Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas night

This afternoon, as we do every year on Christmas Eve, we put on a special children’s Christmas Eucharist called Bethlehem Bop.  The name itself probably gives away that it’s a sort of controlled chaos, I tell the Christmas story while the kids each dress up as one of the characters.  I find this so fascinating – how come even in this age of Playstation 3 and iPods do kids think it’s a good thing to wrap themselves up in dressing gowns and cotton-wool beards?  The other thing I’ve noticed over the years is that kids think it’s cooler to be a shepherd than a wise man – for some reason Joseph seems to be the un-coolest character of all – I guess kids know a supporting role when they see one – generally speaking we end up with about six Marys.  Have you ever seen the absolutely beatific look little girls get on their faces when they play Mary?  It’s as those they know that right then and there they represent the most special moment ever in the whole of human history.  Course it generally only lasts until somebody pulls baby Jesus’s head off or one of the shepherds gets poked in the eye by an angel.

I remember a colleague telling me about a more ambitious nativity play he attempted, a few years back.  This one involved a group of 13 year-olds who my friend unwisely gave carte blanche to write, direct and act in a Christmas nativity play with a 20th century flavour.  Naturally the donkeys were traded in for Holden utes and Herod’s men all wore army pants.  Mary and Joseph would eventually find a place to sleep round the back of a service station.  So this was all going to be acted out for the mainly elderly congregation on Christmas night – but nobody quite realised how far Mary had taken the realism thing.  She got a few laughs as she assured her mum and dad that she wasn’t into drugs and no, she and Joseph hadn’t been up to anything untoward – but there was a bit of a gasp in the next scene as she came on stage with an enormous cushion stuffed under her terry-towelling robe.  This Mary was pregnant!  And then it got worse – behind the BP service station Mary threw herself down on a hessian sack and pushed and screamed and most realistically assured God that it was all his fault.  The birth of baby Jesus was noisy, red-faced and loud, and the congregation clearly thought 13 year-old Mary had taken the role a bit far.

The Christmas story most of us remember, and certainly the one we generally see acted out in church nativity plays and department store windows, is the romantic version.  The version with fluffy sheep, picturesque shepherds and saintly-looking Marys.  But the point is that that’s not how it is in the Bible, and I bet that’s not how it was back then in the year dot.  And I have the feeling that the Christmas story is better news for us if we let a bit of the dirt and the mess back in.

Take the shepherds, for example, huddled round the fire taking turns to sleep and keep watch for wild animals.  Shepherds represented about the lowest rung of Jewish society, for the very good reason that they were smelly, rough, not very honest and generally drunk.  Think of them as not very well behaved bikies.  Then there’s the stable itself, and the manger which was nothing more or less than the feed trough for the animals that lived there.  Again, smelly.  Think manure and lantana rather than sweet-smelling hay.  Not quaint.  And Mary was, of course, actually and hugely pregnant, a first birth at the tender age of somewhere between 12 and 14 would have been difficult and dangerous.  I bet she really did have a few choice words for Joseph, Gabriel, and anyone else who ventured close.

In our own corner of our world, of course, the actual birth of Jesus has been just about sanitised right out of the story altogether, replaced by red nosed reindeer, Santa Claus and fake snow.  Reality obviously needs a little help.  But even when we do get around to the religious message of Christmas, it seems we don’t much like the idea of baby Jesus coming in the middle of a messy world, where shepherds drink too much and fall asleep round the fire, where animals do what animals do, and where having a baby is accompanied by blood, sweat and tears.  It’s as though we think that God’s too genteel for all of that, so even though the story in the Bible tells it like it is, we rewrite it protect the ‘niceness’ and the ‘holiness’ of God.  Like the Hollywood versions of the life of Christ where everyone speaks in those fake, portentous-sounding voices.  It’s as though deep down we feel we need to keep God separate from the realness and the messiness of our humanity.

But when we do that – when we try to keep God for Sunday best – I think we’re missing the point of what God is actually up to in the Christmas story.  I think that God chooses to be born into our world, not in spite of all our faults and foibles, but actually because of them.  I think there’s a good reason God chooses to enter the world – not in a palace or a five-star private hospital, but right in the middle of the squalor and the stink, right in the middle of the injustice and cruelty, to a family wandering homeless from one end of an occupied country to the other. And that good reason is that God has got no place better to be than right in the middle of our mess.

And here’s another thing.  Jesus’ birth into this world is also a death sentence.  In the very next section of Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s going to hear old Simeon’s not so encouraging prophecy, this child is destined for greatness and for conflict, he says, and oh, yes, a sword is going to pierce your own heart.  In Matthew’s version of the story we hear that Herod the king is so threatened by the birth of a possible rival that he slaughters all the babies in the district of Bethlehem.  Jesus enters a world of idealism and cynicism, a world of messy politics, of violence and religious extremism.  And I guess we all know the end of the story?  I guess we all know that Jesus grows up only to be executed on a Roman cross.  And this I think is the whole point.  The God who enters our world of pain and suffering doesn’t hold anything back.  God completely immersed in the mess of human feelings, human uncertainty, failure.  The whole ambiguous and complicated mess of selfishness and beauty, failure and self-sacrifice, competitiveness, love and self-doubt.

I think one of the greatest tragedies of Christianity is that for century after century we have held onto the picture of a distant and judgemental God as though it was the answer to a world torn by conflict and an over-abundance of certainty.  As though a God hell-bent on condemning everyone and anyone who didn’t look holy enough or miserable enough could ever make humanity more loving!  But the story of Christmas tells us plainly that that’s not what God’s like, not in the slightest.  Christmas tells us that the God of creation is not distant but intimately connected to all of creation. Christmas tells us that God becomes so vulnerable in the act of creation itself, and falls so foolishly in love, that when what has been created becomes fractured and broken God can think of nothing better to do than to creep in alongside.  Seeing God become one of us in the middle of the dirt and grime and the very human stuff of pregnancy and childbirth, we start to get, I think, the true picture of God as the one who is not distant but ever-present, not judging us but companioning us through the circumstances of our own lives.  God who loves us, so to speak, from the inside out.

And I think when we do start to see God like that, we also begin to get a different perspective on what our own lives are about.  If God is for us, no matter what, then who are we for?  If God is not just for us, but also for homeless nobodies like Mary and Joseph, or for unimportant shepherds on a lonely hillside, or for mothers mourning for their lost children in Bethlehem – then who are we meant to be for?  Because God is for all people, for people who live in fear rather than faith, people who lose their homes or their children in tsunamis, for African children orphaned by AIDS, even for wealthy Western men and women who live as though they can’t see the homeless or the unemployed in their own communities.  God is for all of us.  And so the Christmas message invites us to open our eyes and our lives, to live not just for ourselves but for others, and to believe that God’s power is greater than all the powers that be.

In the end, I think, that 13 year-old Mary got it about right.  In the end, what really matters when we hear the Christmas story tonight is that we understand it, not as a cute and romantic story, but as the stuff of real life.  That we hear God saying to us, ‘I’m with you.  Right when life is at its most confusing, its most painful.  Right when things are falling apart.  I’m with you, and I’m for you.’



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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Advent 3 - What, then, should we do?

Watching the movie-length episode of Kath & Kim the other evening, I was somewhat grossed out by the scene where the appalling Kim lines up to sit on Santa’s lap.  I don’t think Santa really enjoyed it either.  I forget what Kimmy was asking for, for Christmas, in fact I think the main reason she did it was just because she could.  Christmas, in Kim’s way of looking at things, is a time for maxing out on everything, over-indulging, getting your own way, behaving like a spoilt brat.  Even more so than the rest of the year.


