Saturday, May 27, 2006

Last week I got a call on my mobile phone and when I answered it I heard a voice that I kind of did - and kind of didn’t - recognise. ‘It’s your old mate Richard’, he said. I wasn’t convinced. Maybe I’m just naturally sceptical, but it took a few minutes for him to persuade me that he really was my best mate at university, 30 years ago – back when I was studying for a degree in mathematics – never completed – and he was studying physics. Turns out – over pizza and beer on Friday evening – my mate and I at different times both worked for the Department of Social Security - and then he found his way into Foreign Affairs and eventually the United Nations working alongside peacekeeping forces in dangerous places like the Balkans, Iraq and Somalia. I shared with him something of where my path had taken me – a failed first marriage, some difficult but strangely fruitful years in prison, and eventually into the priesthood. We spent a couple of nostalgic hours reminiscing together about our university years and the people we’d lost touch with, and wondered together about what it was that led us into the places we’d been. As we shook hands afterwards, my mate said to me, ‘you know, you haven’t changed at all. You’re just like you were at 17.’ Not sure that was what I really wanted to hear, but I knew what he meant.
I guess one of the reasons it was good to catch up with Richard was that it was a chance to reflect on my own life – but I think there’s more to it than that. Seems to me there’s something important about meeting up with somebody who knew you then, somebody who could say, ‘You’re the same person now as you used to be – I can see how you got from there to here’. Coming back to Australia after a long time away, after years of living and working in difficult and traumatic situations, Richard needed to reconnect with people who knew him before. He needed to put it all together – who he used to be, who he became in Somalia and the Balkans, who he is now - and I was one of the people who could help him do that. And as I talked with him I realised that Richard was also one of the important witnesses of my life – one of the people who could tell me who I am.
It seems to me that that is what we mean when we talk about our Christian faith having an apostolic tradition. The word apostle – just like the Hebrew word, ‘angel’ – means a messenger – a person who is sent with a message – and in those days before the internet or telephones or even Australia Post the only way you got a message was if someone who was there when it happened came and told you about it. The message had to be carried by a human being who was your link to what you were being told about. Having an apostolic faith means we don’t just have a faith because we can read about it in the Bible. This might be the surprising bit – the Bible isn’t what’s most important – what’s most important is the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection that shows us what God intends for all human beings, and fundamentally the way we know about that, and the way we get to experience it, is because of the witness of human beings, starting with the ones who were there and who saw the risen Jesus, the apostles who then went out and proclaimed the good news not only in words but in the fact of their own transformed lives, and then other people’s lives caught fire from that, and it spread – sometimes through the centuries the message was very faint, the fire seemed almost ready to go out, and other times it seemed unstoppable. Along the way the words on the page – the Bible – got put together and became an important witness in its own right, but the real unbroken witness to the life-changing good news of Jesus was carried from one flesh and blood witness to another, and so, eventually, to you and to me. None of us came to faith, I bet, because we read the Bible from cover to cover and thought about it and decided it was good stuff – but because we saw the example of what faith in Jesus Christ could do in the lives of people we loved and respected.
And that’s part of what it means when we refer to Jesus as the ‘Word made flesh’. Because the basic principle of how God speaks in human history is by being born among us and showing us what he’s on about. And that incarnated Word gets repeated over and over, until eventually it gets repeated in you and in me. Remember that awful TV program, ‘the Weakest Link’? Well, believe it or not, you’re the strongest link – you are the vital link because you’re what joins the history of the Christian Church to its future.
But today, in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we come face to face with some very disturbing news – which is that apostles do sometimes turn aside from God’s purposes – that this vital chain of human witness gets broken. Interestingly enough, Luke’s account of Judas’s betrayal here and in his Gospel is quite different from Matthew’s version – where we see Judas as a flawed but complex character filled with remorse, trying to undo the deal by giving back the money – in Luke’s Gospel we just read that Satan ‘enters into Judas’ – and far from repenting he goes out afterwards and buys a small farm with the money – swapping the commission of an apostle for the status of a landowner.
So when Luke writes about Judas here, in the Acts of the Apostles, there’s a serious point of reflection for the early Christian community – and ours too – about the effects of betrayal and the damage that’s done when leaders of the Christian community get seduced by their own dreams of power. Maybe Luke is bringing up the problem of Judas’s betrayal here because it’s an interruption in the flow of God’s purposes - a problem that has to be resolved before the Church can go forward. And it’s a problem that the story doesn’t really answer – what does it mean when God’s purposes are thwarted or interrupted by human failure or selfishness? – for example, when Church workers sexually abuse vulnerable people in their care – does that call into question God’s faithfulness or the sureness of God’s purposes? – or does it ultimately reveal God’s ability to work around and through the weakness and the moral murkiness of human beings?
I think the story is also making a pointed comment on the contrast between Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and the more general betrayal of all the disciples – even Peter himself – Judas, who in this version doesn’t repent – goes ‘to his own place’ and the remaining apostles – who do repent – find that even their greatest moral failure and their deepest remorse gets used by God to strengthen and resource them for proclaiming the forgiveness and the extravagant love of God that they have experienced in the risen Christ.
But I think what the story is really about is what happens next. Because here, in this story, the Church is balanced like a seesaw, poised for a moment between the emotional rollercoaster of death and resurrection, and the bright uncertainty of the future. Between the Ascension that completes Jesus’ mission and the miracle of Pentecost that’s going to plunge the new-born Church head-first into its own. And you can see in this story that Luke’s main concern is about how the apostles led by Peter are going to be able to adapt to new circumstances – how the message of the risen Christ is going to stay grounded in human experience – through someone who was there and could tell about it. This is the one and only time Matthias gets a mention in the whole of the New Testament – maybe he wasn’t a great writer like Paul or a great preacher like Peter – but like you, and like me, Matthias is important because he becomes a part of the chain of human witness.
Maybe Luke the great story-teller also means us to wonder at the contrast between Judas and Matthias – the one who turns aside from God’s grace because he’s got better plans, and the one who – whatever his own shortcomings – experiences and chooses to proclaim the power of the risen Christ. That’s why the feast of St Matthias is one of the traditional days for the ordination of priests – because when we think about it there’s an aspect both of Judas and of Matthias in each of us, the irresolvable dilemma of failed promise, and the overwhelming grace of unexpected call.
And so the story moves forward, and the Church is made ready to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Pruning time

