September 10, 2005

The way of forgiveness

I wonder how many people here today remember where they were four years ago today, when they first learned about the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York?  Probably all of us.  The outrageous attack that changed the political map of the world and gave birth to that ugly euphemism, war on terror.  We probably all of us watched that dreadful footage of planes flying into office blocks over and over, wondering what kind of hatred makes that sort of thing possible – and we have watched the mounting tide of global conflict ever since, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, more terrorist attacks in Bali, Madrid, London and the almost daily round of car bombings in Baghdad – as the ideological divide and the gulf of suspicion between developed Western nations and the Islamic world grows deeper and deeper – and on this 4th anniversary of 911 we find ourselves reading Jesus’ confronting parable on forgiveness!  As I started preparing this sermon I found myself thinking, what would it mean to actually confront terror with forgiveness?  What would have to change?  Is it even an option? 

Today’s parable comes at the end of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness that we began to read last week.  Jesus, you remember, has outlined a three-step process for dealing with disagreements in the community, and I think the whole emphasis in Jesus’ dispute resolution process is on making sure that conflicts don’t get set in concrete – making sure that people don’t get locked into hostile positions they can’t back down from.  When a member of the community has offended you, he says, the first step is to go and talk to them privately – and what that means is that you have to be prepared to give up the option of a public apology or public restitution – it means you have to be prepared to be reconciled with the person who has wronged you – you don’t get to play the victim – and then if that doesn’t work then the second step is to take along one or two other people – in today’s jargon maybe that’s equivalent to enlisting the help of a mediator, someone with an objective view who can help both sides of the argument see where the fault lies, and to find the middle ground – but again it is in private, the emphasis seems to be on de-escalation – when neither party gets shamed then there’s less likelihood of turning an argument into a feud – and only when all this fails is the offence taken up in public in front of the whole community.  But even then – what does Jesus say? – you treat the offender like a Gentile or a tax collector? – like somebody beyond the pale?  But how does Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors? –oh! – we’re still not at that place where we can write the offender off, are we?  We’re still at the place where we need to be willing to sit and eat together with people that our culture and the rules of the wider society tell us we should be refusing to have anything to do with – because that’s just what Jesus gets into trouble for, isn’t it?  Eating and drinking with tax collectors, healing those who are outside the community, not just those who are on the inside.  Just where is this sort of teaching on forgiveness going to take us?

And that’s what Peter wants to know – are there any limits to this forgiveness thing, Lord – how much do I have to keep forgiving the person who does me wrong?  It’s a reasonable question, and Jesus comes back with a story that suggests there’s a connection between our practice of forgiveness and our response to the God who forgives us.  This story of the king and the unforgiving slave suggests that unless we practice the way of forgiveness we haven’t really allowed ourselves to be transformed by grace – but it goes further, doesn’t it? Suggesting that what God does might be dependent on what we do, that God’s grace might just get withdrawn if we don’t measure up – hey! is it just me, or is there a bit of a contradiction here?  Be forgiving or God will get you good and proper?  There’s something a bit circular in that, the suggestion that an attitude of true forgiveness can come about by being threatened into it?  There’s also something a bit odd about the analogy between the relationship between the master and the slave – is that really what we are like in relation to God?  Certainly the way Jesus talks about God’s longing to be reconciled with human beings seems a fair way removed from this image of arbitrary power – but I wonder whether the whole point might be that this story is intended to have us wondering just who needs to be forgiven, not only how much we need to be forgiving but who our forgiveness should include – should we be forgiving the unforgiving slave?  What about forgiving the king, who commands such grovelling compliance?

Forgiveness is complicated, just ask Charlie Brown.  There are some wrong ways to forgive, it seems to me.  For example when a story like this is used to make people who are powerless feel they need to forgive perpetrators over and over again, should the victim of sexual abuse or domestic violence keep on forgiving the perpetrator when that means the abuse is going to keep happening?  ‘Oh, but this time he really means it, this time he’s really sorry.’  Really?  Forgiveness isn’t about justifying abuse, it isn’t about justifying unequal power relationships.  Notice when Jesus is on the cross, the ultimate position of weakness, he doesn’t forgive himself but he does ask God to forgive – forgiveness has to come from the one who has the power to make a choice.  That’s the first thing.

The second wrong way to forgive, I think, is when one person has to do all the work.  Either when the person who has committed the offence won’t change, so the victim has to all the work of forgiving – or when the victim puts a whole lot of conditions on forgiveness, unless this is done or that is done, unless I can see you are ashamed or that you have suffered like I have suffered, then I won’t forgive you.

False forgiveness, it seems to be, is when one person has got all the power and even after the “forgiveness” there is still an unequal amount of power.  False forgiveness brings about shame – in the perpetrator, in the victim, or both.  And that maybe gives us a clue about what real forgiveness is like.  Real forgiveness destroys shame because it’s not just something that one person does, it’s something that involves two people at least, or as Jesus suggests in his teaching on forgiveness, maybe the whole community is involved.  Real forgiveness is about dialogue, real forgiveness ends up with the person who forgives and the person who is forgiven, being on the same level.  Just think about what Jesus tells us about God’s forgiveness of us – it ends up with us being in right relationship with God.

And that suggests that real forgiveness isn’t easy.  Certainly, real forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once, like letting somebody off a debt, wiping out the debt by the stroke of a pen.  Somebody once said to me, don’t forgive too soon – and I wondered for a long time how that might be consistent with what Jesus teaches us – but eventually I realised that what my friend was saying amounted to this – forgive just as soon as your forgiveness is real – if you say you forgive somebody when you’re really holding onto the hurt, or when the wrong hasn’t been addressed – then what you’re doing isn’t true forgiveness, it’s avoidance.  Real forgiveness means insisting that what really needs to be changed is the relationship, what really needs to be rebuilt is trust.  Real forgiveness is just something you say, it isn’t a word, it’s a process, it’s a dialogue, and it takes time.

And here, I think, we need to pause and ask ourselves whether there are any patches of unforgiveness in our own lives.  Are there people I can’t forgive, are there things I can’t forgive myself for?  Because if so, that suggests the parts of myself I am refusing to let Jesus be a part of.  The downside of unforgiveness is that I hold on to what isolates me, to what keeps me separate, to the hard undigested knot of unwellness that makes right relationship impossible.  Unforgiveness will eat me up, spiritually, emotionally and in my relationships with others.  On that level, the analogy of the king tormenting his unforgiving slave maybe isn’t so wide of the mark.  That’s why Jesus insists there is a direct relationship between my own practice of forgiveness, and my experience of God’s forgiveness.  Of course, God’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on mine.  But my ability to accept and to live in God’s grace depends on being willing to let go of the one thing that God’s grace can’t penetrate.

What does all this mean for September 11, and the whole dreadful clash of worldviews that ever since has filled our TV screens and our lives with the static of anxiety?  How does the way of forgiveness fit into the war on terror?  Because Jesus assures us that it does.  The way of forgiveness doesn’t seem to have been very widely practiced in the Roman Empire.  It probably looked like a fairly silly option to some, seeing Jesus hanging on the cross.  But the claim Jesus made back then, and the claim Christians have made ever since, was that God’s reconciling love is more powerful than the worst human beings can do.  That the way of forgiveness is capable of transforming the most entrenched and powerful evil.  If we give it a try.