So the store Santas are out in force, and you’ve got two shopping weeks left.  It’s a well-oiled drill for most of us, probably you, like me, have long since made a sort of compromise and decided which bits of the commercial overkill you’re going to buy into, which bits are just too over the top to bother about.  You probably have your family traditions all worked out, the tree, where the decorations go, whether or not you put sixpences and threepences in the cake, do you buy presents for absolutely everyone in the extended family or where the dividing line is between who gets a real present and who just gets a calendar. And one way or another, we generally survive with maybe just one or two family members getting offended.


That’s the whole family obligation subtext of Christmas, the tradition that pulls us back to long-lost aunts and uncles and family members we’d rather pretend we didn’t have, just as inexorably as Joseph and Mary find themselves plodding off to Bethlehem for the two thousandth time on a broken-down donkey.  And sitting alongside that we have the stuff yourself full and party hard tradition.  Both of them, of course, are pushed along by the department stores whose real agenda is to persuade us that somebody, somewhere amongst our nearest and dearest really really needs a new Playstation 3.  You can have it all, or if not, at the very least you should be buying it all.


Santa, of course, isn’t in the Bible, for which I personally heave a great big sigh of relief.  But the one we do have in the Bible, the sort of reverse Santa for Christians who take their religion seriously, the figure who all at the same time heralds, promises and threatens us through Advent is of course John the Baptist.  Just when you’ve got your Chrissy list worked out, just when you think Christmas is close enough to break out the first Lions Christmas cake and a bottle of Tia Maria, John the Baptist comes in, chewing on a grasshopper and smelling like an unwashed loincloth, calling you a viper.


‘Don’t even think about wishing me a merry Christmas’, John interrupts us.  ‘What makes you think you deserve to be having such a good time?’  And here’s the confusing bit, especially since the whole idea is that he’s supposed to be baptising everyone for the forgiveness of sins – ‘don’t even bother saying you’re sorry – if you’re really sorry you’ll do something about it’.


And the people in the story that John is talking to – in Matthew’s version it’s just the Pharisees but in Luke’s version it’s the whole crowd – good Jewish mums and dads, good churchgoing folk who came all the way out to hear a good sermon and he tells them, ‘you pack of snakes slithering out of the way of the fire.  Who warned you?’  The point is, they feel like they’re the good ones.  You spend a perfectly good Sunday morning coming to church and sitting on a hard pew, and I call you a snake and tell you to mend your ways.  That’s the first thing – who’s supposed to be doing the repenting here – us or the Pharisees, and if it’s us, what are we supposed to be repenting of?


In the story the people ask exactly that – ‘what do you want us to do?’ – and John gives them a straight answer, but see, it’s got nothing to do with what colour dove they’re supposed to sacrifice, or how many times they’re supposed to go to the Temple per year.  It’s got nothing to do with how the pews are arranged or what sort of music we have in church, it’s got nothing to do with curtains or altars – it’s got to do with sharing what you’ve got with people who haven’t got any, it’s about giving shelter to people who are homeless or food to people who are hungry, it’s got to do with worrying a whole lot less about what you think you’re entitled to have done for you, and worrying a whole lot more about what you should be contributing to others.  It’s simple, it’s confronting, and we can’t even say ‘well, that’s just John the Baptist’s opinion’, because Jesus picks up the same message right where John the Baptist leaves off.  Do you stand convicted by those words?  I know I do.  If, as God’s people, we’ve started to feel complacent, if we’ve started to feel, ‘well, I’m an Anglican.  I’ve been baptised and I come to church every week.  I read my Bible and I say my prayers’, then John the Baptist’s telling off is just for us.  God can make good Anglicans out of the bricks in the wall, so we don’t need to feel we’re that special.  If we insulate ourselves so we don’t any longer feel indignant about the fact that too many people in our world don’t have enough to eat, then the telling off is for us.  If we manage to get through our week without noticing that there are people in Australia, even people in Belmont who sleep rough or who can’t afford medical treatment, and if we don’t get cranky about that, then the telling off is for us.  If we think that church is a place we come to to be affirmed and to feel safe because nothing much has changed here for fifty years, and if we get annoyed when things do change, then this telling off is for us because coming to church should be what we do to make a difference and to make sure things change in the world we live in.


In fact one of the very best ways that Christians can avoid the full force of John the Baptist’s telling off is by being holy.  If what we hear is that all we’re called to is individual piety, if all that matters is our inner relationship with God, then we water down John the Baptist’s demand for justice and repentance.  We hear it as the demand to be more virtuous.  But repentance, John reminds us, is not real repentance at all if it’s just theoretical.


And if you don’t get it right, you get chopped down, you get chucked in the fire.  It doesn’t sound very promising and I don’t know about you but for me, it’s a bit like pulling myself up by my own whiskers.  I actually don’t think I’m capable of being as unself-centred as John wants me to be.  Looking back over my ministry here, I find I can relate pretty well to Kim Beazley’s comment last week – ‘regrets?’, he said - ‘only about 4,332 of them’.  My humanity does sometimes get in the way of God’s priorities, and realistically I know it’s going to keep happening.  Being in love, as someone once remarked, means always having to say you’re sorry.


Did you feel that, today, the reading from Zephaniah sounded a whole lot more promising?  Zephaniah sounds a lot like Santa’s boy, not John the Baptist’s – for Christmas this year, you get joy and laughter, dancing in the streets, you win the lottery and everyone else is going to barrack for you.  Maybe you’re thinking I should’ve preached on that instead.  But then you need to go home and read the 2 ½ chapters that came before, because what Zephaniah is really telling the people of Judah is that all this good stuff is going to happen on the other side of God’s judgement.  And a pretty rigorous going over Zephaniah is predicting, too, invasion and exile and desecration of the Temple for starters.  It’s on the other side of judgement that the dancing happens, because God’s judgement is never about condemnation but about healing, not so much about chopping us down but about chopping out the rotten bits so we can grow strong and bear the fruit we’re supposed to. 


This last week, we’ve been seeing the images of bushfires burning out of control in NSW and Victoria.  That’s the image that comes to my mind when I read John’s apocalyptic threats of being thrown into the unquenchable fire.  For us in Australia it’s like the serious side of silly season, first the cricket starts, long dull afternoons of Test matches on TV and then the inevitable bushfires, what Neville Shute called the February dragon.  By now you’d have to wonder what possesses people to build their houses in the Blue Mountains or on the Darling escarpment.  John’s image of fire conveys pretty well the idea that whatever it is that we substitute for God’s priorities just gets gobbled up – if John seems to us like a killjoy it’s because he’s announcing the end of all the false joys, all the substitute priorities that we create for ourselves – but we’ve also seen, haven’t we, what happens after fire has swept through the Australian bush, we’ve seen the pictures of tender new shoots peeping out through the ash, the seeds that actually can only germinate when they’re burned in the fire, we know how fire works in the bush to regenerate and reinvigorate.


That’s what John is offering us.  More or less, he’s saying to us, this is what you’re in for.  None of you can withstand what’s about to happen.  Just 15 sleeps to go and God is going to break your door down.


And the crowds asked him, ‘What, then, should we do?’

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Advent 2

It’s good to see so many of you here.  All of you, in fact, seem to be here.  I did wonder, when they sprung daylight saving on us with a couple of days notice, how many of us would get the message about winding the clocks forward overnight.  I thought we might end up this morning with a 9.00 o’clock service and a 9.00 o’clock service.  Still might.