Many years ago I had a bad experience with pruning.  What made it worse, was it wasn’t my tree, it was at a place I was working.  ‘We just need to lop a couple of those over-hanging branches’, I suggested – trouble is, when I lopped them off it was obvious I needed to take a bit off on the other side to match.  Then it looked ridiculous because the side branches were short but it went straight up in the middle, so I had to get a step-ladder – every attempt to make it look symmetrical meant I had to take a bit more off somewhere else - by the end of the morning the damage was done.  All that was left was a couple of bare branches, and a solitary leaf.  My boss and I never spoke about that tree again – eventually he had it chopped down altogether.

Pruning isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.  It’s a job for realists, for people who know that a living thing needs to be able to direct its energies into areas of new growth, that dead and dying wood needs to be amputated and growth needs to be encouraged in the direction that is going to be most beneficial.  It’s a job for realists who know what they’re doing – you need to be able to look at a plant and see where its energy is being wasted, you need almost to be able to see the currents of life flowing up the trunk and out to the extremities, to be able to visualise how that life can be channelled for the plant’s own good and also to suit the purposes of the gardener.

Actually, Jesus didn’t invent the horticultural analogy.  All through the Old Testament God’s people are described as a vine planted by God, for example in Psalm 80, where Israel is a vine that God has planted and tended, but now has been cut back by foreigners who are helping themselves to its fruit.  The image of the vine tells God’s people about God’s care for them, about their dependence on God, but also about their own accountability.  The whole point of a vine is to bear good fruit – our very existence as the vine, and the soil we’re planted in and the care we receive are gifts to us from God, but what we produce needs to match the love and the care that God has put into us.

