Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reign of Christ

Today, I think we are ambivalent about royalty.  Not just those of us who subscribe to the republican ideal, either.  The old idea of royalty as the epitome of glamour and privilege and raw power has been under attack for quite a while.  On the pages of New Idea, Prince William still rates, but he has to compete with Cate Blanchett and David Beckham.  Queen Elizabeth still rates, and she still reminds a good proportion of us of the fast-fading dream of Empire, she still stands for the slightly more watered-down idea that we belong to the political abstraction of Commonwealth.  We still like the idea of monarchy, but we’ve been turned off a bit by too much information about the tawdry reality of royal lifestyles, by the intrigue and infighting that fill the pages of the glossy magazines.

We see a king with all the traditional trappings in the Wizard of ID – a ruthless little despot, both physically and morally small – desperately hanging on to power but not very bright and easily duped by Sir Rodney and the wizard, the king hasn’t got much of an idea what his subjects lives are like – addressing the peasants from the balcony, they can’t hear what he’s saying, and he doesn’t care what they’re yelling back at him.

In modern democracies, the idea of a king as a figure of absolute power has given way to the new business-suited idea of a president or a prime minister.  That’s where we see real power being exercised in the world we live in – even though Kevin Rudd probably can’t compete with Cate Blanchett in the glamour stakes, and – please! - we don’t want him to!  As citizens of a democracy, over the last few weeks especially we have subjected our political leaders to constant critique, we’ve examined their motivations from all angles – oddly enough, at the same time as political power has become more concentrated than ever in our modern democracies, our attitudes towards those who have it have become more ambiguous than ever as well.

Christ the King Sunday I think picks up some of the ambiguity that surrounds the whole idea of worldly power – on the whole, I think this might be unintentional.  The idea of the risen Christ as a king is almost as old as Christianity itself – we begin to see paintings and images of Christ Pantocrator – pictures of the risen Christ surrounded by the trappings of power - from the fourth century around the time when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official State religion – more than anything else this maybe says something about the thousand year alliance between Christianity and worldly authority, the church’s assumption of worldly power.  So, in fact, rather a troubling image!  On the other hand, the day of the church year that we call Christ the King Sunday is very recent, beginning in December 1925. At the time, it was a powerful symbolic action. Europe was facing an uncertain future. Mussolini had been the leader of Italy for three years; and a rabble-rouser named Hitler had been out of jail for a year. The Nazi party was growing in popularity, and the world lay in a great Depression. Pope Pius XI asserted that, despite all of these dictators and false values in the world, Christ was King of the universe. Christians knew where their ultimate loyalties lay — not with dictators or power manipulators, but with Christ! He was our true leader, our true King — and he was unlike any of these earthly leaders, who would one day pass away. You could say, Christ was like an “upside down king”.

Christ the King Sunday raises some big questions: certainly questions about the meaning of Christ, but beyond that, questions about where and how we place our social loyalties; how we live our public life as followers of Christ.  There are some hard questions about all this – asserting Christ to be King of all Kings is not just a feel-good formula for a poppy praise-song – it’s a serious claim, but it’s also ambiguous.  It raises some questions that don’t have any easy answers.  How do we as followers of Christ the King relate to earthly Kings and leaders?  Does our understanding of political power and leadership dictate how we understand Christ as King?  Or should it be the other way around?  If Christ is a king, how is that kingship expressed?  Is the kingship of Christ about this world or the next one?

A significant change occurred in Australian politics and social life in the 2004 Federal elections, with the election of a Family First party candidate to the Senate.  According to one exuberant campaign worker on election night, this was ‘a victory for Jesus’.  In our hyper-secular, post-Christian nation this is remarkable, though we might question whether Family First’s agenda of family values is all Jesus was really on about.  With last night’s nail-biting finish, the nation’s nerdiest Christian politician might even be on track to make liberation theology trendy – certainly Jesus is now firmly on the political stage in Australia – but whose version of Jesus are we talking about?  If Jesus really is king, what are his policies? 