It’s Advent, of course.  We’ve got the message to stay alert, if not alarmed.  We know God’s going to spring a few surprises along the way.  We’re all awake, aren’t we, despite the missing hour of sleep?

There’s a story that comes from the Muslim tradition about a man who, despite a long and holy life filled with prayer and good deeds, eventually dies.  Everything goes according to plan – being a Muslim he probably wasn’t expecting to be greeted by St Peter but he does make it to heaven.  Or, at least, to the gates of heaven where he sees a notice.  ‘Stay awake’, the notice says, ‘Gates open once every hundred years.’  This isn’t really what he’d been expecting and nobody, not even the imam, had told him there was going to be a delay, but being reassured that he was at least on the waiting list he settled himself down to pray and reflect on his life with, now that he knew for sure he was getting into heaven, a certain nostalgic sense of satisfaction.  Unfortunately, as so often happens, his mind began to wander, and he began to daydream, then his head started to nod and so he was fast asleep and dreaming of being in heaven when – the gates slowly began to move, and through the widening gap wafted a gentle, scented breeze and the sound of exquisite music.  It was the music, of course, that woke him up just in time to see the gates slam shut and read the notice: ‘Stay awake.  Gates open once every hundred years.’

So, it’s good to see you all here.

We’re well and truly in Advent now, but we’re nowhere near ready for the angels or the shepherds.  Last week we were told to expect the unexpected, this week we begin to get some idea what might be up ahead.  We’re coming home, the end is in sight – already the imposing and slightly scary figure of John the Baptist is striding out of the desert announcing the main event.  Just in case we’re not convinced about John’s own credentials Luke gives us a quote from Isaiah and the lectionary writers join the dots for us by giving us a passage from Malachi, otherwise one of the obscurest of the prophets whose main interest seems to be in lambasting priests for being lazy and the laity for not putting enough in the collection plate.  God’s own messenger, says Malachi – is going to turn up right in the middle of your worship and wash all your mouths out with soap.  You’ve been turning up here to church and saying that you’re seeking God, well, when he actually turns up you’ve got a shock coming because you’re going to get melted down and purified like silver in a smelter.  Not a comfortable image, actually.  Well, we stay with John the Baptist for two weeks of Advent, and next week we find ourselves confronted with his uncompromising message of repentance.  We can’t avoid facing up to the discrepancy between what we are and what God wants us to be.  In order for us to arrive at the destination, we need to chop out some of the rotten wood, we need to do some radical pruning in order to bear the fruit of righteousness.  The process isn’t pain-free, but the end result of all the scrubbing and melting down is that our lives and our worship will be genuine.  There won’t be a contradiction between what we say we’re doing and what’s really going on in our lives.  That’s the implication that we’re getting a whiff of already, this week, and you might want to stay away next week because that’s where we’ll be heading, but there are some other implications that come first.

Because first there’s this extraordinary passage from St Paul’s letter the church in Philippi, and I can’t let it pass because Paul has this reputation of being such a sourpuss, of being such an intellectual and so uncompromising, and yet this letter to the church he so clearly has a great affection for paints just the opposite picture.  It seems – we read in the Acts of the Apostles – that Paul’s missionary work in Philippi was not especially successful – I read recently that there is no archaeological evidence that there was a Jewish community in Philippi and it seems Paul’s work there was amongst the lower classes, women and slaves.  Not a very successful church, if we judge these things by the ability to maintain a full-time priest and pay diocesan assessments.  Not what we’d call today a mega-church.  Remember also that Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison, where it seems he has a capital charge hanging over his head – he says he is in chains – but what does he write?  ‘I’m sorry to hear you’re not doing so well down there, please pray for me that I get a soft judge.’  No.  What about, ‘well here I am in prison but I just know that in spirit you’re sharing my afflictions.’  No.  Paul starts right off giving thanks – expressing joy because he recognises that it’s God’s doing that the Philippians have come to faith, expressing trust because God can be relied on not only to start the work of transformation in the lives of the Christians at Philippi – and in the life of the city around them – not only to start the work but to finish it as well.  Paul expresses joy, he expresses trust, he expresses affection and gratitude – what would he have to be so grateful for?  It seems that out of the little they had, they gave financial support to Paul himself as well as contributing to the collection he was taking up for the church in Jerusalem, but more than that, Paul is grateful for the fact that this little church has shared with him and grown with him in confidence and grace.  When I read this, I can’t help but find my own grumpiness confronted by Paul’s attitude of thankfulness.

Thank God, Paul writes, for Philippi, and as I look toward the last few weeks of my ministry here in Belmont, I take his point.  Thank God for Belmont, because as I look around here at our church I can’t fail to see the marks of where God has been at work, in you and in me, over the time we’ve spent together.  I see people who’ve grown in confidence and in joy, I see a community demonstrating the trust it has in the goodness and generosity of God by investing its limited resources in acts of generosity toward others, a community demonstrating the compassion of God by caring for one another in times of grief, a community demonstrating the beauty and the hospitality of God by creating an attractive and welcoming environment.  There are some tough times ahead for Belmont, the financial assistance we’ve received from diocese over the last three years has perhaps only delayed that somewhat - but I think it’s also allowed something else to grow here, a sense of the goodness of God and a delight in being the people of God.  A sense of expectation and of possibility.  Don’t lose that - the more you expect God to surprise and delight you, the more God will. 

And Paul says something else – ‘I’m confident that the one who started all this off in you – that’s God – will also bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ’.  That’s part of why we have this for an Advent reading, because it points us to the connection between our waiting for God to come into our world in Jesus Christ – and God’s waiting for us to bring God to birth in our own lives.  The act of Incarnation that we see in Jesus of Nazareth – and the act of incarnation which is God taking on flesh and blood in you and me.  We wait for God at the same time as God waits and grows in us.

Just one more thing that’s important for us to hear today – not only is Luke carefully showing us how John the Baptist with his wild announcement of God’s arrival is absolutely consistent with the prophets of the distant past – he’s also showing us that God acts, as God always has acted –from a position not of strength but of vulnerability.  John strides out of the desert not just for dramatic effect but because Luke wants us to draw the connection – to remember that the desert is where human beings encountered God once before - in the Exodus, not in strength but in weakness and radical dependence.  The desert is a place where survival depends on knowing your own fragility, on marvelling and even rejoicing in the sparseness and the extremes of temperature.  Be patient - stay awake.  Tune into the rhythms of God’s time, not ordinary time.  Expect miracles.  When we least expect them to – heaven’s gates will open.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Advent 1: Are we awake?

Once upon a time there was an exceedingly ancient monk, who spent his days in prayer and silence.  Because he never had a bad word to say about anybody, and every time you came across him in the cloister his whole face screwed up in a great big smile, he was loved and revered by the whole monastery.  One day, a very junior monk came to him seeking inspiration.  ‘Father’, he said – ‘on account of all these years of meditation and fasting, getting up at 4.00 am, keeping silence and doing penance – it is said that you have achieved enlightenment and great holiness.  Can you share some wisdom with me?’  The old monk burst out laughing and said ‘Holiness?  Wisdom? – is that what they teach you young monks?  Mostly it’s as much as I can do to get through the day with any sort of grace.  Listen, I’ll tell you a secret – if I get up at 4.00 am it’s only because my rheumatism won’t let me sleep – if I haven’t got a bad word to say about anybody it’s probably because I’ve forgotten their names - every time I come across one of you young monks in the cloister I have to squint just to recognise you because I’ve lost my glasses.  Most of the time it’s as much as I can do to get through the day with any sort of grace.  I don’t know about holiness!’  Well, the young month persisted – ‘So why do you stay here?  Haven’t you learned anything in all your years of prayer and silence?’  ‘I have indeed’, the old man told him – ‘I’ve learned how important it is to stay awake.  You never know when your best-laid plans are going to get interrupted.  Didn’t you know - God loves to give you a jolt – the best way I’ve found to live my life is as though I’m right in the middle of falling off a horse.’