So, this is the first point.  This marvellous image suggests to us that we might experience God, the divine energy of life, as something that comes up through the roots, that rises up from beneath – something that exists in the very soil we’re planted in.  It’s an organic image of how our life depends on the divine nourishment, an image that probably isn’t going to be surprising to gardeners.  I guess the way we often imagine our relationship with God is from the top down, as though God’s love and blessings are poured down on us from on high – but this image suggests something simpler and more earthy – it’s about recognising the ways in which you soak up the nourishment of God’s own life through the everyday blessings of ordinary human relationships, through the soil and the water and the sunshine of the world we live in.  The sort of spirituality suggested by the image of the vine isn’t something rarified or separate from our everyday life, but something that just happens naturally when we attend to what really matters – staying grounded in our relationships with one another and recognising the goodness of the world that God has created.

This earthy analogy of our relationships with God and with each other reminds us that our faith is above all incarnational – that wonderful word that means God’s love for us is not just a promise, but grounded in the flesh and blood presence of God’s Son.  The way we live our faith also has to be incarnational, not just a set of right beliefs and doctrines, but expressed at the level of everyday reality and lived relationships. 

And here’s the second point that this analogy of the vine makes for us, which is that staying connected to God is part and parcel of staying connected to one another.  It’s worth reflecting at this point, I think, on the words of the 14th century mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich, whose feast day was observed in the Christian calendar last week.  Julian, who lived much of her life enclosed in a tiny cell adjoining her parish church, wrote profoundly about Jesus who she describes as “our true mother, the protector of the love which knows no end … All the love of offering and sacrifice of beloved motherhood are in Christ our Beloved."  Especially on Mothers’ Day, it’s worth remembering that it’s in the deepest and most life-giving of our human relationships that we come to know the love of God.

This emphasis on relationship is typical of John’s gospel, where the main concern is about how we can be gathered together into the experience of belonging to God and belonging to one another.  John calls it ‘abiding’ – this wonderfully rich word that means living, staying, dwelling – but also suggests something about rest, stability and intimacy.  For John, salvation is about the relationship we have with the Son, the relationships we have through the Son with God and with one another.  Our experience of God’s grace does depend on our willingness to be dependent on one another, our willingness to care for one another and to work with one another instead of in competition against one another. 

But eventually we need to talk about fruit.  Because, when it comes down to it, vines are domesticated plants, the whole idea of a vine is that it bears fruit.  I guess most of are thinking about grape vines, but it could be pumpkins, it could be rockmelons or zucchinis – if you’ve got one in your garden and it’s taking up space without producing anything you’re going to pull it out and go down to the supermarket instead.  So this image has got a hard edge, it’s about accountability.  You bear good fruit if you stay connected to the source of nourishment, that’s your part of the bargain.  God’s part of the bargain is to come along from time to time with the secateurs.

I guess one of the ways this passage has been read has been to assume that if we’re all branches, then it’s the good branches that the Pruner is going to keep, and the non-productive branches are going to get lopped off.  So the trick is not to get pruned.  You might find yourself thinking of John the Baptist, and his scary warning about the axe at the root of the trees.  Stay connected or you’ll get chopped off and thrown into the fire.  This is an interpretation that is especially popular among Christians who are most concerned about what you have to do to go to heaven, how are you going to make sure you don’t end up in the other place.  Are you in or are you out?

