Saturday, March 18, 2006

God's weakness

I remember when I was a little boy, one of the ways my mates and I would jockey for position and status on the playground at Wilson Park Primary School was to boast.  Not about ourselves, but about our dads.  It was all physical, stuff like ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’.  Does anybody else remember doing stuff like this?  I mean, why should it have mattered so much?  ‘My dad can bash your dad up – any day of the week.’  ‘Oh yeah? Well, my dad could bash your dad up with one hand tied behind his back!’  What bothered me deep down was, I wasn’t at all sure that mine could.  I’d seen the great big calloused hands of some of those coal miner dads.  ‘Well, my dad could bash up your dad with one finger’.  ‘My dad could bash up your dad in his sleep’.

Even when my dad isn’t trying, my dad’s feeblest efforts would blow your dad out of the water.  Playgrounds are merciless places, aren’t they?  You need to invoke supernatural protection just to survive, let alone to stay on top.  If you need status in a hurry, you inflate the claims of the strongest thing you’re associated with.  ‘Well my footy team could bash your footy team any day of the week!’  I mean, who barracks for the Dockers?

There’s only one trouble with this sort of logic, isn’t there?  It’s actually really hard to keep winning this way – there’s always someone stronger comes along, someone with more status, more power.  You’re only on top five minutes before you get the tap on the shoulder.

But isn’t this what St Paul is doing in his letter to the Church in Corinth?  ‘God’s brainier than you even when he isn’t even thinking, even God’s foolishness is wiser than your most lucid moments’?  Think of a number, big as you like, then multiply it by ten.  Sorry, you lose, God’s even wiser, stronger, bigger than that?  Or, is St Paul saying something a bit more subtle?

You see, like my mates and me on the playground at Wilson Park, the Church that St Paul founded in Corinth were a competitive lot, divided along the lines of wealth and social class and claims of spiritual “advancement”.  If you ever wanted a model of a dysfunctional parish family, this is it!  It wasn’t just the members of the fledgling church community though, in the ancient world it seems the whole of Corinth had a bit of a reputation.  A cosmopolitan little city, perched in a picturesque location on a peninsular between two oceans, Corinth was a centre of wealth and worldly sophistication – for some.   One mosaic picture that has come down to us from that time shows a young couple proudly showing off their greatest status symbol – a writing tablet and stylus – much like yuppies in more recent times might pose for a photo beside their BMW or holding the latest mobile phone to their ear.  Corinth had a reputation for flashy ostentation and an even more troubling reputation for the way in which its wealthy citizens abused those who were less wealthy.  Paul’s ongoing problems with his argumentative congregation in Corinth seems to confirm this unflattering picture. 

In many ways, though, we are really fortunate the Corinthian Church was so embarrassing, because it forced St Paul into confronting one of the biggest pitfalls for Christians in any century – the credibility gap that exists between the values of the world we live in and the kingdom values that Jesus offers us.  The credibility gap between the politics and power-games that characterise the actual relationships between factions and individuals in the Church, and the standard of self-giving love that should be the benchmark of our life together.   Personally, I can’t read Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Christians without cringing a bit, because it’s like looking into a mirror and seeing our own Church.  You know I’m not talking about Belmont here, I’m talking about the wider Church of which we’re a part – but we need to examine our own life as a parish community also, because that’s the basis – the way in individuals work and pray and grow together in love in a parish family is the foundation on which the whole Church of God is built.  Are we focussed on our own issues and our own status, or do we have a shared vision of God’s kingdom here in Belmont?

And in his letter to the Corinthians St Paul confronts head-on the things that divide them, using a favourite ancient debating method, pushing the argument to its absurd conclusion, pulling apart the opposite extremes until we are forced to see what lies in the middle.  The basic issue, as it probably always is, is status, power, who gets to call the shots?  Elsewhere, St Paul takes on the issue of money, the tendency for people everywhere to act as though having more money entitles you to more influence – but here the basic issue is wisdom.  Wisdom versus foolishness.