The irony of this special day in the church’s calendar is heightened by the fact that our gospel reading directs us not to Christ’s glorification, but to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as King of the Jews.  In Luke’s account we are confronted with the logical end result for the Jesus who, over and over again, calls into question the dominant models of political and religious power – the Jesus who teaches his disciples that the greatest among them would be their servant is a different sort of King!  Yet Luke’s passion narrative also builds in the ambiguity of Jesus’ claim to kingship that we continue to grapple with today.

Luke’s version of the story makes one thing very clear – Jesus was crucified as a political subversive – in good company with the supporting cast from the zealot Barabbas to the ones crucified with him – the Greek word lestai is better translated as brigand or revolutionary, than as criminal.  For Jesus to be recognised as the long awaited messiah necessitated political overtones – the Hebrew word messiah like the Greek word christos means ‘anointed’, in other words, a warrior king in the model of David.  Yet the way Luke writes it, it was all a tragic mistake because Jesus was a different kind of messiah – the ones who had been expecting a political figure had it all wrong and the Romans had it all wrong too – according to Luke Jesus was innocent of the charge of being a political messiah, instead he was concerned only with the kingdom within – Luke in other words is emphasising that Jesus really isn’t a threat to the status quo at all because he is talking about a heavenly kingdom not a geographic one.

Mark isn’t so sure, and he points to Jesus’ denunciation of the temple as the real reason for his arrest and trial.  Clearly, Jesus was not leading a military insurrection, but on the other hand, the following that Jesus attracted and his message of liberation for the poor just as clearly presented a political danger to the Jewish and Roman authorities.  From the beginning when Jesus stands up in the synagogue to define his mission as good news for the poor he is emphasising the value of those who have no value at all under the status quo.  Jesus is announcing a program for change – and it’s change that he doesn’t only talk about, he puts it into action.  The difference between Jesus and Barabbas is that Jesus is preaching a revolution of peace and grace which confronts the power of this world by proposing a new sort of power and a new set of priorities.  But he stands with Barabbas in asserting that the oppression of this world matters – ironically, this Jesus has actually more in common with Barabbas than with Christians who choose to withdraw from the world into a private spirituality.

The feast of Christ the King is ambiguous, and it’s problematic.  We don’t get around the paradox by resorting to standard images of Christ as a King with all the trappings of ancient royalty but in another place, in a spiritual or a heavenly sphere.  Jesus is not setting up an alternative power structure the church can withdraw into or claim some priority over.  Jesus himself gives us something more humble, something more subversive, which is a life poured out in compassion, and a life that confronts the structures of worldly power.  The kingship of Jesus is a different sort of kingship.  But it is not other-worldly, it is a kingship that challenges us to live assertively and compassionately, to engage with the issues of our time in a way that embodies Jesus’ reversal of the world’s priorities, and Jesus’ insistence on the value of those who the world dismisses as having no value.

Ultimately, the feast of the kingship of Christ is about eternity, because it orients us away from our own perspective towards the perspective of the God whose priority is to transform death and finality into life and new possibility.  But it’s a perspective that – like resurrection itself - has to be claimed and lived out in the context of the world we live in.  In a sense, the reign of Christ is about us, because it presents us with a challenge: what are we actually about?  Do our actions match our rhetoric?  Who do we really follow?


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Homily for Parish of Canning Retreat, 17-18 Nov 2007

Luke 10. 1-12, 17-20

I read the other day a comment that the best thing the church could do, if it really wanted to take mission seriously, would be to try to remember its own past. [1]  I don’t mean the good old days of the 1950s or 60s, when Sunday schools were overflowing and no matter what you did or didn’t do, parishes more or less worked because the Church as an institution was part of the fabric of society.  That’s the model of church that we call Christendom, Church as status quo, a largely unchallenged part of how life was lived by the great majority of folk.  No, this writer suggested we needed to look just a bit further back than that, to the very, very early Church, in fact, because there’s a surprising statistic.  In the year 200AD, by all the best estimates, there were about 20,000 Christians.  That’s in the whole world.  Admittedly, the population of the world was probably a bit smaller then but to put it in perspective we Anglicans reckon there’s about 10,000 of us, just in Perth.  But then a century later, 300AD, which is just before the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, so for this whole century the Christian church had been living under persecution – the population of the world had increased over that time by maybe six or ten percent, but the number of Christians had increased more than a thousand-fold, because in the year 300AD there were more than 25 million Christians in the world, which is more than the total population of Australia right now.  And this writer said, rather than looking around us now and saying, ‘what’s gone wrong’, maybe we should have a good look at what the church was doing back then and say, ‘what went right?’.