But there’s another way of hearing this, especially if we remember that it’s also the healthy branches that get pruned.  Because, unlike my clumsy attempts, pruning is a gentle art, and it’s a loving exercise – you try to see what the plant needs, how it needs to be encouraged in this direction, how it needs to be relieved of having to put all its energy into excess growth.  We all do get pruned, in our lives, don’t we?  And often what we notice at the time is the hardness and the sharpness of the secateurs that cut us off from some possibilities, that limit our growth in some directions – and maybe we don’t notice till a long time afterwards that it’s the pruning that has made it possible for us to thrive in ways that might not have been possible otherwise.  You might reflect on the times in your life that the Divine Pruner has lovingly shaped you, and cut away what was not life-giving, letting the sunshine get to where it was most needed.  You might also reflect on what in your life still needs to be pruned, where you still need to invite the Gardener to cut away what isn’t being fed and nourished by the life-giving sap of the Holy Spirit.

This image of the vine that Jesus gives in our reading today is one that has fired up the imagination of All Saints, Belmont, in the past.  So much so that you created this wonderful wall hanging that shows in simple, direct terms, what you think being a Christian community is about.  I’ve heard the story about how every family in the parish went away and made one leaf each – one of them even has a name on it – and then they were brought together into this reminder of how together God’s people make up the Church that grows organically from a single trunk.

To be the Church, we need to recognise our dependence on God, and on one another.  We need to bear the sort of fruit that God intended us to bear.  And we need to open ourselves to the loving care of the One who tends us, and who prunes us to stimulate us into new growth.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Good Shepherd

One thing I’m quite happy to admit I know nothing about whatsoever is farming.  I’m not a practical, knock it together with a scrap of bind-a-twine and a piece of four-by-two kind of bloke.  I’m not really into flies and dirt and sweat and all that outdoorsy sort of stuff.  Funnily enough, up until I was about twelve I desperately wanted to be a farmer – not quite sure why.

I think the sort of farm I imagined was the sort where there’d be a barn and some chooks and some cotton-wool sheep and a couple of placid cows.  A few fruit trees and a pond and lots of green grass.  I think, even at that tender age, I probably read too many books.  We don’t have farms like that in Australia, do we?  Alison, who comes from New Zealand where they do have cotton-wool sheep, thinks the skinny grey animals that roam around on outback stations don’t deserve to be called sheep at all.  It’s a different sort of farming, isn’t it, where you round them up at shearing time with a helicopter?  One fact that intrigued me when I first heard it, is that they don’t have fences on these stations that are as big as small countries.  Fences just get broken down, and anyhow, you don’t need them.  All you have to do to get the sheep to stay in one place is to put in a well.  The sheep stay where the water is.  It’s pretty simple, really, if you’re a sheep, and you’re out in the red dirt country where the rainfall’s less than 10 inches a year.  You stay close to what keeps you alive.

Today is a rather special Sunday in the church calendar, Good Shepherd Sunday, and we’ve just heard these wonderful passages of scripture that talk in powerful but really simple language about God’s care and God’s faithfulness.  I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve heard Psalm 23, how many times I’ve read the passage about Jesus as the Good Shepherd who is prepared even to lay down his life for his sheep.  And the number of times I’ve heard preachers explain that they didn’t herd them with helicopters or sheep-dogs, they led them and knew each of them individually.  Flocks were smaller, but water just as scarce in 1st century Palestine, each animal was precious and known.  It’s a reassuring, a calming image – the problem is it’s an image that’s too familiar.  We can just let these passages of scripture flow through us and over us, accepting their reassurance but not really hearing them with fresh ears, not really hearing the note of challenge that comes with them.

The image of God as a shepherd to God’s people reaches right back into the ancient tradition of Israel - then as now, sheep led a hard and dangerous life and this reflection in the psalm on God as the one who is with us in the hard and waterless places, the one who can be depended on to share our journey and to lead us to water is, I guess, about the journey of life in which the fear of loss is always with us.  Our lives are always in transition, things change around us, what was once reliable melts away and the future appears uncertain.  The shadow of the valley of death is our daily experience, not just the end of our physical lives.  How do we live with hope?  How do we keep walking with confidence when we don’t know where we’re going?  I think this psalm is about countering fear with trust – trust that the One who set our feet on the pathway in the first place is with us on the journey, and can be relied upon to complete in us his good purposes for our lives.

