Saturday, August 25, 2007

Pentecost 13

I’ve had a fair bit of reading to do recently.  As I shared with you recently, there was the draft Covenant that has been put before all the Churches of the Anglican Communion as a way of getting us all to agree on the things that we hold in common, and to agree that the most important thing for us is to preserve the unity of God’s Church – and I’ve shared with you my profound worry about this document that when you boil it down it seems to be more about putting a lid on disagreement, of setting out some fundamental guidelines and structures of authority, and providing a mechanism for dealing with any Dioceses and Provinces that seem to be getting out of line according to the majority opinion – I worry about this because it seems to be more about codifying the instruments of Church governance and less about recognising God’s grace in one another or responding together to the new ways God might be leading us – then, just on Friday, I got my hands on the draft Strategic plan for our own Diocese that’s supposed to guide us through the next three years or so, and I guess part of me groaned inwardly as I thought ‘I guess I’ve got to get my head around this before Synod’ – but then the first thing I noticed is that the language is quite different, because it’s based on a completely different assumption.  Instead of the assumption that some of us might lose the plot and need to be brought back into line by being reminded of the rules, there seems to be the assumption that the future of God’s Church is already lurking in there somewhere, that God has kind of woven into the DNA of the Church something new and wonderful that we just need to tease out and recognise, that all sorts of people, both clergy and lay people, have got the gifts that God is relying on to respond to the fresh challenges of a new century - and that we can be confident that when our faithfulness coincides with God’s faithfulness, when we trust that God is leading us into a new and exciting phase of our life as a Diocese, then all sorts of wonderful things will happen.  I don’t for a moment mean to imply that this is a perfect blueprint, or even that I’ve quite digested it yet – in fact I’m sure there’ll be lots of argument about it at Synod – but I think it’s the right set of assumptions.  It’s the difference, I think, between trying to build walls around the Church and define for sure what it is and what it isn’t – and setting God’s people free to listen and to dream.

And yes, all this has got something to do with this morning’s gospel.

You see, this really simple story isn’t really about healing somebody who is sick – we miss the point if we start speculating on whether this poor woman has got osteoporosis and why exactly Luke tells us she’s been like this for 18 years (which given the life expectancy back then would be about half a lifetime) – it’s actually a story about God’s people being set free from what imprisons them.

I think maybe the first thing to notice is that Jesus comes across this woman in the synagogue – in the middle of God’s faithful people - and notice she doesn’t approach Jesus herself, she doesn’t expect anything from him, even though she’s in the synagogue to worship God.  This woman challenges us, because if we’re honest we recognise her.  The faithful member of God’s Church who has spent half her life isolated, weakened and bent over – unable to take any initiative until Jesus takes the initiative for her.  Jesus calls her over to him and touches her – so the first thing this story tells us is that being God’s people means we have to be prepared to take the initiative.  If this isn’t a place where people reach out and touch one another, if people can come here and still be bent over and alone and in pain, then how do we dare say anything at all about the compassion of God? 

The second thing is this, that for half her life this woman has been known by a false name.  She’s been ‘the crippled woman’, the one who can only see other people’s feet because she’s bent so far over.  So nobody looks at her face, she’s defined not by who she is but by her limitations.  And Jesus gives her a name, in fact, Jesus gives her her true name, he calls her, ‘daughter of Abraham’, and by calling her that he gives her back her true identity as a child of God and as a member of God’s family.  Actually, this is the difference between healing and just curing.  Healing is about being set free from what confines you, for example from a negative self image or a false sense of shame that can twist a person’s life out of shape.  Healing, literally, is about unbending people, about setting women and men free from labels that imprison them, or from decades of fear or failure.  Being God’s people means knowing ourselves and one another by our true names.

And the third thing, of course, is that Jesus sets this woman free on the Sabbath.  Actually, you read through Luke’s gospel in particular, and you’d be forgiven for thinking Jesus only ever healed people on the Sabbath.  It’s one of the things he gets into trouble for time and time again.  And in fact Jesus’ argument back to the synagogue official about untying your donkey on the Sabbath to give it water doesn’t sound at first like one of his finest come-backs.  If she’s had this curvature of the spine or whatever it was for 18 years, another day wouldn’t have hurt – whereas of course donkeys need water every day of the week.