Now wisdom is actually a buzz word for the Corinthians, and in fact for the whole of the ancient Greek-speaking world.  The word itself, wisdom or in Greek, Sophia, comes from the intellectual fashion of the time, the philosophy of the Stoics and the Platonists.  Wisdom was what connected the human world to the divine world, wisdom was what enabled human beings to see the true meaning of things.  And wisdom was primarily revealed in the skill of rhetoric, the skill of the debater.  Now on one level this is just like saying the Corinthians were really impressed by cleverness, and the cleverest among them thought they should be running the show – on another level the issue of wisdom for the Corinthians is like us being really impressed by a Microsoft systems engineer or a financial expert from Westpac.  Wisdom was the cutting edge intellectual technology of the day, and the Corinthians were really impressed by it.  They were impressed by technique, and they were impressed by those who claimed to have special or hidden knowledge.  Paul’s basic point is that believing the right doctrine about God is not the same thing as being in the right relationship with God, which is a relationship of trust and dependence.  For churches today who insist on members signing up to a series of ideas and beliefs about God, about the right way to read the Bible or the right belief about the end times, or who insist on talking in tongues as evidence of spiritual maturity, or for churches like ours that tear themselves apart with arguments between conservative and liberal theologians, this is really important.  This preoccupation with human knowing, Paul claims, twists Christian living out of shape.  God himself cuts the ground from under our feet, and he does it with the foolishness, and the absurd weakness, of the cross.

You see, the cross is embarrassing.  Our Bible translation calls it a ‘stumbling block’ to Jews who expected the one anointed by God to be gloriously successful, and the Greek word that this translates is skandalon.  It’s a scandal.  The very idea that the twisted and ugly shape of a human being tortured to death could represent human salvation.  The Corinthian Christians know what Paul is talking about.  This wouldn’t have been the easiest part of the Christian faith to sell to the sophisticated metropolitan inhabitants of their world!  To them it’s just foolishness.  It’s God choosing to come to us not in strength but in weakness, not the sort of weakness that’s still strong enough to bash us up with one finger, but the sort of weakness that is vulnerable enough to suffer when we reject it, the sort of weakness that allows itself to get pushed aside and crucified.  Over and over.  God’s power is not the sort of power that human beings preoccupied with status and competition readily understand –God’s power which is made perfect in human weakness and vulnerability is relational power - the power to transform human lives by love broken and poured out for all.  God’s wisdom is the wisdom of understanding that only by risking ourselves to one another in vulnerability and trust can we be healed and whole.

So what does this mean for us, this Lent?  Like the Corinthians, we live in a world that isn’t cruciform – the structures and values of our world are shaped not by the cross but by the desire for status and privilege, by competition for position and resources.  Our relationships are unconsciously fashioned by the need to protect our own interests.  We find the wisdom of God and the power of God confronting because we recognise in it the challenge to give up some of our assumptions about our own wisdom, our own claims to have our lives and our religion worked out.  We find it confronting because we recognise correctly that self-sacrificing love means giving up on being defensive, giving up on being right.  The cross means putting all our eggs in one basket, taking the risk of trusting God and one another with the future.

Rather a lot to give up for Lent.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Carrying your cross (Mark 8.27-38)

From time to time, I find myself wondering about the so-called ‘third wave’ churches – the mega-churches that seem to be on such a roll – the ones that build worship centres the size of sports stadiums and think it’s a slow day if they only get 800 or so to Sunday worship.  And part of me thinks, ‘what are they doing right – what are they doing that is so attractive to people, and that maybe we should be doing as well?’  And I think there’s rather a lot, actually, that we traditional churches could learn from the third wave churches, rather a lot that they are doing right.  For a start, they are telling people that they are loved and desired by God, that God has a plan and a purpose for each of us, and that for us to respond to that love, to recognise God’s presence in our lives and get in tune with God’s purpose for us – that it unleashes joy in our lives, that it’s something to celebrate, to jump up and down about.  That Christian spirituality doesn’t have to be quiet and introverted, it can also be exuberant and extraverted, that the way of love and forgiveness is exciting and transformative.  And I think the success of the third wave churches in communicating that is something we all should celebrate.

