Saturday, July 08, 2006

Spitting the dummy

Yesterday, five of us from All Saints were privileged to take part in the Diocesan Day of Prayer for Mission at St Hilda’s Girl’s School, in Mosman Park.  There was a lot of good stuff, some passionate and engaging speakers about the core business of the church, which is prayer, and the core orientation of the church, which is to be focused outwards in mission.  Kanishka Raffel, who led us in a Bible study, and Andrew McGowan, who took us through some reflections on the prayer of the church as a community of faith – two priests who, interestingly enough, represent pretty much the opposite ends of the spectrum of Anglican church life – both pointed out the fundamental connection between prayer and mission which is that prayer fundamentally isn’t about us telling God what to do, but about us consenting to participate in God’s activity in the world. 

From my point of view, it was an inspiring day and also I guess one of those battery-recharging days where you get to reconnect with the Church on a wider platform – just seeing the auditorium at St Hilda’s packed with people who all care enough about the Church to think that a Saturday spent thinking about prayer is time well spent, having the opportunity to touch base with friends from other parishes and listening to some passionately held convictions about what God is up to in our church and in our world – days like this remind me why the Church is supposed to represent a sort of advance instalment on the Kingdom of God.

I also, however, came back home yesterday reflecting on the undeniable fact that a whole lot of the life of the Church, particularly when we all get together at the big Diocese-wide functions, reflects not so much God’s kingdom as the all-too-human worlds of gossip, competition and party politics.  We’re not immune from it, even though we remind ourselves every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer about the connection between God’s forgiveness that we experience in Jesus and our own practice of forgiveness and generosity.  Even though we have to admit every time we pray the prayer of confession that we’ve failed yet again to love others as ourselves.  Maybe it’s because so much of who we are is bound up with our church lives – our relationships and for many of us, the memories of major turning points in our lives – maybe it’s because we invest so much passion and so much love in the church, that church can also be a place where old wounds can still hurt, that grudges and feuds can keep simmering, that the forgiveness and healing we proclaim every week can so often elude us.  The paradox is that we come to church because we have the experience of God’s Holy Spirit at work here, we experience church as a place where God’s good news of forgiveness and live is celebrated – the place we know we want to be a part of but also the place where we struggle to live the life together that we know God calls us into.

In St Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians you can just about hear the defensiveness and hurt – Paul’s feeling rejected and judged by this fractious and unruly congregation.  Paul, you get the feeling, is never really at a loss for words, but here his words are almost falling over themselves, coming out in an almost incoherent jumble but remarkably never quite losing sight of what is most important – not me, but God.  Not what I can do, but what God can do in spite of me.

Well if we’re going to boast, Paul says – talking about himself in the third person as though he doesn’t want to boast at all but if he was going to then he’d have a fair bit of ammunition – not that I would boast but I do know a thing or two about mystical prayer – dropping a veiled references to experiences so profound that he’s not even permitted to talk about them but don’t be in any doubt that he could if he was!  It’s a dummy-spit, isn’t it?  We’re all capable of spitting the dummy when we feel under-valued.  And yes, I know as well as you do that I’m not really up to the job.  There’s a bit of a dark area on my CV that I wish I could make go away.  A thorn in the flesh –Bible scholars have argued for centuries about this – is Paul talking about a physical weakness, about depression – or is it his reputation as a one-time enemy and persecutor of the Church?  At any rate, Paul knows he’s not perfect and he says he’s prayed about this – but here’s the wonder and the sheer breath-taking depth and beauty of Paul’s spirituality centred on the crucified Christ – God’s response to his prayers, he tells us, is to remind him that ‘power is made perfect in weakness’. 

So there – right in the middle of a defensive dummy-spit: I know I am an inadequate, fallible human being with weaknesses that are obvious to anybody.  Paul’s humanity is being tested to the limit in this relationship with the Christians at Corinth.  Nothing he does is good enough.  But that’s how God works.  God’s power is made perfect in weakness – Paul’s own weakness, certainly; and also, if we dare to follow his argument, in the weakness of God.

Because the core truth of the gospel that Paul keeps hammering home is that it is not in strength but in weakness that Christ accepts and redeems us.  The crucified figure of Jesus that Paul keeps coming back to is hardly a figure of overwhelming strength, it’s a figure of overwhelming vulnerability and suffering love.  That’s how God comes to us, Paul keeps reminding us, not as the God who fixes stuff but as the God who dares to let us not believe in him, the God who dares to let us find him irrelevant and push him aside onto the cross.  That’s the God whose power is made perfect in the depths of weakness.

You’ve heard me talk before about what I call the relational power of God, the power that works not on the brute facts of our circumstances but on the more intricate, crisscrossing web of what makes us who we are, flawed and fragile people who have to work out who we really are in our relationships with one another and with God.  Our relationships with one another are the problem, and our relationships are also where God works to transform us.  God does that, not through brute force but by being vulnerable, persistent, nagging us right at the place where we too find ourselves weak, broken and inadequate.

Get in touch with your own place of desolation.  It’s where you’ll find God waiting for you.

It hardly needs much explanation, does it, when Jesus comes back home to Nazareth – as he does today - and finds that the folk back home remember him as just Mary’s boy who turned out to be a tradesman.  Home is very often the place where they remember you from back when, and when you go back they don’t give you the chance to be who you’ve turned into in the meantime.  In Mark’s gospel, too, there’s the suggestion that relationships were already a bit strained.  Jesus’ family were worried about him, back in chapter three they came to fetch him because they thought he was mad, and here things aren’t getting much better.  When Jesus comes back to Nazareth after his baptism in the Jordan by John, after fasting in the desert and healing the sick and driving out demons, after showing his authority over wind and waves and raising the dead – he’s just Mary’s son – by implication Joseph is no longer alive or else it’s suggestion that there’s some doubt over who his father was, he’s just Mary’s eldest son who left her without any apparent means of support and now who does he think he is?

And Jesus spits the dummy.  We forget, sometimes, what it means that we believe Jesus was truly human.  It means he can feel hurt and rejected, it means his pride can be punctured – and here we see him giving it back with interest, in one breath insulting his village and his own family as well.  Outsiders recognise who Jesus is – just not the people he knew best of all – just not the people he grew up with.

When we dare to believe in each other, we give each other the power to be who God intends us to be.  The opposite happens when we expect the worst from one another.  When we leave our relationships with one another unexamined and untransformed, we end up standing in the way of God’s work in the world.

Jesus seems to have changed tack, at this point, sending out the disciples in twos, deliberately making them reliant on whatever goodwill they might come across.  The point seems to be that the only way to proclaim the gospel is to become vulnerable.  In Mark’s version Jesus tells them they can take a staff and a pair of sandals.  Matthew and Luke say, no staff, no sandals.  At a human level proclaiming the good news of God’s love and forgiveness is always going to meet with a mixed response.  There’s going to be success, and there’s going to be failure.  The apostles are going to meet with hospitality and hostility.  We can just see that they’re going to spend half their time inspiring and supporting each other, the other half arguing.  We’re none of us perfect.  We’re sent out under-equipped, all we really have is each other.  With a child-care centre or without one, we’re still sent into the world to be God’s people, reliant not on what we can do but on what God can do, called to be God’s people not in strength but in weakness, so God’s grace can be made perfect in us.