No time left to make plans – no time left for recriminations or learning from past mistakes or changing your mind!  No time left for anything except going with the flow.  Everything depends on how ready you’ve been, how much attention you’ve been paying to what’s really important.  Welcome to Advent – the short, sharp wake-up call at the very beginning of the Christian year when God dares us to believe that the promises we’ve half stopped believing in are really coming true.  The first word we hear comes from Jeremiah, that patron prophet of grumpy old men – some day, he says – some day women and men are going to wake up to the fact that the way things are is not the way they are meant to be, the day is coming when what human beings do to each other is going to be judged by the standards of truthfulness and justice, the day is coming when the way we live our lives is going to be judged against the suffering of children in Sudan and Lebanon.  Some day God is going to break right in on top of the way you live your life, and whatever you’re doing right now is going to get turned upside down.

Advent is more than just the time of waiting – we all know how to wait – Advent is the jolt we get when God dares us to believe again that history is going somewhere, that the world as we know it does get called to account against the justice and the holiness of God.  Scary stuff, this passage from Luke’s Gospel, wars and terror, famines and plagues and tsunamis and confusion – a description so dreadful that every generation ever since it was written has seen in it a prophecy of their own age - and this, Luke tells us, is what we’ve all been waiting for – this is a good thing – stand up straight, he says, because this is the time of promises fulfilled, of justice for those who since the beginning of history have been denied justice.  Advent begins, as it always does, with a reminder not of the beginning but of the end of all things.  Forget the scaremongers, forget that hateful perversion of Christianity that preaches the final coming of Christ as a time of paranoia and mass destruction – but forget, also, the insipid middle-class Christianity that preaches the cuddly and cute version of Christmas – this Advent get ready for a bumpy ride because the Christ child that gets born at the end of the donkey-ride is just the first instalment of the sobering reality that God is with us.  Advent is about the assertion – against all the evidence of human history – in spite of the appalling facts of world hunger and the global epidemic of AIDS, in spite of petrol-sniffing in Alice Springs and car-bombings in Baghdad – that human existence has dignity and grace and purpose because it belongs to God.  Advent is about staking our lives on the ridiculous-sounding idea that human life is God-shaped because God inhabits us. 

Does this sound unrealistic?  Does it sound unrealistic to affirm, in spite of all the dreadful technology of war and oppression, in spite of all our cunning and greed, that God is going to get the last word?  It is unrealistic.  It’s not the way the world has ever worked.  It takes every ounce of my faith to believe it.  In fact, I think that the unrealistic-ness of Advent faith might actually be part of what’s meant when you hear people say that the Church isn’t relevant to modern life.  We are indeed living in cloud-cuckoo land.  With the fairies at the bottom of the garden.  Advent faith involves a view of the world that is absolutely, gloriously, life-affirmingly out of step with the dominant culture of the society we live in, the culture of Big Brother and Survivor that values competitiveness and consumption over compassion and self-sacrifice. 

Advent faith calls us to live in the in-between times, to live as though God’s promises have already come true, with integrity, with generosity, and above all, with expectation.  Luke tells us to be on our guard against drunkenness – something to bear in mind this festive season – it means don’t get distracted by the tinsel and the fake Santas – by the agendas and the real estate market and the price of bananas – it means don’t get sucked in by the shopping and the decorating and all the trappings of the season’s self-centred celebration that distract us from the most important thing – the priorities of God that we see at the heart of the Incarnation, the priority of human dignity, the priority of living with compassion, of justice and generosity and self-giving.  Between the birth at Bethlehem and the Final Coming of Christ that draws all of history into the embrace of God, Advent reminds us that God is incarnate, over and over, in every one of us.  That God is incarnated in how we live.

At the very beginning of Advent, at the beginning of a new year of promise and uncertainty, the Gospel reminds us of the traps we need to watch out for.  The trap is that we leave it too late to care about the things that God cares about.  The trap is that God finds us spending our time and our passion on what is superficial or self-centred, that we’ve left it too late and that when God bursts in on us – as God surely does – we’re not ready.  The story is told of Abraham Lincoln, who on being urged by advisors to take a particular course of action was told, ‘You know God is on our side’.  Lincoln didn’t like that idea, and he answered, ‘Sir, my greatest concern is not whether God is on my side, my greatest concern is that we should be found at the end to have been on God’s side’.

The other day I was forcefully reminded that we live in a country of great material wealth but moral poverty - when the pop star Bono gently lectured us during the G20 conference on the fact that although Australia has signed up already to the commitment to spend 0.7% of our gross national product on overseas aid, our actual contribution is less than half of that.  Australia, he pointed out, comes in 19th out of the 20 OECD countries on our commitment to the world’s poor.  Our government’s dismissive response is that it’s trade, not aid, that best helps developing countries, but Bono is pointing to communities living in the shadow of AIDS and famine, children in the 21st century continuing to die of hunger and easily preventable diseases.  The sort of poverty that, historically, has come about as the consequence of the developed world’s push for resources and power.  God is not on the side of free markets, God is on the side of compassion.

At the beginning of Advent we’re rudely jolted awake.  ‘You know’, God tells us, ‘I’m coming ready or not.  I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.  Right when you least expect it.

‘Are you ready?’


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Funeral homily for Joan Clark

Ever since I have known Joan – about 5 years now – she has been aged.  Not just ‘getting on a bit’ – not just ‘elderly’ – but impressively and mysteriously ancient.  A fact brought home to me powerfully and wonderfully just the other day when I sat down with three generations of Joan’s female descendants – not that the great-granddaughters did much talking – I was reminded of Joan, some years ago, laughing in church as she read the part of the aged – in fact, 90 year old - Sarah being informed by the angel that she was about to conceive, and that she would be the mother of generations more numerous that the stars.  Joan saw the funny side, as she usually did, but more than that, I guess Joan was probably thinking that she herself had already been the recipient of promises just as wonderful as that, promises already fulfilled in daughters and sons, grand-daughters and grandsons.

Optimists are sometimes described as ‘glass half-full’ people, aren’t they – in contrast to pessimists who are ‘glass half-empty’ people – in my experience, however, Joan never fit into either of these categories, she was always a ‘glass full to the top and overflowing’ kind of lady.  Not that she didn’t have her bad days, not that she was unrealistic or anything – but you could always rely on Joan to see God’s blessings in her life and not only that, but to focus the minds of those around her on the abundance of God’s good gifts to us as well.

When I met with Anne and Tracy, and Toni and Kelly, the other day, what I was most struck by was the sense of how proud you were of your mum and your grandma, how deeply she was and is loved by you.  I guess that right now it’s not easy to imagine what life without Joan is going to be like, that you’re realising what a gap Joan’s passing has left in your own lives, and in the life of your family.  Joan’s parish family, I know, is realising that as well.  But as time passes I believe you’re going to discover how great a legacy of love she has left you -  even years from now, I guess, you’ll still be finding new treasures along the way, new blessings that your mum and your grandma has given you.

