Friday, December 26, 2008

Holy Innocents

I remember a few years ago trying to find my way around in one of the grottier parts of our city, in Northbridge a few blocks over from the smart restaurant strip, leaving my car in a dubious-looking parking lot and trying to find my way through this part of the city that just seemed to be one gigantic building site – massive holes filled with concrete footings in between dilapidated 1940s era office buildings, warehouses and disreputable-looking shops.  It was one of those grey afternoons when the city streets act like wind-tunnels, and your eyes get filled with dust and grit, the gutters full of fast-food wrappers, the traffic was banked up and behind the wheel of every car sat somebody in a foul temper.  Pedestrians avoided eye-contact, walking quickly as though they’d rather be anywhere else other than where they were, or at least that was how I felt.  There was a constant noise of jackhammers and car horns, and to top it off I couldn’t find the address I was supposed to be going to. 

And then I saw what could only have been an angel.  It’s not as though there was no colour at all along the street, a few of the shops had window-boxes with tired-looking geraniums in them, and there were some scrappy trees along the footpath, but still, everything looked grey and depressed.  Or maybe it was just me?  I don’t exactly know.  But then I happened to catch a movement out of the corner of my eye, something fluttered that wasn’t a chip wrapper, and I saw this tiny butterfly, kind of scittering sideways because of the wind, all yellow and black and red and orange.  And it delicately landed on top of a parking meter and sat there flexing and stretching its wings.  Utterly out of place.  Utterly simple.  Utterly beautiful. Utterly fragile. Utterly different.  And it paused there just for a moment, while I gawked at it, and then it took off again, navigating uncertainly, straight up into the concrete canyon. 

And it seems to me that that is how God comes into the world.  Into the grottier parts of our lives and of our world.  Into the backstreets of Bethlehem, insignificant but much fought over, both then and now.  Born to a peasant family, pushed halfway across the country at the bureaucratic whim of an occupying power, arguably illegitimate, coming to rest for a brief and achingly beautiful moment before fleeing the murderous insecurity of another petty tyrant.

Utterly out of place.  Utterly simple.  Utterly beautiful. Utterly fragile.  Utterly different. 

So different, in fact, that I wonder if anyone really noticed.

Sure, we’ve had our Christmas lunches and our plastic Christmas trees and fake Santas, and maybe we’ve done the right thing with Kevin Rudd’s Christmas handout.  Personally, I ate far too many prawns and Christmas pud and fruit mince pies.  And I’ve had a marvellous time the whole last fortnight or so, singing Christmas carols at Bentley Hospital and Castledare and Agmaroy and here at St Michaels.  I’ve enjoyed the cuteness of our little nativity scene on our mantelpiece in the Rectory and the icicle lights and the poignancy of waiting through Advent even though I know how the story is going to turn out.  I feel like I’ve really ‘done’ Christmas this year.  And now here we are on the downward slope again, the season that the Church calls Christmas but the rest of us are already mentally on to the next thing, just counting down the 12 days before we can stick the fake Christmas tree back in its box.

Actually I read the other day, an editorial in The Australian, about the parents who insisted their child not receive any religious education at school because they didn’t want her little head filled with superstitious nonsense.  But then they complained to the principal because their little girl wasn’t allowed to go to the Christmas party.  Everybody knows, the parents wrote, that Christmas parties have got nothing to do with Jesus.

Well, maybe they’ve got a point.  All this partying and eating and spending up big.  All this goodwill, especially toward retailers who looked a fortnight or so ago as though they were going to miss out, but it turns out they’ve had a good one after all, $500 million more than last year, so all’s well that ends well.  It seems to me we’ve so loaded up the whole Christmas thing, that we’ve piled it up so high with paraphernalia and obligation and busy-ness that it becomes that city street all over again—our senses numbed by the sheer excessiveness of it all that we’ve effectively blinded ourselves to the simpleness of what God is actually trying to tell us, and show us.  The utter incongruity of a fragile butterfly descending on to a gritty, noisy city street. The utter incongruity, the sheer ephemeral fragility of a God who comes among us as a baby born to a homeless couple.  What sort of a sign is this, actually? 

And I think that’s why the church gives us today’s sobering counterpoint—right after Christmas day. There are actually three days after Christmas to recall the martyrs.  Stephen, John, and now, perhaps the hardest of all, the infants of Bethlehem.  What a shift of gear!  What a discordant note as the happy sounds of Christmas carols fade!  The murder of children.  The death of innocent babies.  Surely the lectionary writers could put today’s readings somewhere more appropriate – maybe somewhere in Lent when we’re already in a sombre mood?

It jars us back to reality.  Back to the world that we know so well.  Where children are the victims of the powerful.  Where they die from hunger, bombs, and disease so that those of us who have enough can enjoy the privilege of the artificial—happily numb to the reality around us.  Happily deaf to the cries of Zimbabwean and Congolese mothers over their children who are no more.  Happily oblivious to the fate of Aboriginal children in our own wealthy country born with a life expectancy 20 years less than the rest of us, children in remote communities as young as five suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. While we nostalgically sing of silent nights and kings and stars.