Except that it’s not really about a medical cure, it’s about setting God’s people free.  The synagogue official uses the Greek word therapeuo, to cure, but Jesus uses the word apoluo, to liberate, both for the woman and the donkey – the point he’s actually making is that the Sabbath is a day for setting free.  If you happen to be Jewish, you understand that point straight away – because we were slaves in Egypt until God set us free – that’s who we are, and that’s who God is.  The Jewish understanding of God is of a divine rescuer setting people free: free from slavery in Egypt, free from captivity in Babylon, free from drudgery and toil for at least one day every week.  So Jesus is really saying to this religious leader, ‘you’re a clever sort of chap, you know very well that the Sabbath is the best day of the whole week for this sort of caper, because that’s what God is like - what delights God best of all is setting people free’.

You see, in our Christian tradition one of our less attractive tendencies is to poke fun at the Pharisees and the scribes and lawyers in the Gospels – as though they’re a sort of religious equivalent of the Keystone Cops – forgetting maybe the reality that the rich vein of Judaism is what underlies our own religion and that Jesus himself was a rabbi who scrupulously observed the Torah – we do poke fun at the hapless religious leaders who never get the better of Jesus in an argument but forget sometimes that we’re really not all that different – we who hear Jesus’ scandalous promise that we don’t have to do anything at all to earn God’s love and God’s forgiveness because it’s absolutely gratuitous, no strings attached – it’s as though the message that God has set us free to be ourselves scares us so much that we have to work extra hard at tying ourselves up in knots again.

We do put conditions and limits on the grace of God, that’s the gist of it when we argue that we’ve got the right way of interpreting Scripture and try to bully others who disagree with us.  When we set up ways of controlling how God’s people can worship, who is acceptable and who isn’t; when we try to set limits to what is properly Anglican and what isn’t – when, in other words, we forget that it’s God’s Holy Spirit that inspires and directs the Church and start to think it’s us.  When we start to think we come to Church to be nurtured and fed, and forget that we’re also called to nurture and to feed the ones on either side of us.  When we forget that the very main business of being the Church is to be a place where people can be set free, where people can find themselves accepted and loved, and where people can learn to let go of whatever has been keeping them bent over.  And in the process maybe we forget that we – like this synagogue official – are a bit bent over ourselves, and what Jesus really wants to do for us is to set us free.

The Sabbath is the very best day of the week to do it.  And the very place place is right here.



Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pentecost 10

Well, hasn’t it been a rocky couple of weeks on the international stock market scene?  On Friday morning, I think it was, I read that the Australian share market had had $60billion wiped off in a single day’s trading – that’s about 5% of the total value of the share market.  The general gloom of all this reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous tongue-in-cheek novel, Slaughterhouse Five - in which aliens from the planet Tralfamadore kidnap a couple of Earthlings and take them back home to exhibit them in a zoo.  Unfortunately, in spite of being given the best imaginable accommodation, the Earthlings tend to mope, and they don’t really do anything very interesting, so the Tralfamadorian zoo-keepers hit on the idea of installing a stock-market telex in their cage – after telling the Earthlings they have invested a million dollars for them on the stock market back home.  Immediately, the Earthlings start displaying wild swings of emotion ranging from uninhibited delight to the depths of despair whenever the telex tells them their stocks have moved a few percentage points up or down – which naturally makes them a whole lot more interesting to the Trafamadorians.  The point Vonnegut was trying to make, of course, is that human beings all too often try to find security in things that don’t have a deep and abiding value.

This, I think, is also the basic point of our gospel story today.  Where do we get our security from?

There’s a basic contradiction, I think, between what Jesus is saying here and our everyday understanding of what it means to be responsible, to make adequate provision for ourselves and the people we love.  The other curious thing is that Jesus has no time at all for the younger brother who has missed out on a share of the family inheritance – the one Jesus is accusing of being greedy is the one who has missed out.  Even though everywhere else Jesus is on the side of those who get a raw deal out of life, here he isn’t interested.  The message is certainly that material possessions are going to get in the way of being a disciple – of all the gospel writers Luke stresses that one time and again – but also that getting ourselves tied up in a knot about the possessions we haven’t got but wish we did have, or think we should have – that might get in the way of being a disciple, too.