I’ve heard it argued that sort of comparison isn’t quite fair, after all, the apostles were super-men and women, it was the age of miracles, the Holy Spirit was still fanning the flames back then in the heroic age of the church.  They weren’t just ordinary folk like us, they didn’t have all the pressures of modern living.  What they did have was zeal – they actually believed that what they were saying about Jesus’ death and resurrection was the most important message the world had ever heard.  Except deep down we really do know that the apostles were not-so-super-men and women like Peter the fisherman and Mary of Magdala, like Polycarp of Smyrna, fairly ordinary folk who were a bit flaky half the time, reluctant heroes at best.  Deep down I think we also know that the age of miracles never did finish, and on a good day we’re pretty sure we believe that the message of Jesus Christ is pretty important to a hurting world as well.

But actually, we don’t need to go quite as far back as that at all.  We’ve got another pretty special textbook example a whole lot closer to our own time, which is the Church in mainland China after Mao Tse Tung came to power in the Cultural Revolution of the 1940s.  This was right when the Western Church was cooking on gas, and the Communist government in China said, ‘not here, you don’t’.  Every single bit of Church property was confiscated, priests and lay leaders, Sunday School teachers and missionaries were all rounded up and either expelled from the country, imprisoned or executed.  And then the Chinese government proceeded to impose one of the harshest and cruellest persecutions of Christians on historical record.  That lasted through till the death of Mao and the lifting of restrictions – some of them – during the 70s, and a few foreign missionaries cautiously went back into the country for a look.  They expected to find nothing at all, at best a few weak and furtive groups of Christians who had forgotten how to be a proper Church.  But what they did find was a Church that had flourished, a Church that now numbered about 60 million, a Church that was vigorous and energised.

And when I read these two examples last week I had to chuckle, because they’ve got something in common – they were both underground Churches, both Churches growing in hostile soil, both Churches without Church buildings meeting secretly for the most part in private houses, both Churches without formal clergy as we know them, without budgets, without even Bibles – the early Churches had hand-written copies of a few letters each, house Churches in China used to boast a page or so of the Scriptures each, swapping them around when they could – and the writer said, here’s the thing – the Church of God goes to sleep when it’s safe, loses its passion when it’s middle-class – the people of God forget the fire of the Holy Spirit when they’ve got too many well-fed priests doing their theology for them, forget the precious gift of the Holy Scriptures when they’ve got too many copies on the bookshelf.  Christians are just ordinary folk, whatever age we live in, we all get the collywobbles and the pressures of life take their toll on all of us.  But there’s something special we can’t overlook, so this writer, Alan Hirsch, said, and that’s like a sort of DNA the Holy Spirit has built into the Church – sometimes we lose sight of where it is and we feel like we can’t unlock the code any more, then other times when the resources are fewest and the threats are the gravest Christian women and men remember the gift of the Holy Spirit they’ve had all along.

I chose this reading from Luke’s Gospel for this morning because Bible scholars tell us it more likely represents the missionary practices of the very early Church, than the sending out of missionaries during the historical ministry of Jesus himself.  This passage isn’t even found in Mark, the earliest gospel.  And there’s something very particular about the number of missionaries that get sent – seventy, according to about half the early manuscripts, seventy-two, according to the others.  Which happens to be the exact same as the number of countries people thought there were in the ancient world – seventy, according to Hebrew manuscripts of the book of Genesis, seventy-two, according to the Greek Septuagint version.  In other words, go everywhere, ‘make disciples’, as Matthew’s gospel puts it, ‘of all the nations’.  So that’s the first thing about mission that we really need to notice, the universality, the idea of being sent not only into all the nations but all the cultures and sub-cultures of the city we live in.  Mission isn’t about waiting for other people to come to us, not even about putting on really, really interesting worship services with pop music and strobe lights and multimedia in the hope that the bright young people will all of a sudden want to come here instead of to a nightclub – mission is about being sent out of our comfort zone, about engaging with other people in their own territory and on their own terms.  Holding loosely to our own culture and learning someone else’s.  There’s a word for this aspect of what mission is about, and it’s called ‘incarnational’, because we understand that that is how God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ – God doesn’t wait for us to all of a sudden start understanding God’s language, but instead learns ours.