The other day, after you told me what readings Joan wanted for her funeral, I sat down and read them through, and I realised that these readings give us a very special view of what God’s blessings are like.  You see, sometimes it’s easiest for us to think of God’s blessings as just the things in our own lives that go well, when we get the good job, when we’ve got our health, when we see the birth of a new child.  It’s easy to think of blessings as a series of presents that God gives us along the way, a one-way trade - but both of the readings today have got a different perspective, both of these readings ask us to think of blessings as the gifts of God that we are asked to pass around in a kind of a circle – God’s self-emptying gift to us, which we pass on to others and ultimately back to God.  And that the blessings of God aren’t just the delights of things that go right, but the strength and the consolation that helps us to stay in touch with what really matters when things go wrong.  God’s blessings, in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, are meant to be given away just as fast as we receive them, because it is in the giving of blessings that we understand how much we ourselves have been blessed.  Does that remind anyone here of what Joan was like?  It certainly sounds like her, to me.

Next week, in church, we begin the short season of Advent, when we look forward to the wonderful blessing God has given us in his son, Jesus Christ.  Like all blessings, this one involves not just the giving away of something God has, but the pouring out of God’s very self.  In the gift of Jesus Christ, I think God is trying to tell us something about self-giving, about the self-emptying love that multiplies so much that it fills us more than we can ever imagine.  About self-emptying that’s so absolute it ends up on the cross, but that turns out to be the source of life and fullness and love.  You see, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is not just trying to rescue us from ourselves, not just trying to impress us, but trying to communicate with us that this is how we’re also supposed to live, that this is the shape that God intends for human life – that we should live for others, loving extravagantly and giving of ourselves without measure.  And in the resurrection of his Son, God whispers to us the paradoxical truth that what gets the last word in human life is not despair but hope, not sorrow but delight.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we hear God’s promise that in the giving of ourselves we are filled to the brim, that the endpoint of our own lives is not death but resurrection – and this is the promise with which we now commit our sister Joan to God’s loving care.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Wedding homily for Wendy and Gary, 18 November 2006

This is a wedding that’s been a long time coming – it’s just about a year ago, I think, when Wendy and Gary first asked me to celebrate their wedding – they’re obviously not a couple who rush into things – because of course they’ve been preparing for this day, themselves, for about 12 years.

You know, when I get these starry-eyed young couples in my office talking about marriage the first thing I do is get to know them a bit, talk to them about what marriage means and how well they really know each other.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve got to slow them down a bit, encourage them to reflect a bit on what it all means.

Well, I realised fairly soon that Gary and Wendy were a bit further along in their relationship than that.  Instead of having to encourage them to reflect a bit, I feel privileged to have glimpsed something of the depth of the love and the understanding that the two of you have for one another.  Your wedding today, that we are all privileged to be a part of, is maybe not so much a step into a new sort of relationship as a recognition of the love and commitment that has quietly grown and shaped your lives as a couple and as a family over the last 12 years – and the recognition that it’s that love and that commitment that gives your lives meaning, now and for the future.

It was Malcolm Fraser, wasn’t it, who pointed out the blindingly obvious and said that life isn’t always easy.  He thought it wasn’t even supposed to be easy though that’s maybe a bit pessimistic.  Anyway, that’s why we can’t get by on our own.  One way or another, human beings need to be sustained because it’s not easy living with integrity and passion and joy, in a world where things fall apart.  We all need the unconditional affirmation of love, and we each of us need to know that for someone out there, what makes all the difference in their lives is that we love them.  You know, I hope that every one of you has got that grace in your life, because that’s what life is about.

We read, today, that wonderful, also blindingly obvious, passage from the epistle of John that tells us, ‘God is love’.  Do you know, in just about every religion of the world, love is considered a pretty good definition of God.  In the words of an Islamic hymn, whenever two people love each other, the lover is God, and the beloved is also God, because that is what God is.

A 13th century Christian theologian, St Bonaventure, used to describe God as being like one of those champagne fountains where you pour the champagne into the top glass and it flows down and fills up the next level, and then they overflow and fill up the ones underneath them, and of course you end up with a delightful sticky mess that some unfortunate has to clean up afterwards – Bonaventure called God the Fountain Fullness and what he was getting at is that God is just so full of it – in a good sort of way – just so extraverted – that God just has to create the universe because it just can’t be contained any longer – and the way Bonaventure saw it is that creation – and you and I – are just like those champagne glasses halfway down the pile that get so filled up by the exuberance of whatever it is that God is pouring into us that we also start overflowing.  Of course, Bonaventure said it in Latin, which made it sound a whole lot more respectable.

To put it in less theological language – it means that the more we get in touch with who we are at a deep level, the more we need to express the aha-ness and the sheer goodness of life by giving ourselves whole-heartedly in relationships of love.  Another way of putting it, is that it’s only when we do learn to love without reservation, wastefully and wildly, that we start to get a glimpse of who we really are, human creatures built with an unlimited capacity for delight.

So we see here, today, Gary and Wendy filling up each other’s champagne glasses.  Re-filling, actually – because what they’re affirming is that they are each other’s favourite tipple, that they have filled and refilled each other for 12 years and mean to continue.  And what we also see is that the more they fill each other up, the more champagne they have to go around, because the love they have for each other transforms not just them but a little bit of the world they live in – the more we love, the more we take part, with God, in the act of Creation, because God is love.



Saturday, November 11, 2006

The widows' gifts (1 Ki 17.8-16, Mk 12.38-44)

Nothing focuses your mind quite so much on the value of something as when you’re running out of it.

Like water.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember ever thinking much about water at all, until we started to hear the doomsday predictions that the country was running dry.  We always used to think of water as being, just about free, like air.  A different story if you lived out in the bush, but for us city folk it’s a new thing to switch on the TV and see advertisements, like I did the other day, for water tanks.  They come in all different shapes and sizes, the traditional corrugated steel jobs, plastic ones designed to look like a section of your garden fence, even one called an Aussie Bladda like a great big water-bed that you squish under your front porch.  In a drought, water is the most precious thing there is, and we’re all of a sudden waking up to the fact that we really do have to change our thinking, find new ways of collecting it, new ways of making sure we don’t waste it.  New houses routinely come with water tanks, even in the city. I guess the water tank has become the new icon of guilt-free gardening.  Even splashing around the bore water like it’s never going to run out raises a few eyebrows, nobody wants to even talk about the Toowoomba option, your very own tank full of rain water collected off your own roof is your licence to have as green a lawn as you want.  An Aussie Bladda full of water means that no matter how blue the sky is tomorrow, your garden gets to drink.  Water represents life, it represents hope in the future, and even for a country like Australia that relies less and less on farm production, the prospect of their not being enough water to go around strikes at our sense of security.

Elijah the Tishbite, God’s argumentative prophet, was living in the middle of a drought.  In fact, Elijah had caused the drought, a few verses before where we started reading this morning, calling it down on the head of King Ahab to show him who was boss.  And God had set Elijah up to sit the drought out at the Wadi Cherith, a billabong east of the Jordan, where ravens would bring him food every morning and evening.  Which was a good plan, except that because of Elijah’s drought, the billabong dried up.  And so God sent him on to the widow of Zarephath.

Now the widow had water – we don’t know how much, but she didn’t have much else - a jar with a handful of flour left in it and a jug with a little oil.  The jug and the jar are like the Aussie Bladda full of water that you keep under your verandah, they mean that tomorrow you’re going to eat.  I guess in country like that drought was a fact of life, and because they didn’t have pipelines or desalination plants, drought means there aren’t any crops that year.  So the widow’s source of food, gathering up the grains that fall to the ground when the workers are bringing in the local farmers’ crops, has also dried up. There is no leftover food, I guess over the days and weeks she’s been watching the level go down in the jar, and she’s now gathering sticks to make the fire to bake a last loaf of bread with the little bit she’s got left. Widows are literally at the end of the food chain – with no social security, if she isn’t blessed with an extended family that want to take her in, she is the first one to drop off the perch when times get tough.