And so, just in time, the church reminds us that this infant is not some pretty dream to insert into our self-serving preconceptions.  That, quite to the contrary, this baby is a threat.  This good news—that God is with us—is dangerous. 

Herod the Great, first in the convoluted line of Herods celebrated in the Gospel stories, was actually sophisticated, intelligent, ruthless and amoral.  Just the sort of puppet king the Romans loved, in fact.  And Herod was right that the starry-eyed enthusiasm of the magi could only lead to trouble.  Schooled in the brutal realpolitik of the Roman Empire of the first century Herod understood only too well that this child—this potential king of the Jews—this Infant Jesus—threatened his power.  He understood that this delicate, fragile entry of God in the world had the potential of turning his kingdom on end. 

Because this child was a sign of a different kind of authority.  Authority not defined by power or the size of an army or the security of borders—rather authority defined by the tender compassion of God that hears the cry of Rachel weeping for her children.  Authority defined by smallness that, barely perceptible, catches us completely off guard.  Authority defined by weakness that terrifies the strong. 

Because this child is the sign of hope.  Dangerous, uncontrollable hope.  Hope that can see that this world isn't the way things have to be.  It is not God's will that power should come through violence.  It does not have to be that for me to have enough, someone in the developing world has to go without.  It does not have to be that to keep peace and prosperity and democracy innocent men and women and children have to be pushed into refugee camps.

And I know this because God comes to us as a child.  God intrudes into our ways of death with life—tiny, beautiful, fragile life.  With tiny hands and butterfly wings, much too small to make any practical difference at all, God touches the tears of Rachel weeping, and pleads with us in the words of the prophet Jeremiah—maybe there is hope for our future if we can just allow the sound of her weeping and the softness of her tears to melt our hard hearts.

But we are too easily frightened by our own security.  We are disturbed by this God breaking open our priorities and pointing us to something different—something terrifying and holy and new. 

And in our fear, this tiny, fragile life is shattered on the cross.  God’s hands nailed to the cross, over and over again, all through history and into our own time and our own world.  But here’s the most powerful lesson of all.  With butterfly wings and wounded hands, this fragile life proves more indestructible than the most powerful violence of this world.

Something has changed in our world for ever.  A mutant strain of beauty has been sown.  A beauty - fragile as a butterfly - that resists the age-old truth that the possible and the permissible are defined by concrete and exhaust fumes and petrodollars.  And there is hope for your future, says the Lord.  Amen.


One of my very favourite movies of all time is the 1980s classic, ‘Groundhog Day’.  Actually, the first couple of times I tried to watch it, it felt like Groundhog Day, because I never got to see the end – the first time it was an old videotape that collapsed and died halfway through, I think the next time was when it came on TV and there was a power blackout halfway through, the next time after that I settled down to watch Groundhog Day I got called away halfway through.  It seemed to go with the theme, Bill Murray as a self-centred TV cameraman doomed to relive the same day over and over again, never quite getting lucky with Andy MacDowell, groaning with despair every morning when the radio alarm comes on with the same cheesey song and realising that it’s still Groundhog Day, he’s still trapped in his own private time-loop, the exact same trivial, pathetic, silly, sad and tragic events are going to happen in the exact same sequence as they did the day before and there’s nothing he can do to change it.  And I think it’s a feeling that resonates with our own real-life experience, we all feel like that sometimes, stuck in a groove that we can’t get out of – we know just what it’s like for the character stuck in time because we’ve all been there in one way or another – and I know I’m right because it’s not so very often that the title of a movie instantly becomes part of the language – it’s even in the Macquarie Dictionary, in fact, just groan and say to the person next to you, ‘oh I can’t stand it, the same Christmas sermon every year, it’s Groundhog Day’ and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

And actually, if you’re feeling like that then good, because what I want to suggest is that it actually is Groundhog Day.  The whole Christmas bit, and not just the churchy bits either – the Christmas shopping, what on earth to get for Aunty Ethel, working out whose turn it is in the extended family to have the crowd around for Christmas lunch, the excess of tinsel, fairy lights and nativity scenes, the same corny Christmas movies on TV, the round the world sailors needing rescuing all over again by the Australian navy, the kids getting tired and emotional, eating too much chocolate and finally – blessed relief – the Boxing Day Test starts tomorrow, silly season finally arrives and we can all go to sleep. 

The whole point about Groundhog Day is the external circumstances don’t change.  It’s a little American country town re-enacting a small-town ritual at the end of winter, the day the groundhog wakes up and has a look around and decides whether spring’s really here yet.  And because Bill Murray’s stuck in time, every day the groundhog decides it isn’t spring yet, and goes back to bed.  And every day the same thousand and one things that happen in a little town happen.  People fall in love, people hurt and humiliate one another, lies get told and dishes get dropped, appointments get forgotten, hopes get dashed, somewhere a homeless person dies of cold, a child falls out of a tree, somebody writes a poem.  And I guess in the movie the reason Bill Murray has to keep reliving the same day is that none of this stuff matters to him.  People don’t touch him.  He just doesn’t notice the beauty and the sadness of what’s happening all around him every single day.  And so it keeps happening, over and over again, in the exact same sequence, until he does start to notice, and until it starts to dawn on him that the one thing that actually has to change, is him.