And the second thing to notice about this early Church version of missionary life is that you travel really light.  You live off the land, or more precisely, you accept the hospitality that’s offered along the way.  Don’t go taking any extra kit, not even the back seat full of books I brought with me this weekend just in case.  I think, to translate it into our own terms, the message is, ‘don’t rely on technology – don’t over-prepare or you’ll never get started – don’t think you have to be an expert or able to cope with every eventuality.  Mistakes are OK, and you can give yourself permission to make them.  Trust God, and trust in the goodness of the people you meet along the way because they too are made in God’s image.  Relationships are more important than research or equipment or methodology.  The most important thing is to build relationships and to learn to rely on them.

And then this story tells us the three most important building blocks of mission – which of course are also the three most important building blocks of our life as a Church.  Remember Jesus’ instructions to the seventy?  The missionary agenda was not very complicated – eat whatever they give you, heal the sick, and announce the kingdom.  These are like the three strands of the rope that when you plait them together are unbreakable.  Eat together - the age-old practice of turning strangers into brothers and sisters by the simple act of offering and receiving hospitality builds communities of mutual trust.  Heal the sick – attend to the physical needs of those who are marginalised and downtrodden, offer practical ways of healing and restoring health and integrity.  Proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God – the observation was once made to me that after church on a Sunday the one thing you’ll never hear Anglicans talking about is God.  Let’s overcome our awkwardness, take a risk, commend the faith that is in us.

Living incarnationally in the cultures and sub-cultures of our city; trusting in relationships and the attractiveness of God’s Holy Spirit rather than in buildings or traditions or strategies; plaiting the three stranded rope of hospitality, healing and the preparedness to give an account of ourselves as God’s people.  That’s it, really.


[1] Alan Hirsh, The Forgotten Ways: Re-activating the Missional Church, (2006, Strand Publishing, Sydney)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Remembrance Sunday

With thanks to the Rev’d Anne le Bas for her fine sermon for this day, which I have used as the starting point for mine …


I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself working in a noisy environment, as I did once when I worked in a car parts factory in Adelaide, without proper ear protection.  An hour or so into the shift you almost succeed in filtering out the heavy-duty clanging of metal on metal, it becomes a dull background roar that physically wraps around you like a cocoon while you work, preventing you from talking to anyone else, preventing you from even thinking straight, just locking you into your assigned task, which in my case was to machine within a .75mm tolerance one-third of the nation’s daily requirement of universal joints.  Even smoko and the half-hour meal break didn’t mean a break from the din because the meal room was just a wire cage in the middle of the factory floor, but at six o’clock in the morning, an hour before the day shift started, one by one we switched our machines off and the whole factory fell silent.  Have you ever heard a silence like that, a silence that’s made even more shockingly still by the clanging that’s still going on inside your head?

During the early months of 1919 an Australian journalist living in London suggested in an article published in the London Evening News that a mark of respect be shown to the millions of war dead on the first anniversary of the signing of the Armistice.  That first two minutes’ silence at 11am on the 11th of November 1919 was a profound echo of the silence exactly a year earlier, as the guns stopped firing all across the battlefields of France.  A silence that must have been almost physical in its intensity, overwhelming in its mixture of sadness and relief.  The silence of Armistice Day, as it was first called, that was, and in a sense still is, too raw to be appropriated by nationalistic myth-making, a silence that recalls, not the pride of young nations eager to get involved in dreams of Empire half a world away, or the endless raking over of ancient military defeats and victories, or the disturbing claim that our national identity was somehow forged in the churned up mud of France or on the beaches at Gallipoli – but the moment that enough men and women in enough nations of the world were appalled enough at what they had done to choose life instead of death – a silence in which, I like to think, we remember not the war to end all wars, but the moment of silence in which it ended.

