Saturday, March 03, 2007

Lent 2 (Deut 6.16-25, Heb 3.12 - 4.2, Lk 18.18-30)

One of the spate of frightful so-called ?reality? shows that the TV networks thought we wanted to watch last year was ?Australia?s Biggest Loser?.  Now I hasten to add that I never watched it ? but you know, when you switch on the TV and it happens to be on, how you can?t help watching just for a minute or two in a sort of horrified fascination? 

This sort of show seems to be mainly about watching other people getting humiliated, doesn?t it?  And the winner is the one who can take the most humiliation, the one so fixated on the million dollar prize that they can connive and manipulate and back-stab their opponents on national TV as well as being insulted by the judges week by week as they inch closer to the prize ? a sort of a celebration of all that?s most unattractive in human nature. 

For those who haven?t seen it, Australia?s Biggest Loser follows a group of impressively overweight people who compete to lose the most kilos while being badgered and taunted by personal trainers and dieticians.  The winner last year was a young man named Adro who ? I must say ? looked a whole lot better at the end of the season than he did at the beginning, but who ? whenever I accidentally happened to tune into the show for a few seconds, seemed constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Anyway ? what I found most interesting about the programme was firstly its name ? how it turns on its head the idea of being a loser ? normally if someone calls you a loser it?s not such a good thing, but here the more you lost the better it was ? secondly how genuinely hard it was, how much emotional turmoil we all had to endure so that Adro could lose his 50kg or whatever it was.  Rationally you?d think it wouldn?t be such a hard choice to eat a bit less and get a bit more exercise when you think maybe it?s going to save your life ? in point of fact as we all know, we find it really hard sometimes to let go of things that give us security and make us feel good even when they aren?t good for us.

I?m reminded of the story about how African farmers catch monkeys by putting a small hole in the end of a kerosene can, with a few peanuts inside.  You like peanuts, you?ve got them in your hand, you don?t want to let them go even though deep down you know what the consequences are going to be.

Today, on the second Sunday of Lent, our readings offer us a choice just like this.  Last week it was about living in trust, even when we find ourselves in hard places.  Today it?s about recognising the alternatives, making a choice and acting on it with courage - and our reading from Deuteronomy sets the stage for us.  This generation that?s just about to enter the promised land weren?t even born yet when God led the people out of Egypt, when Moses gave them water by striking the rock - but they do know the stories of God?s faithfulness during the desert wanderings of their people because the stories are part of who they are.  So the danger is that for this generation who weren?t around for all the hard stuff, now things are looking up they might forget about following the Law of God.  And Moses tells them it boils down to this ? choose life or choose death.

And in the letter to the Hebrews ? this is a group of Christians who have grown tired of waiting for Jesus to come back, and maybe they are at risk of giving up, and so the writer reminds them of the choice the people of Israel faced in the desert, and he tells them, your choice today is just as simple.  The good news of Jesus has come to you, so are you going to be like Israel in the desert, and choose death, or are you going to live by the good news you have heard, and choose life?

Which sets the stage for our reading from the Gospel.  It?s one of the uncomfortable stories, isn?t it, because even if you?re not part of the upper crust, even if you?re not James Packer, I think you can?t help but put yourself in the young man?s shoes.  Where we come in today, Jesus has just finished telling his disciples that unless they hear the good news of God like a little child, then they?ll never be a part of it.  And then this important person comes along, he?s not one the poor who Jesus insists are especially blessed by God, he?s not a child and he says to Jesus, ?what should I do to have eternal life??  And this is what Jesus tells him ? ?mate, be Australia?s biggest loser?.  ?Sell everything, give it to the poor so you can share in their blessedness and come, follow me?.  Sounds simple, except ? are you going to do that?  I?m not!  We can make it relative, we can talk about finding the balance between self and others, we can say yes, we give to Anglicare but life?s a lot more complicated now than it was in the year dot, you can?t just sell your house and empty out your bank account and go wandering around the country with some mad preacher ? but all that misses Jesus? direct, uncomfortable demand.  ?Let go of your fake security.?  It?s the same choice that Adro faced, and he made the right decision even if enduring 12 weeks of humiliation on national TV was a bit questionable ? what?s most important to you? ? another plate of comfort food or life as it?s really meant to be lived?  What made it fascinating TV was that you could see him genuinely struggling with that question, week after week.  It?s the choice that Simon Peter faced, when Jesus called him to leave his nets and his livelihood, to leave home and family and follow.  And it?s the same choice that Jesus gives us.

We need to pause here before we get too metaphorical, because for most of us the demand that Jesus makes is tough enough at face value.  Actually, we can?t give up the material security of our lives in this wealthy corner of the world to follow Jesus, and if that?s what Jesus wants of us then it?s too hard, like the ruler we find ourselves squirming.  I don?t know about you, but I am greatly relieved to hear Jesus assurance that what?s too hard for me is not too hard for God.

And then of course we need to recognise that what?s at stake is more than just our BHP shares and our bank accounts.  We?re being asked to make a choice between the security we make for ourselves, and taking the chance that God?s love and faithfulness really can be trusted.  It takes some courage. 

And I wonder if in some ways the church itself isn?t a bit like the ruler in today?s story.  When we find our security not in being God?s people but in being evangelicals, or Anglo-Catholics, in being theologically conservative, or theologically progressive.  When our church traditions or our practices of piety become an end in themselves.  When we find our security in being a traditional church that sings traditional hymns, or in being a contemporary church with a band.  In having a priest who wears a chasuble or a pastor who wears jeans.  Being on the winning side of the argument about the ministry of women, finding the right verses from scripture to back up our opinions about gay and lesbian priests.  All these preoccupations actually are church versions of comfort food ? different ways of finding our security and our sense of belonging somewhere else than in following Jesus and learning from him the wisdom of insecurity.

I?ve heard some of the stories of this parish.  Stories about the hard work of building up God?s church here in the early days, the little weatherboard churches and then the hard decisions and the risks of building the church we?re worshipping in right now.  The stories of the times when the financial future of the parish looked bleak, when it looked like it was going to have to close altogether, and then the faithfulness and the vision of parishioners who raised money and invested wisely.  The stories of God?s faithfulness in the past that tell us it?s not investment in buildings but investment in community, investment in courage and investment in trust that forms us as God?s people.  That it?s OK to give up whatever St Michaels? version of ecclesiastical comfort food might be.

The choice, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, has to be made today.  And tomorrow as well, which of course will also be today when it comes.  The ruler?s choice is one we face over and over again.  Today?s version is: do we sell off part of the church property to extend our facilities?  Or do we use our vacant land to add value back to the community we live in?  How do we measure our choices against Jesus? demand to let go of our fake security and rely only on God?s faithfulness?

Choose life, or choose death.  Be Cannington?s biggest loser.  The good news for us, is that Jesus shows us how it?s done, that on the other side of losing everything is the new life that God promises.  That?s security.

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