It’s no wonder that Jesus, whose experience of God is first and foremost the companionship and the faithfulness of God – it’s no wonder that Jesus picks up on this marvellous image, but then he takes it a step further.  ‘I am the good shepherd who is prepared even to lay down his life for the sheep’, Jesus claims.  It’s a way for us to think about Jesus death, and it deepens our understanding of the God of mystery, the unfathomable and unknowable God who is always and utterly Christ-like.  Think about Jesus in Gethsemene, raddled with fear and praying that he won’t have to undergo this ordeal.  But trusting God’s will for him even as he struggles with his terror.  Not only do we finally come to understand that God is in fact with Jesus right through the valley of the shadow, but Jesus demonstrates for us the strength of his love and commitment to us – in our own fear of change and uncertainty we know that the Good Shepherd who is willing to die for his sheep is with us, and leads us into the future that is already his.

And then the writer of the letter takes the theme even further.  Probably around the end of the first century, this letter is written to a Christian community that sees itself as following in the tradition of the beloved disciple.  It’s a community that’s going through some painful changes, some believers have fallen away, the future looks uncertain, and the writer of the letter picks up on the familiar theme of the Good Shepherd not just to reassure, but to challenge and inspire.  What does it mean to be a Christian community?  How do we know we’re heading in the right direction?  What’s important and what’s not?

A book I read recently picked up on this notion of wells and fences, and applied it to the church.  What keeps us here?  Why do we keep coming and how do we know we’re going in the right direction?  What’s important in our church life?  And this writer pointed out that in the history of the church we’ve built a lot of fences.  ‘This is the right belief to have about God, you’re not a real Christian of you subscribe to that doctrine.  That’s wrong.’  We set up rules about the right way to worship, the right sort of decorations to have in church, is it too Catholic to have candles, would it be too Protestant if the priest doesn’t wear vestments?  Can women be bishops?  These things are fences, and we set them up to try to keep things where we want them.  But the writer of this book said, fences aren’t much good in the desert anyway.  The fences just tell you what you already know – that the journey into the future is fearful.  But they don’t work.  Don’t be concerned with things that don’t matter.  Look for the wells.  Look for what gives you life.  That’s what keeps you here, and that’s what keeps you on the right track with God.

And that’s what the writer of our letter is telling his community, too.  Claiming the gospel and applying it to a new situation.  Don’t be afraid.  Listen, little children, we know what love is, because Jesus defined it for us by laying down his life for us.  That’s the standard Jesus sets for us, that’s where we get life from.  So now, let’s do it.  Not by some once in a lifetime mad heroic act of self-sacrifice, but just by loving one another.  Not – as the writer of the Cottonpatch Gospel puts it – by talking about love – not even by singing about love but by doing it – the way we’re going to know whether or not we’re truth-people is by how we live together and how we put ourselves out for one another.  See, we’ve moved from being sheep in need of a shepherd to being challenged to be the source of that companionship and that self-giving love for one another.  That’s the well.  That’s what gives you life, it’s what gives me life, and it’s how we know that we’re God’s people.  That’s what actually matters about being Church.  The connection between loving God, and real human care for one another.  We do it by being involved, by being, not just a collection of individuals, but a community.

And the letter-writer says, where does the power come from to do that?  We haven’t got it in us!  It’s not a new thing for Christians to feel inadequate, that it’s all too much.  Don’t be afraid.  It’s the most natural thing in the world, that if you’re living from the centre of God’s love, there’s going to be opposition.  But it’s not the world that judges you, and God’s judgement is infinitely more generous than the judgement you pass on yourself.  Very gently, the letter-writer reminds us that we’re going to find the answers to our fears and the power to live as God’s people by praying about it.

Don’t be afraid.  Just recognise what gives you life, and stay there.