In our reading from the prophet Micah, we hear another moment of silence from a battlefield no less devastating.  Seven hundred years or so before the birth of Jesus – a brutal time in a brutal world.  Assyria had become a mighty nation in part of what is now Iraq, breaking out across the ancient world and sweeping everything away before them, destroying without mercy and enslaving entire populations.  The northern kingdom had already fallen, and Micah records the invasion of Judah and the capture of 46 of its fortified towns.  Initially King Hezekiah of Judah manages to buy off the invaders but later, inexplicably, reneges on the deal.  Jerusalem, under siege, looks certain to fall.

 Sieges in the ancient world were actually no different to sieges in modern warfare.  Think Leningrad, under siege by the German Army during World War II for over 600 days – starvation, disease and despair used as instruments of foreign policy.  Like the prophet Jeremiah a century later when Jerusalem was besieged by the armies of Babylon, Micah believes the city will fall – he is politically and militarily realistic - and yet he quotes to us a poem of universal peace – refusing to scrabble for the false hope of military victory Micah instead dares to hope that things will not always be like this.  There will come a time, he insists, when God would create from this wasteland a new world, a world in which the nations would recycle the dreadful technology of war into implements of peace, a world in which human beings would invest their energy in the humble ambition of living unmolested on their own land and eating the food they have grown themselves.

So far it’s been a long wait.  The world we live in is no less grim than the world that Micah knew.  But here’s the thing – the act of hoping in the promises of God, the courage to live as though God’s promises are already true, is what transforms the world we live in, because it’s the act of hoping in the promises of God that transforms us.

So, how do we go about transforming swords into ploughshares?  Exactly twenty years ago today, on another Remembrance Day in a little village in Northern Ireland named Eniskillen, an IRA bomb claimed the lives of 11 people in a crowd gathered at the local war memorial.  The village was devastated – Eniskillen is one of those places where everybody knows everybody else – condolences of course flooded in from politicians and church leaders – you would think nothing would help the grief and anger of parents who had lost their children that day except revenge and punishment.  But from that village the response was quite different – out of their tragedy the townsfolk created the Spirit of Eniskillen Trust which still today works with young people in places all over the world where there is conflict and division.

Turning swords into ploughshares means taking something destructive and death-dealing, and transforming it into something creative and life-giving.  A sword kills: a ploughshare opens up the ground for seed to grow, to flourish and to multiply.  The ploughshare makes us more vulnerable, open to new possibilities – it seems like the riskier option but in fact it’s the only option that leads to new life.

As Christians, we see the very best example of turning swords into ploughshares in Jesus himself, who took the cross – an implement of torture and death – and turned it into a gateway to new life and hope, a
demonstration and a promise that God’s love is not defeated even by the
worst the world can do.  It’s always seemed to me that Jesus must have known what the most likely outcome would be of preaching a message of radical forgiveness and hospitality – empowering people who the system would rather stayed powerless was always going to lead to a sticky end – Jesus could have taken the safe option, tailored it just a little bit to appease the status quo but what he did instead was to accept the consequences of his own message, meeting evil with forgiveness and love and in the process, transforming it into a way of liberation for all.

No doubt, beating swords into ploughshares isn’t a job for whimps.  It’s a noisy, sweaty job, and it can get you into trouble.  And there’s always the sneaky suspicion that you might need that sword, later on.  You see, if we’re honest about it, we all have a few swords in the back of the wardrobe that we haven’t transformed into ploughshares yet.    We carry a few weapons of mass destruction around with us – our words and our attitudes that attack other people, our envy, fear or insecurity that lead us to cut other people down or to stay silent when others are attacked.  Christians do these things at least as well as other people.  There was another anniversary this last week, the 9th of November which is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass in 1938 when Nazi thugs set out to destroy Jewish shops and businesses.  Part of the tragedy in this, for Christian folk, is that the Church in Nazi Germany for the most part stayed silent, refused to take the risk of condemning violence and discrimination against the Jewish population.  I was appalled this week at the parallel, when I heard that the campaign platform of the so-called Christian Democratic Party includes a call for all Muslim schools in Australia to be closed, and no further planning approvals for mosques to be granted.  If we are silent in the face of these things, if we accept the stereotyping of others practiced in our name and refuse to condemn it as evil, then we are actually helping to plant the seeds of future conflict.  We look for the causes of war in great political events, the decisions of governments, but in reality they start much further back, in the small decisions that each of us make about the way we relate to those around us.