But there’s also a major problem, and the problem is that human beings really like good news.  We really like to be told that we’re OK, and we like to find ourselves barracking for the winning team, we get addicted to the good feelings that we associate with success and we really want to be told that if we stick with this religion stuff, then we’re going to winners.  That’s the style of religion that packs ‘em in the aisles.  You’re going to be winners in the here and now, and you’re going to be winners in the hereafter.  But the trouble is that it’s not Jesus’ brand of religion.  It’s a message Jesus doesn’t seem to want to be associated with.  In today’s gospel Jesus is putting a bit of a dent in the bright gospel of success.  The sort of success I’m on about, Jesus is telling us, isn’t what the world normally calls success at all.  It’s the sort of success that only grows in the soil of what our world calls failure.

Just imagine, for a moment.  Jesus is at the height of his popularity, the ancient world’s equivalent of a wandering mega pop-star.  Wandering the villages of the rural backwater of Galilee, preaching a quirky new take on the ancient religion of Israel, opening the eyes of astounded peasants both literally and metaphorically, Jesus is finding himself at the centre of a new community, a new movement.  ‘Forgiveness’, he tells them, ‘is right here, right now.  God’s love is unconditional.’  You read the stories of this phase of Jesus’ ministry and you can’t help catching the mood of freshness and excitement.  Jesus, you’d think, was on the verge of success.  And to cap it all off, in this mixed community of Jews and foreigners he’s just performed a major miracle.  Everyone is talking about him.  The feeding of the four thousand.

But then a major argument breaks out.  ‘Well’, says Jesus.  ‘What’s the goss?’  What are they saying about me in the marketplaces?’  And so Peter gives him the summary – some say he’s Elijah or one of the prophets; others like the guilt-ridden King Herod think he might be John the Baptist returned from the dead.  But then comes the moment, half-way through Mark’s gospel, when a human being recognises who Jesus really is – you can almost see the light bulb going on for Peter – and he says ‘oh!  You’re the Messiah’ – which means, you’re the one who has been anointed like one of the ancient kings, chosen by God to save the people of Israel.

So, all the ingredients for a popular mass movement are in place.  He’s got the crowds, he’s got the reputation.  You’d think he’d be pleased.  But not Jesus.  Not only does he tell Peter off, and to keep that sort of talk to himself, but he says he has to suffer and to be rejected and killed.  Only after that will he be vindicated by God.  Not the sort of talk you’d expect from the one who’s been hand-picked by God for success.

And this is the one time in the gospel where Jesus calls the crowds, ‘listen’, he says, ‘gather round here, not just the disciples, all of you.  There’s something I’ve got to tell you.’  Most of the time he’s slipping out the back way to get away from them.  But here Jesus calls the crowds and he says if you want to follow this pop-star, there are strings attached.  Before he even gets started on his mass movement, Jesus seems to be giving it the kiss of death.  ‘Give up on any ambition of your own’, he seems to be saying.  ‘Pick up your cross and follow me’ – and they knew all too well what that meant because the Roman governor Pilate treated them to regular displays of it, the sad spectacle of condemned criminals forced to carry the cross-bars of their own gallows.  That’s what you can expect if you come along on my road-show.

But I think we need to be really careful how we hear this teaching of Jesus, because there’s a time-honoured way of interpreting it that’s deeply ingrained – and dead wrong.  For centuries, this teaching of Jesus about denying yourself has been misused by powerful people to keep not-so-powerful people in their place.  As the saying goes, ‘you’ll get your reward in heaven’.  Men have used this teaching of Jesus to keep women in their place, people living in poverty have been wrongly told that their oppression is somehow God’s plan.  It’s been used as a way of suggesting that we shouldn’t oppose injustice in our world, that we should wait for the hereafter for wrongs to be righted.  Well I don’t believe that, and I don’t for a moment think that’s what Jesus was on about.  And we only have to look at Jesus’ own practice – the way he shows compassion for the weak and heals those who suffer.  Jesus shows us in his own priorities that God’s will is never for people to be excluded or to live without the things they need for a full life. 

So what is he on about?  Why does Jesus say that following him means we have to be prepared to take up our cross, that we have to be prepared to suffer?

And I think the clue to what Jesus really means is in the phrase, ‘take up your cross’.  Of course, over the years it’s become just a saying, a metaphor we use for example when we talk about a chronic ailment as ‘the cross I have to bear’.  But for the people Jesus was talking to the cross wasn’t a metaphor.  It was a stark reality, it was what happened to troublemakers, to people who the Roman authorities saw as a threat.  And this gives us the clue as to what Jesus is really saying here – ‘hey, the reason I’m going to be rejected and killed is because of what I stand for, because God’s priority for justice and mercy is also my priority, because I stand for God’s kingdom which turns the status quo upside down.  The powers that in this world don’t stand for that sort of stuff.’