So God says to Elijah, ‘off you go to Zarephath.  The widow’ll feed you’.  Can you figure that?  Better off than the widow would be the day labourer, who at least can look around for a bit more work.  Skilled craftsmen are a bit more drought resistant again, because they’ve got something other people need.  The tenant farmers will struggle through, because they probably have a few pottery jars full of wheat in the back shed, they can slaughter the animals they keep as an insurance policy, maybe even got a few of last seasons figs and dates lying around.  The scribes and the priests, well, priests generally do pretty well for themselves.  So God sends Elijah to the widow.

Why would God do that?  To somebody who’s just watched the last of her jarful of hope run out, who’s just watched her future, and her son’s future, run out – why would God send along a useless prophet to take away her last scrap?  And here I think is where we need to remind ourselves what the almost empty jar of flour stands for.  If God is prepared to ask this widow to hand over her almost-empty jarful of hope, the last trickle out of her water-tank – what’s God got planned for my jarful of dreams? 

I think we all have one of these – I hesitate to stretch the metaphor any further in case I end up telling you that you’ve all got an Aussie Bladda full – but you know what I’m getting at.  I read somewhere that the children in the World War 2 Nazi death camps used to sleep at night if only they could go to bed holding a scrap of bread, because that meant that tomorrow they would have food.  It’s like we’ve all got a reserve tank full of reassurance.  ‘At least I’ve got a hundred dollars in the bank.  At least I’ve got my health.  I think my job’s secure.  Anyway, the kids’ll look after me.  The rivers have slowed to a trickle, Mundaring Weir hasn’t gone over the top for about a hundred years, the farm’s turned into a dust-bowl, but I’ve still got my Aussie Bladda.’

Except, what happens when you haven’t?  Because, that sometimes happens.  Your Aussie Bladda’s sprung a leak and run empty.  Your doctor tells you, actually, you don’t have your health any more.  You look and you haven’t got a hundred dollars in the bank.  The kids don’t want to know.  Stuff like that happens.  And sometimes, like the widow, we haven’t got any better plan than to just light a fire and scrape up the last few crumbs and after that, who knows? 

And then Elijah says something breathtaking in its presumptuousness, ‘oh, never mind.  Don’t be afraid.  Just make me a cake first.  You’ll be right.’  Is that going to inspire you with confidence?  I don’t have to spell out the connection with the widow and her two copper coins, do I?  You’ve already worked it out?  ‘That’s it, that’s all you’ve got?  Chuck it in anyway!’

‘Dare you to act as though you really believe that the real ground for hope in the future is not the little bit of flour in your jar, not the two copper coins that you’ve been guarding with your life, not your Aussie Bladda full of water under the deck or any of the reserve plans that are running through your heads right now.  I dare you (says God) to act as though your real hope is me.’

And both the widows do dare.  Really, the point isn’t whether the Temple was even worth the two copper coins – in fact, according Mark the Temple was already a doomed institution – the point isn’t whether Elijah was a worthy charity case or even whether you think All Saints can get on alright without your two cents worth.  The point is whether we are going to dare to trust more in God’s resources, which never fail, or in our own.

The stories are a little bit different – Elijah’s widow teaches us something about risky generosity.  You know, when I’ve got ten dollars in my pocket and somebody on the street asks me for change and I put my hand in my pocket and feel around to make sure I don’t get any of the two dollars coins, and I pull out 75c – that isn’t risky generosity.  That’s putting the stranger’s needs somewhere between the price of a postage stamp and the cup of coffee at Miss Maud’s that I might just fancy when I’ve finished my shopping.

Jesus’ widow – as a religious professional who wears long robes and likes to sit in the best seat in the church I do need to be careful what I say about her – I don’t, for example, think the point is that you should put the last of your pension money in the collection plate and in fact part of the point just might be that any religious system that relies on ripping off the poorest and the weakest members of the community maybe should be doomed – but we do need to recognise in her something of the character of Jesus himself.  Remember this story takes place, according to Mark’s sequence, a couple of days before the end of Jesus’ life.  No safety net.  No Aussie Bladda.  Taking a punt on the foolish notion that giving it all away in love is the only way to experience and to share the extravagant fullness of God. 

Two widows, one lesson on the wisdom of insecurity. 


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wedding homily for Steve & Kuan

Well, we’re finally here.  The day has finally arrived – it seems so long ago that Steve first came to me and told me he had met a young woman in KL and that they had decided to get married.  Today is a day that has taken so much planning – I don’t just mean the dress and the decorations and the ceremony though everything seems to have come together wonderfully – I have been privileged to have had a special insight into how carefully and how lovingly you have nurtured your relationship over the last year and a half, how much care you have taken not only of one another but of your families here and in Kuala Lumpur, the way in which each of you have honoured and learned to understand each other’s roots, the love you have both showed to Hannah and Bethany as together you have all explored what it means for you to be a family.

It’s been what we modern men and women call a long-distance relationship – the sort of relationship that telephone companies and airlines love.  Not only have you had to learn the nuances and the unique beauty of each other’s culture and language, but you’ve had to do it at a distance, learning patience, growing in tolerance, learning the precious art of communication … treasuring the times you’ve been able to be together, and learning how to sustain one another during the long months you’ve been apart.

It’s been a time in which the strength of your love has been tested, a time in which you have built a dream together that you know is going to last you a lifetime, and a time in which you have knit together an extended family that spans two continents, two languages and two cultures.  Even your wedding ceremony today is in a sense part of a larger ceremony that began in Kuala Lumpur – a celebration that is too big and too inclusive to be confined to a single country.

When we were planning today’s ceremony, we searched around for just the right reading from the Bible.  Eventually I came across these few verses from the rather odd book in the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes, which means ‘the Preacher’.  The Preacher goes to great lengths to look beneath the surface of life, to try to find what really matters.  And he concludes that a whole lot of what human beings take very seriously doesn’t really matter that much, when it comes down to it.  The Preacher tells us that a lot of what we spend our time and effort on is just vanity, just smoke and mirrors, just illusion.  It’s a world-weary kind of book – don’t get into The Preacher if you need cheering up.  But here is something that The Preacher does take seriously, and that is that it’s better to have a partner than to be by yourself.

And he does it with humour.  How are you going to keep warm at night, The Preacher asks us, unless you’ve got someone to snuggle up to?  I guess this was in the days before electric blankets.  You know, we live in an extremely individualistic society – the world we live in is competitive and often not very friendly – without relationships in which we can both give and receive unconditional love then we human beings just don’t flourish.  The whole, as the saying goes, is bigger than the sum of its parts.  The love that you give each other, your knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, your encouragement of each other, is what will allow each of you to grow into your full potential.  I think that’s the same sort of idea you find in Genesis, in the first book of the Bible, in chapter two where we read the story about how out of the one human creature God made both man and woman.  The whole idea is that we are completed in one another, we need one another to be whole and complete.

But then the Preacher adds something else, he’s still talking about the strength of human relationships, and he says, ‘a threefold cord is not easily broken’.  You know the strength of a piece of rope comes from it’s being twisted and plaited – two strands are strong, but three strands woven together are even stronger.  Well, Kuan and Steve are two strands, and it’s good to know they’re going to keep each other warm at night – but what’s the third strand?  The Preacher doesn’t say – I suspect he just likes tossing off mysterious little proverbs – but the whole point I think is this – that the strength of two becomes creative and productive when it gets focussed on something else, something that’s both the outcome of their love for each other and the force behind it.  For a start, we know that one fairly common side effect of women and men falling in love is that children get born.  Now I haven’t asked Kuan and Steve what their plans are here, but you know it just might happen – and when a family grows to include children I think the love in that family gains another dimension, like a three-strand rope – so I don’t know about the rest of you but I personally wish for Steve and Kuan – and for Bethany and Hannah – the wet and smelly joys of children.