Just as war is our responsibility, something we put in motion here and now
in the small things we do, so also is peace.  Whenever we see that we are
hurting others and do something to set that right, we take something destructive and transform it into something positive and good.  Whenever we take the risk of opposing an injustice that we would rather ignore, we beat that sword into something that will bring life.  Whenever we look at another person and see the common humanity we share with them rather than the differences of culture or outlook that divide us we take one small step towards that world of peace that Micah longed for.

Right now, we hold in our hands the tools that shape the future for good or for ill.  It is up to us whether they are swords that bring death and despair or ploughshares that bring life and hope.



Saturday, November 03, 2007

All Saints' Day

Today we celebrate one of the church’s ‘big’ festivals, the feast of All Saints.  All through the year we have saint’s days, days dedicated to the memory of all the major saints and as many of the second drawer ones as we care to make a fuss of – why now another day dedicated to the whole lot?  I heard the theory once that it was just in case we forgot one along the way ...

Actually, All Saints is a lot more specific than we often give it credit for, a day for remembering the saints we don’t have names for but whose witness and sacrifice Christians in the early Church were all too aware of, a day set aside to remember and wonder at the meaning of the sacrifices made by thousands of women and men in the first dreadful couple of centuries as Christianity spread throughout the Roman world.  Most of these early martyrs were unknown, apart from the sometimes exaggerated stories we do have of the more important ones like Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna - at the age of 86 Polycarp was ordered to be burned alive after refusing the town magistrate’s pleas to deny his faith – inconveniently for the executioner once the wood was set alight the flames refused to harm the old saint, encircling his body without touching him – resorting to Plan B and running him through with a sword did the trick but released a fountain of blood that put out the fire altogether and called a halt to executions for the rest of the afternoon.  By the early seventh century, Christianity having become respectable and even compulsory throughout the Roman Empire, the Emperor Phocas turned over the site of much of the earlier mayhem, Nero’s Circus at the old Roman Pantheon, to Pope Boniface who promptly rebuilt it as a chapel for all the unsung heroes of the faith – ordinary folk, for the most part who not being bishops died less miraculously and more anonymously though just as cruelly.  And a century later another Roman Emperor decided on an annual date of remembrance – the first of November on the grounds that if we were going to have a horde of pilgrims every year it had better be after the harvest had been safely tucked away and we had enough bread to feed them all ...

So that’s the history of it – a day to remember the saints whose names never made it into the official lists.  We often take advantage of the anonymity of all this on All Saints Day by using it as an occasion for remembering the saints who have nurtured us or inspired us in our own faith and that’s a good practice because it reminds us that saints aren’t always super-heroes of holiness who met with sticky ends, in fact, in the New Testament the word isn’t associated with martyrdom at all, St Paul uses it as a name for all the people of God – the word ‘saint’ means one who is in the process of being sanctified, made holy by the death and resurrection of Christ.  In other words, being a saint isn’t a special honour reserved for super-Christians, it’s a job description for all of us.  But it’s a job description that comes with a sharp edge.  So I’m not so sure about taking All Saints as an occasion for singing the virtues of Saint Bob or Saint Ethel.  While it’s clearly a good thing to celebrate the virtues of a Christian life well-lived, and to give thanks for those who have inspired and nurtured us in our own lives, I think there might be a danger in that approach, if it means we make the saints of God sound a whole lot like us.

So what I thought I’d do this morning is to reflect on the gospel – always a good place to start, for a preacher!  And I think the first thing to notice is that the readings the church uses to remember the saints have never been ones that look backwards, for centuries they have been readings that look forwards, readings that show us how to become what God intends us to become, rather than just commemorating the holiness of somebody else that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve.  And the second thing to notice is that, hey, these probably aren’t the Beatitudes I’ve learned off by heart, they sound a bit similar to the more famous version in Matthew’s gospel but these ones when we stop and think about them are blunter and a whole lot more disturbing.  How do you possibly live by this stuff?  What was Jesus thinking of?  Because essentially what we have here is an instruction to live in a way that is exactly the opposite of what we would ordinarily think of as being in our best interests.