Part of the difficulty with Jesus’ teaching here, when we try to listen for what he is saying to us today, is the difference between our 21st century view of the world, and what the world looked like to a 1st century Palestinian peasant.  Even in our own time, even here in Australia, we come across the fact that different cultures have got different ideas about material possessions – think for example  about the conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians over land.  In the Westernised culture of non-Aboriginal Australians, land is something you own, something you manage and use to make a living out of, it’s a resource – for aborigines it’s completely different because there’s a totally opposite understanding that the land owns us, and that who we are is formed by our relationship with the land and how we care for it. 

In ancient Israel there’s a similar understanding about the land and about the responsibilities of the people who live in it, because who we are is the people that God called out of Egypt – the whole self-understanding is about living in the land that belongs to God, and living under the terms of a covenant with God – the idea is of being like tenants who have the land on trust from God.  Having material possessions that belong just to you, in this way of thinking, is a bit strange, because the true owner is God.  

This covenant with God is like a sort of contract, or a way of living within the circle of a relationship that gives life.  The prophet Hosea says that for Israel to be faithful to this covenant means relying only on God, not looking for its security to its stronger neighbours, and it means not exploiting or oppressing the poor, who should have equal entitlement to the goodness of the land that belongs to God.  Not only has the rich man with his barns forgotten that the wealth of the land doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to God – but he has forgotten the basic understanding of Israel which is that the only real security comes from God’s blessings which by their very nature can’t be hoarded, they can only be shared – unsurprisingly the word that Luke uses here for greed crops up again in Colossians, where Paul says that greed is a sort of idolatry, which means putting yourself in the place of God.

One of the most startling things about this story, for Jesus’ listeners, would have been that the rich man was talking to himself.  For us, in our individualistic culture, that’s not so uncommon – you hear people saying, for example, I enjoy my own company – but in this peasant society where everyone depended on everyone else, and all the important decisions were made in families and villages, the idea of having a conversation with yourself would have been just absurd, and it’s another clue that this person is operating outside the circle of covenant relationship.  Jesus’ hearers would also have recognised straight away that the absentee landlord’s solution to the problem of his own insecurity would mean starvation for the landless peasants who worked for him.  This is when God steps in and reminds the rich man he can’t take it with him – others will argue over it, and in the story there’s even a hint of violence, the possibility of furious peasants taking back by force the wealth they probably worked for – because the Greek word that’s used for demanding back the rich man’s life has also got the sense of taking back something that was stolen – not only the man’s wealth but his life itself was on loan from God, and the only way he could have been rich in what matters to God, was to recognise what that implied.

How we hear all this probably depends on whether or not we identify with the rich man or his neighbours.  Probably none of us here suffers from a real embarrassment of wealth – on the other hand maybe we all do in relation to the poorest people of the world.  So there’s a challenge in this story for us to think about the serious imbalance of the world’s resources, where we in wealthy nations have more than we need while others live in crushing poverty. 

Closer to home, the simple message of this parable is that when we try to find our security in the stuff that we’ve got then we’re living in a fool’s paradise because the only real source of security is to live within the circle of God’s blessings.  We become rich in what matters to God when we look at the world not through the lens of our own individual needs, but from the perspective of a whole community whose needs are inter-related.  To live, in other words, out of an understanding of our covenant relationship with God that is inseparable from our relationship with God’s people.

This of course has got some serious implications for how we live, for how we strike the balance between providing for our own needs and the needs of those we love, and providing for the needs of others who also have a claim on us because they are God’s children.  For us as Christians there is also a direct connection with the need for us to contribute financially to our parish, because that is one of the most important opportunities we have for growing in commitment to one another, for growing together in practical faith and for helping God’s covenant community to grow.  Anglicans, I think, don’t like talking too much about how much money people should put in the collection plate, somehow it seems pushy, we don’t generally like talking in terms of tithing which means to give 10% of your income.  I think that’s a bit unfortunate, because it tends to give the impression we think it doesn’t matter.  The amount you give to God does have to be negotiated between you and God, it needs to be a pledge that you make seriously and it needs to be a real amount, not just the bit you happen to have left in your wallet at the end of the week – but the main point is that we are invited to find our security not in ourselves, but in giving back to God what actually belongs to God in the first place. 

When it comes down to it, it’s not what we hold on to that gives us life, but what we give away.  The simple reality in the life of the Church is that parishes where people give generously of themselves – both financially and in terms of their time and energy – where people share their resources and their lives with one another – become vibrant and life-giving – the sort of oasis of community that, when you think about it, is exactly what Jesus spends most of his time trying to tell us about.

‘The kingdom of God’, he says, ‘is like this …’