But I think there’s also another interpretation we can put on the three-strand rope of marriage, and it’s this – that in marriage you’re not just two individuals, because the God who made you and who loves you has brought you together.  The love that you share with each other is part and parcel of the love that God surrounds each one of us with – I would even suggest that when human beings give themselves to each other in love then we become co-creators with God – we have a hand in creating the world that we live in.  Your love for each other is at its very strongest when you recognise it as a 3-way partnership – a partnership that’s going to take the very best that each one of you can give, and that is going to grow and give life to everyone around you because God’s love is expressed in you and through the love that you have for each other.

Kuan and Steve, it’s a very great privilege for me to celebrate your marriage today.  You’ve each come a long way to get to this day, and I’m very glad to have been a part of that.  I wish you every possible blessing and every happiness as together you set out on the journey of the rest of your lives.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

A saint in your own kitchen?

Today we are celebrating the feast of All Saints – and as this church is also called All Saints that makes it our patronal festival, our special day.  Have you ever felt it might be more fun if you went to a church named after St Francis or St Aloisius or St Beatrice? – colourful people who acted in improbably holy ways and met extravagantly sticky ends as a result – stories to fire up the imagination even as you – secretly – find yourself taking the claims with a grain or two of salt.  Maybe All Saints sometimes just seems like a day for the rest of us, the Also Ran’s, the saints that never qualified for stained glass.  And yet – the name All Saints that this parish chose for its church also focuses our minds, doesn’t it? – in a way that St Hildefonse never could – on the fact that every one of us has a vocation and a calling to be one of God’s saints.  Our name day is an opportunity for something more than a good yarn – it’s an opportunity to check in on how we’re doing.

It also means we’re free to pick out any saint we want for a special look.  Now, the fourth century produced lots of saints.  It seems to have been a fairly odd century, for a start it was the century in which the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, and that meant Christians all of a sudden went from being eaten by lions to running the empire.  Everyone seems to have gone a little bit mad, and one of the most extravagant ways of going publicly mad was to go out into he desert and sit on top of a pole.  That’s what St Simon the Stylite did.  He got to be a saint by sitting on top of a 60 foot pole for 30 years, which means everything he needed had to be pulled up with a rope, and everything he needed to get rid of had to be lowered down by rope.  People used to come out into the desert just to gawk at him, and no doubt because he was a saint no doubt they also expected a few wise words, but because he was 60 feet up in the air he could have said just about anything he liked and nobody would have known.

So that’s St Simon, praise be to God.  Anyway, when I was about four, and my sister Bethwyn was six, we somehow heard about St Simon the Pole-sitter, and because we were good Christian children we decided that sounded like a fine idea.  Unfortunately there weren’t any 60ft poles lying around at home and even if there were our Mum had other ideas.  She persuaded us that a 6ft kitchenette was really just as good and there was a lot less chance of falling off – so up on top of the kitchenette we climbed – or at least that’s where she put us, and gave us our lunch up there, and what with the elevated view we felt that sainthood was just around the corner.  Unfortunately there isn’t much to do up on top of a kitchenette and after an hour or so we’d started to fight so Mum said that was enough to qualify us as polesitters – we were a bit disappointed that we hadn’t managed to go the full 30 years but Mum told us practically nobody can manage to be a saint in their own kitchen, anyway.

Or wherever it is, for you, that the messy stuff happens.

I don’t know about you, but for me, when I cook, it isn’t pretty.  I drop stuff, I make a mess and while I’m looking for the turmeric the onions are burning.  There’s always at least one ingredient missing, the tomato paste has gone mouldy, the cheese sauce turns out lumpy.  Actually, I quite like cooking, but it’s not like the cooking shows on TV.  Unpredictable stuff happens. There’s always some sort of compromise to be made, you’re under pressure because you’ve got people coming for dinner in 20 minutes and the recipe you’ve never actually tried before just doesn’t work.  The kitchen is where confrontations happen, where relationships depend on the outcome of negotiations about washing up and emptying the rubbish.  You know what I’m getting at?  In real life, where stuff isn’t perfect, when you’re just trying to get by and you really haven’t got all the answers, it’s not easy remembering where God is.

There’s an exception to every rule, of course.  Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk in the 17th century, spent virtually his whole life in the monastery kitchen so nobody really noticed until he was quite old that he was a genuine saint.  Brother Lawrence wrote one little book called The Practice of the Presence of God, about the spirituality of pots and pans, the finding of God in the act of scrubbing a floor, about discovering the beauty and the companionship of God in the middle of the mess.

If you can get your hands on this little book, you should read it.

Saints in general, though, judging by the evidence of the stained glass windows you find in grander churches, don’t do much scrubbing.  Mostly they look calm and dignified, even when they’re being burned alive or whatever.  Their favourite activities are praying and preaching and looking holy, they never seem to have the slightest doubt and they certainly don’t get frazzled.  Stained glass saints, it seems to me, are the glossy magazine equivalent of what it means to live a life of faith, they set up an ideal that the rest of us just can’t live up to.

The really good thing, however, is that Jesus isn’t one of them.

So today, Jesus gets to Bethany where his friend has just died.  Now we know that Jesus is especially close to this family, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.  Out in the desert on the other side of the Jordan, Jesus had got word that Lazarus was sick, and for whatever reason he dithered.  Jesus didn’t arrive until it was too late.  Maybe he couldn’t have got there in time anyway.  In any case, by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days.

And this is the reception he gets.  First Martha, then Mary – where have you been?  If you’d been here this wouldn’t have happened.  You can hear the anger, the hurt, they feel let down, they’re challenging Jesus.  This scene is just thick with emotion, when the gospel writer says Mary has been weeping the word he uses (klaio?) suggests more than just a few polite, saintly tears, it means her whole body is shaking, her face is red and blotchy, she can’t control her voice.  ‘My brother died four days ago.  So, where were you?’

This whole situation is one big mess. To add to the grief and the anger, there is also confusion. No one thinks it ought to have happened like this – not Martha, not Mary, certainly not the neighbours who make the obvious point that it’s not much use having a famous healer for a friend if he doesn’t turn up when he’s needed.

When they get to the tomb it just goes from bad to worse.  Jesus wants them to push back the stone but the smell of a four-day-old corpse is overpowering.  This isn’t a neat and tidy, stained glass miracle, in fact the whole thing is like some revolting horror story.  Jesus’ friends are distraught, angry and confused.  Jesus himself is overwhelmed with emotion – the Greek word suggests that Jesus is shaking as much with anger as with grief.  The onlookers are incredulous, critical, even scornful.  And even when Jesus calls to Lazarus and out he comes, there’s still no neat and happy ending – some of the onlookers are impressed, the rest think Jesus has gone too far this time, so they go straight off to the Pharisees to dob him in.

The point is that this isn’t a stained glass miracle.  Martha and Mary aren’t beautiful plaster of Paris saints, but real human beings who haven’t a clue what is going on.  Even Jesus struggles to understand what he is doing as he first delays and then has to face the consequences of that delay.  Martha, Mary and Jesus are brutally honest with one another – there’s no pretence that everything is all right.  Their faith in God – their faith in one another – never quite breaks, but it’s tested to the limit.  ‘I do believe in you’, Martha says to Jesus, right in the middle of telling him off.  Maybe at that point it’s a faith that seems to be wearing a bit thin.  But even within the confusion and anger Martha and Mary cling to the faith that God still IS – even though their world has turned upside down.  And they cling to the hope that, somehow, God will act, even if they can’t imagine how.