I think the point is that these words point us forward to a way of life that, deep down, we do recognise because it resonates with our deepest, God-given identity.  When we let these confronting words of Jesus soak into us, and recognise the discontinuity between the selfhood that God gives us and the reality that we live by, then in a sense we encounter the future as God sees it, and we can start to allow our present to be formed and to begin to grow into the shape that God wants it. 

And so Jesus recommends to us the virtue of poverty.

No mincing words as Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes does – no metaphorical blessing of the poor in spirit but a simple and straightforward announcement – just, ‘blessed are you who are poor’ – and its mirror-image, ‘woe to you who are rich, because you’ve had your lot!’.  In the Jewish tradition, blessing was very common, blessing someone or celebrating the blessing of an action or lifestyle was a way of calling a profound spirituality into an everyday setting. ‘Blessed are you for caring for that widow in the village’ was not just a compliment but a way of suggesting that your generosity connects you with the goodness and the grace of God.  We need to remember that in Jesus’ four beatitudes, he’s talking to real people in the villages around Capernaum. Crops failed. Fishermen didn’t bring home a catch. Illness rampaged unchecked. Early deaths left widows and orphans. Hunger and tears were the daily consequence of having little control over the circumstances of life.  Jesus is not an outsider in this world.  He knows these things at first hand.  And he knows that God is closer to people in poverty than he is to those in abundance. ‘Blessed are you, because you know you have option but to rely utterly on the mercy and love of God.  The very urgency of your need connects you with the God whose character is to be compassionate.’  And this, I think, is the real point - you can’t pronounce a blessing like that from a position of privilege – the comfortably off can only bless those who are stricken by showing God’s mercy in practical action – so by pronouncing a blessing on those whose lives are defined by hunger and sorrow Jesus himself enters into the heart of suffering and challenges us to follow him.

But it doesn’t stop there, and the other side of the coin is even sharper for we who live in our comfortable corner of the world two millennia later - ‘Woe to you who eat your fill and laugh – it’s a real warning to make the compassion of God part of our own character, because to live our lives insulated from the need of others is to cut ourselves off from the God who is the creative source of wholeness and healing.  God’s blessings are designed to flow in a circle, which means to live our lives trying to keep God’s blessings for ourselves is, paradoxically, to lose touch with them altogether.

And then Jesus summons for us another paradox.  ‘Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.’  It’s a teaching we see him practice, himself, when he prays on the cross for his executioners.  Of course, how many of the martyrs of the early Church who practiced this particular virtue is harder to tell.  Historically, Christians and so-called Christian countries haven’t been particularly good at this one.   Mahatma Ghandi, one of the world’s greatest practitioners of non-violence, once commented, ‘Everybody knows Jesus taught non-violence – except Christians’.  It goes against the grain.

Jesus isn’t telling us to be doormats.  Quite the opposite – I think he’s actually telling us we can choose how we react to the violence and inhumanity of the world around us.  Loving our enemies doesn’t mean failing to oppose unfairness or oppression, for example.  Entering creatively into the poverty and the suffering of others may at times mean taking a very strong position that’s at odds with the status quo.  As some courageous Christians opposed to our country’s engagement in the war in Iraq demonstrated, by travelling to Baghdad and remaining there during the initial shock and awe bombing campaign.

Ultimately, I think that practising sanctity – rehearsing saintliness, if you like, means to take a consistent God’s eye view of the world we live in.  It means opting for poverty instead of affluence, in other words, for getting out of our comfort zone, finding ways to engage with the needs and suffering of others rather than living defensively and self-protectively.  I have to ask myself if I’m up to the job.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Wedding homily for Rebecca and Aaron

Tomorrow, in the calendar of the church, being the first Sunday of November, we are celebrating All Saints – actually, All Saints actually is the first of November, but we celebrate it at St Michael’s on the closest Sunday.  So that makes it a “big” festival of the church, and the day on which, traditionally, preachers reflect that saints aren’t just the ones who lived lives of improbable holiness and came to sticky ends, in fact in the New Testament, St Paul calls all the people of God ‘saints’, so it’s really more of a job description for all Christians rather than a sort of spiritual OBE for super-Christians.