Which means that living as a disciple is not a really good career plan if you want worldly success.  Not if you live in a world that doesn’t really appreciate Jesus’ habit of attacking the status quo, Jesus’ uncomfortable insistence that the last shall become first and that God’s blessings are showered on the poor and the hungry and the meek.  The world of the 1st century and the world of the 21st century are alike in this.  Living Jesus’ way of forgiveness and peace means turning the values of the world we live in upside down, and that’s absolutely not a recipe for success.  Taking seriously Jesus’ insistence that the least and the last are blessed means swimming against the tide of a culture that denies the reality of pain, that tries to sweep disability and poverty and ageing under the carpet and anaesthetise itself with electronic images of youth and wealth and beauty.

 ‘So what’s the good news?’, you might be asking.  ‘Is there good news?’  Of course there is.  Because in Jesus, God is redefining what success means.  Success is not about competition any longer.  Success isn’t any longer about having more, or better, or shinier.  Success is choosing to live from a wider perspective than the narrow, self-serving point of view that our society teaches us to adopt.  Success is choosing to be Christ-like, to live the way of self-giving love even when that leads to unpopularity or financial insecurity. 

At the very least, this way of life is one that the world as we know it rejects.  If you live this way, you’ll find yourself – sooner or later – having to make the choice between the world’s priorities and the priorities of God’s kingdom.  Jesus is inviting us to live with realism and courage.  ‘If you follow me’, he assures us, ‘you will have to carry a cross of some description’.  There will be sorrow and there will be failure.  The impossible miracle of God’s love is that from this improbable soil will grow resurrection, and celebration and joy.


Saturday, March 04, 2006

With wild animals and angels

A year or so ago, I got myself lost.  Right here, in the middle of Perth – looking up the UBD I found where I wanted to go – such and such street in Welshpool – then when I got there I found that such and such street was a dead end – worse than that, it started off as a regular paved road then kind of petered out into a muddy track and before I knew where it I was in the middle of an industrial site surrounded by semi-trailers.  So I went into a sandwich bar on the corner and asked a bemused-looking girl, ‘do you know where such and such street is?  I thought this was it!’ – and she said to me, with exaggerated patience as though everyone should know this, ‘well, you can’t get there from here’.  In the way these things are, it was the same street but it was broken into bits that didn’t connect, it turned out I had to go almost back where I’d started from, more or less go back home and start again to end up where I needed to be.

Have you ever had anybody tell you that when you’ve stopped to ask directions?  ‘You can’t get there from here’.  Sometimes you’ve got to go back - take a really long detour before you can move forward – and in our Gospel reading this morning the detour is called Wilderness.

Jesus is here for a purpose, and that purpose has been revealed to him at his baptism – of all the Gospel writers, Mark is the one who’s most economical with paper and ink – never write a paragraph when a sentence will do, seems to be his motto – and most of the seven verses we read this morning we’ve already heard this year – the only verses that are unique to this morning’s Gospel reading are verses 12 and 13 – but typically Mark has packed a whole lot into those two verses.

Jesus has got a job to do, and in verses 14 and 15 he starts to get on with it – proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom – but first he has to take a detour.  First the Holy Spirit taps him on the shoulder and says, ‘you can’t get there from here.  If you want to go forward, you’ve got to back.  Back to basics, back to where it all started.’  And so the Spirit of God drives Jesus out into the desert.

Notice how strong this language is!  Not, ‘the Spirit of God suggested ..’  Not even, ‘Jesus thought it might be a good idea …’  When you’re called and chosen by God – as you are and as I am – then sometimes we find ourselves shoved.  The Spirit of God drives us.

So Jesus is pushed out into the desert.  Now, I think we Australians know something about desert – we’ve got a lot of it.  And the first thing that maybe springs to mind is that just staying alive in the desert is going to take some doing.  It takes some skill and some courage – in the desert people get disorientated and driven mad by thirst, and find themselves walking around in circles.  It’s a harsh and challenging environment that’s going to test Jesus physically and emotionally.