You can’t really be a saint by sitting on top of a pole.  Real saints, it seems to me, work out their trust in God by testing it in the marketplace of human relationships, real saintliness thrives on mess and tears and honesty.  Because it’s in the middle of the mess that God acts – by transforming who we are.  Real saintliness gets worked out in the context of our failures and our compromises and conflicts.  I’m still hoping to see St Evan, who dares to keep trusting in God even when the cheese sauce goes lumpy.  It might yet happen.  Because if you can’t be a saint in your own kitchen, there’s not much point trying to be one anywhere else.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

What do you want? (Pentecost 21B)

Back (I think) in the 1920s, the famous German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, invented a new approach to live theatre that he called the ‘alienation effect’.  At the time, this was radical stuff – course, if you’ve seen a play in the last 50 years or so you might not think Brecht’s approach was all that brilliant for the simple reason that ever since Brecht everybody has been doing it that way.  His invention was just that stunning.  The ‘alienation effect’ just means you use various tricks to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, to create a sort of psychological barrier to make it a bit harder for the audience to just slide uncritically into the illusory world of the narrative.  Brecht wanted his audiences to actually think about what was going on.  It might be as simple as a few abstract stage props or lighting techniques, or else an actor that all of a sudden steps out of the role and starts talking directly to you in the audience, but the idea is that when you’re watching the play, you have a little bit of emotional distance, a bit of objectivity so that you get to see familiar realities in a new light.

Mark’s Gospel, I think, does exactly that.

One of the reasons I just love this Gospel is that it is so compact and concise.  Not just because you can read it through in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee – in fact quite the opposite.  You’ve got to slow down.  It’s like reading a telegram, you’ve got to slow down enough to really think about why the person who wrote it chose this word instead of that word.  Mark doesn’t dress it up with poetic bits or fine literary descriptions, there’s not a single piece of useless information.  Mark would also have agreed with the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov who used to say to his students, ‘pay attention!  If you see a shotgun hanging over the fireplace at the beginning of Scene One then you know it’s going to get used before the end of Act Two’.  With Mark you’ve got to pay attention to the details.  So, for example, in our story today, the name Bartimaeus literally means "son of Timaeus" but just we don’t already know that, Mark tells us.  Which means you’ve got to figure that the name has got some significance.  Son of Timaeus, literally, it means the son of worthiness.  Someone to emulate.

Mark tells us that Jesus was just on his way out of Jericho.  He’s come to Jericho for some reason that Mark doesn’t tell us, and now they’re off again.  They’re in-between; on the way – which, when you think about it, when we least expect it, is often when the most significant things happen. Jesus has been trying to get the disciples to "see" what it was that he was about, but they’re not getting it. So this is the first significant thing, the irony that this man who physically is blind can actually see better than anyone else.  He can’t see, but he has insight. This blind man, this "son of worthiness" calls Jesus ‘son of David’ which we know is a code word for Messiah.  The one who is anointed to lead God’s people out of the darkness.  So this is the first thing, that there’s none so blind as those that won’t see.  Mark is playing with metaphors here, he is asking us, in effect, whether we have really got the point like Bartimaeus or whether like the disciples we can’t see the wood for the trees.  Are we so dogmatic about the Christ of faith that we fail to actually see that, in Jesus, God is revealed to us as the God who really wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us, the God who can’t bear the thought of not being around when we’re getting on with the everyday business of being human?

But here’s the second thing.  Bartimaeus really is blind.  He’s not just a convenient metaphor.  We don't know how he became blind but we’re told he wants to see ‘again’ so we can assume he wasn’t born that way.  Like disabled people everywhere, but even more so in the very, very non-PC 1st century, Bartimaeus is living on the edges of society.  Being blind meant being marginalised, pushed out, being told he must have been a particularly bad sinner to be in such a state.  Bartimaeus is (or at least he should be) the pin-up boy of anyone who has ever felt that way, ever felt that their disabilities are what define them, because he is persistent.  He doesn’t give up.  A man who has faith that this other child of God can make a difference in his life and so he doesn’t hesitate to make a nuisance of himself.  And Jesus shows us – as he does time and again – that God’s agenda is always to be interruptible, always to be available.

The action-words in this story tell us a lot about Bartimaeus.  When Jesus speaks to him, acknowledges his presence and calls him over, Bartimaeus "springs" up and "throws off" his cloak.  This is what he’s been waiting for, and he doesn’t hesitate – yet, strangely enough, Jesus asks him what he wants – see, here’s an alienation effect, it gets us, the audience to pay attention because the gospel writer has in effect stepped up to the front of the stage and looked us in the eye and said ‘well, what about you?  What are you after?’

I think this is the crux of it.  What do you want?  What do you really want in your life?  What are your priorities?  This is what Mark is asking us here.  And this is where he is playing with his metaphor again because Bartimaeus says ‘I want to see again’ – but when Jesus tries to send him on his way with just the gift of physical sight he isn’t having a bar of it.  Instead, this guy is following Jesus on the Way – a word that in the 1st century was a code word for the Christian movement itself – in other words, if you really see, then you have to act on it.  Seeing means commitment.

Now you know, and I know, because by this stage we’re two-thirds of the way through our cup of coffee, that where Jesus is headed next is Jerusalem, and an ignominious death on a Roman cross.  That’s what happens next in Mark’s story.  What Mark is saying is that to truly see who Jesus is, is to understand that his way isn’t the way of being smart, or cool or successful, it’s the way of the cross, what the world sees as powerlessness and basically, being a loser who thinks that the way to have it all is to give it up.  Is that what you really want?

It is no accident that the words we use for the physical senses of touch, taste, hearing and sight are also the words that the Gospels use to speak of deeper spiritual realities. The things that are the most real to us are those things which are tangible, touchable, taste-able, see-able, smell-able.  The point is that the spirituality of the cross is just as tangible, just as earthy as that.  You either get it or you don’t.

The way Mark tells it, Jesus’ disciples can’t see because they’re caught up in their preconceptions that Jesus’ agenda has to be other-worldly and triumphal.  The people who get the point are the blind and the lame, the oppressed and the downtrodden; the ones society has given up on.   And what they understand is that Jesus is showing them that God doesn’t identify with the powerful and the rich, God identifies with them.  So Bartimaeus not only gets the point, but he understands the next step which is to follow Jesus on the way that he’s actually going: the way to Jerusalem.

So, here’s the other point – that there’s a connection between being on the receiving end of Jesus’ healing touch, and being propelled on your own journey of costly love.  What we most desire also points us in the direction of how God wants us to change and what God wants us to give.  Bartimaeus wants to see, and what he sees is the way of the cross.  What he sees is that the way of the cross isn’t just a spectator sport, it’s a journey that we’re being asked to sign up for.

‘So what do you want?’  That’s Mark’s stage-whisper to us, the audience.  It’s the same stage-whisper we hear 16 centuries later, from St Ignatius who pads it out a bit for us.  ‘What’s your desolation?’, he asks us.  ‘What’s your unhealed wound or you secret shame that holds you back from giving and receiving the joy that God made you to share?’  ‘What do you, really, most want in the whole world?  Be honest!  What’s your secret hope that you wouldn’t dare speak aloud?  Because that’s where God is calling you to be whole, that’s where God is daring you to change and to grow, and to join in the dance of love that God calls the way of the cross.’