But because it’s All Saints’ tomorrow, and because Aaron and Rebecca have chosen two readings from St Paul’s letters that particularly talk about the ideal qualities of living together as Christians, I couldn’t help but reflect that the qualities the two of you are going to need to nurture in your marriage are pretty much the same qualifications you need to be a saint.  I’m not trying to suggest that Aaron and Rebecca, in particular, are the sort of people you’d need to be saintly to live with – in any case, in the spirit of St Paul, because he loves making lists of virtues, I’ve come up with my own list of virtues for married life, a wisdom that for my own part I’m still working on –

First, there’s happiness.  You might think no, happiness is what happens to you when you marry the right person, but I think it’s more complex than that.  Happiness isn’t a by-product of good fortune, it’s a virtue that requires years of patient practice.  Happiness is where you find it, not always where you look for it.  Cultivate happiness by doing worthwhile things together, by setting your sights on goals that matter, by practising courtesy and restraint and generosity toward one another and toward others.  And remember that your partner can’t make you happy – happiness is elusive unless you make a conscious decision to choose it and to practice it, but it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to one another.

And then, there’s love.  Rebecca and Aaron, I think it’s fairly obvious that you’re in love.  But from what I can see, your love for one another is something you haven’t given lightly, and I have been privileged to get a glimpse of how you’ve grown together in trust and in friendship, how you’ve learned to respect and honour each other.  You know, our culture teaches us to look at love and relationships through rose-coloured glasses – that everything’s going to be OK if you’re in love, the future’s going to just look after itself.  I’m not so sure about that.

The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote this to a young couple who were planning to get married —'It is not love that sustains your marriage, but marriage that sustains your love'.  I believe that to be profoundly true, because marriage is what the church calls a covenant.  You sometimes hear people talking about a marriage contract, as though it was a sort of legal transaction, but I reckon that’s a long way wide of the mark.  In a contract, you make a promise and maybe you exchange something of value.  But in a covenant, you don’t exchange anything. You give yourself.  That’s the difference.  A covenant says, "I am yours and you are mine."  Marriage is a covenant, and it’s grounded in a bigger covenant – the covenant between God and God’s people. There is something both powerful and enduring in a covenant made before God and before one another. That’s why the church says you don’t enter marriage lightly or without preparation.  Entering a covenant relationship means saying to one another, ‘for the rest of my life, you are going to be remembered in me’.

Then, I think, there’s acceptance, the grace of not putting conditions on one another.  To practice this virtue we need to remind ourselves that God loves us before we’re even remotely loveable.  This way of loving another person not because they’ve done something or changed in some way that we wanted them to, but just because we do love them – that sort of unconditional love that we learn from the way God loves us – becomes in the end the one safe place in the beloved’s life that actually transforms them profoundly because they’re accepted just as they are.  This is a major virtue for married saints.

The next one is wisdom.  In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, Wisdom is personified as God’s right hand girl in the act of Creation, subtle and fluid and un-pin-down-able but indispensable to rulers and lovers alike.  Not to be confused with intelligence or knowledge, true wisdom is a virtue acquired through years of discernment and patient observation.  Here’s a head start – the two of you are different!  Males and females think differently, our bodies and minds, our feelings and logics are different.  Devote yourselves to the wisdom of learning the ways of one another, expect your beloved to surprise and delight you, rejoice in the ways she or he confounds your expectations – be a patient scientist of the mystery and the secret strength of one another, and be ready to relearn from one another much that you thought you already knew.

And last on my list is the humble but foundational virtue of kindness, the grace of never taking one another for granted, of being careful with the raw and tender places in one another’s lives.  Rebecca and Aaron, I’ve seen you practicing this, over the years I’ve known you, and I have learned a great deal from you.  Remember that the flaws and the ancient hurts your partner carries are holy wounds, places of growth and healing where God’s Holy Spirit is most clearly visible.  Tread carefully in one another’s pasts, protect and nurture one another, encourage one another to grow in confidence and grace.