But the second thing we understand about the desert is that it’s a place of beauty and wonder.  It enters into you somehow.  You get changed by it.  And we’re awestruck by the ease with which Aboriginal people who call the desert home can find their way around, can find water and food, how they can read the signs and live in harmony with the desert.

So it’s not hard for us to understand that for the people of Israel, too, the desert had both these aspects.  The desert is regarded as the place where God calls and shapes his people.  And I think that in these two short verses we are meant to see the connection between Jesus being tested in the desert for forty days, and God’s people being tested in the desert for forty years.

And Jesus is with the wild animals, and attended to by angels!  Mark paints a slightly different picture of all this than Matthew and Luke do with their vivid description of the duel between Jesus and Satan.  For a start, I don’t think the wild animals in Mark’s version are meant to remind us how dangerous the desert is – rather, it’s an idyllic picture of Jesus surrounded by peaceful and attentive animals like St Francis, with even his basic needs being met by the hand of God.  For me, it’s a picture a bit like the garden of Eden, as though Mark is reminding us that the relationship Jesus has with his Father, and the relationship Jesus has with even the natural creation, is what God originally intended for all human beings.

In other words, that Jesus is revealed as the very point of contact between God the Creator, and the Creation that God loves.

So I don’t think it’s coincidental that Jesus goes out into the desert, or that it’s God’s Spirit that compels him.  Because even though Jesus doesn’t need to be confronted by his own sin, he does need to discover who he is, and to recognise what is and what isn’t part of God’s call for him.  Where that happens for him – in fact, where that happens for all of us – is in the desert.

You see, in the desert, everything that is non-essential gets stripped away and discarded.  To survive in the desert, we need to get back to the basics of who we are and what we’re about.  In the desert, when all the mod-cons are gone, we learn the true nature of ourselves, and the true value of love.  We retreat in order to go forward.  Writer Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way,

To learn to love

Is to be stripped of all love

Until you become wholly without love


Until you have gone

Naked and afraid

Where all love is taken from you

You will not know

That you are wholly within love. [1]

The journey into the desert is a journey into the heart of a paradox – a contradiction in terms, which is that finding our own centre in the heart of God means looking for our centre right where God’s love seems most to be missing.

So, what does this mean for us?  If the desert is a symbol, and particularly if it is a symbol for us of our own Lenten journey into the heart of God’s love that we take over the next forty days before Easter – well, what does it stand for?  How do we get into this desert, and how do we find our way back out again?

There are three movements, I think.

First, it’s about recognising our own brokenness – this is the first step into the desert, and we name it first up, very forcefully, in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday – we remind ourselves that we are sinful, and we call to mind the ways we distort God’s creation – both our individual sinfulness and the structural sinfulness of the society we live in – the sinfulness that creates human misery and that causes God to grieve.

That’s the first movement into the desert, and it leaves us sitting in the ashes of our own failure.

And the second movement is this – recognising our own emptiness.  In the desert one of the fist things you notice is the silence, and it’s the same with our own Lenten desert journey.  Cultivate silence for the next six weeks.  Attend to the things of the spirit that so often get neglected in the general busyness of life.  Instead of giving something up for Lent, why not take something up – like reading a book on spirituality, starting a journal, learning to paint or writing a poem?  As you move deeper into the empty places within you, that’s when you experience the fullness of what God wants to give you.

And the third movement?  - reflecting on solitude.  In the desert, apart from the animals and the angels, Jesus is utterly alone.  And yet his whole life, and the purpose of his life, has meaning only within the context of his community and the history of God’s people.  As you move deeper into the quietness of your Lenten desert retreat, reflect on the quality of your relationships with the people you love and share your life with.  Recognise the ways in which, even when you are alone, your very sense of who you are is built on the relationships you have with those around you.  Recognise your utter dependence on your communion with human beings and with God.  Give thanks, and recognise the sheer gift that is your life.

And then we will be ready to step out of the desert, together, into the bright new morning of Easter Day.


[1] From Madelaine L’Engle, 1969, Lines Scribbled on an Envelope, New York, Ferrar, Straus & Giroux; p.49.