It seems to me that every year of my life, Christmas – or at least the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, has been a time of waiting for something to happen.  At first it was about waiting for Father Christmas to come, and knowing how important it was to have clean fingernails on Christmas night, putting out the fruit cake and glass of cordial and trying desperately to get to sleep because you knew he’d never come while you were awake  And somehow that got all mixed in with waiting for baby Jesus, and feeling the suspense as the little family made their way to Bethlehem and looked for the room we knew wasn’t there – and knowing that somehow, the safe arrival of this little baby made all the difference, that the world was a better place for children and shepherds and wise men alike, because God loved and trusted the world enough to allow his Son to be born in it.

But at some point in my life I found myself reflecting on the fact that the world wasn’t going to be a safe place for baby Jesus, and that God must have known his Son was being born into a world that didn’t want to hear his message of forgiveness and love – and it seems to me that by daring to be vulnerable God was really, really asking for it.  And that the world we live in still hasn’t got the point of that original Christmas Day, because it’s still not a safe place, and the same trivial, pathetic, silly, sad and tragic events keep happening.  And maybe, like me, you find yourself asking, ‘why is that, God?’  Why do you keep doing Christmas, every single year, why keep offering us the hope of Christmas Day when you know very well that it hasn’t changed anything yet?  And for me one of the bittersweet rituals of Christmas is to think about the stuff that happens because men and women haven’t got the point yet, or because we don’t know how to stop being the way we are, or because we feel powerless to make any difference.  And to ask God to do something about that.

And when we gather it up, there’s quite a collection of stuff to put under the tree this year.  Stuff about our world that we’d like baby Jesus to make right, if only we thought he could.  The same collection of wars and famines we have most years, in fact, lots of them are the same wars and famines.  Ones we forget about because they’ve been going on so long they become like a sort of background noise that we screen out.  Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka.  A really good Christmas present would be for human beings to try to work out ways of solving problems that didn’t involve killing each other.  Sudden natural disasters: an earthquake and tsunami in Burma, an earthquake in China that remind us that the planet we live on is alive and sometimes unpredictable.  The slow-motion crisis of global warming, species extinctions, climate change and water shortages that challenges us to change the ways we live or else imperil the generations that follow us.  The collapse of global financial markets that reminds us that greed isn’t good, after all, that the unsustainable pursuit of wealth has got real-world consequences.  The scandal of homelessness in our own lucky country, where over 10,000 people sleep rough every night of the year.

What’s baby Jesus going to do with that little lot?

It seems to me that in the birth of Jesus, God is trying to drop us a couple of very broad hints about who we are, and who God is.  Because, first of all, it’s a very intimate message.  God, it turns out, isn’t remote, isn’t some set-and-forget deity up there in the sky who vaguely wants the best for the world, but one who takes the risk of being part of the world on its own terms in order to have a real relationship with us.  And what that tells us is that there’s a connection between God’s life and our own lives.  It’s a message that says: ‘this is how much I love you’.  But even more than that, it’s a message that says ‘this is how I operate’.  It’s what we might call the principle of incarnation.  The principle that God makes a difference in the world, not by being all-powerful, but by being vulnerable.  A God who typically chooses to work through human hands and human hearts.  And who keeps on confronting our humanity until we notice.

In Groundhog Day it takes Bill Murray thousands and thousands of incarnations.  Thousands of Groundhog Days, each one mind-numbingly the same as the one before.  Until gradually, he starts to notice that the meaning of his own life is connected with the lives of everyone else stuck in the time-loop with him.  And as soon as he gets the point, as soon as he begins living face-forward to the future, oriented toward hope, then time starts travelling in the right direction again.  And he does then get lucky with Andy MacDowell, but that’s probably just a fringe benefit.

And that, I think, is what the message of Christmas is all about.  It’s not remote, it’s personal.  It’s about the connection between God taking on the weakness and the vulnerability of our humanity, and us learning to look at the suffering of the world through the eyes of God.  About us working out that the one thing that needs to change, is us.  That the shopping list of what’s wrong with the world has got something to do with how we live, and what we live for.  About us learning the principle of incarnation that says: God still works through human hands and human hearts.  Ours.

And the wonder of Christmas is that, like Groundhog Day, we get to keep reliving it, over and over again, until we get it.


Advent 3

A lady who taught Sunday School once told me about how she had been trying to get the kids to think about heaven – ‘If I had a garage sale and sold everything I had and gave the money away to poor people, do you think that would get me into heaven?’, she asked. ‘No’, they assured her with confident shakes of the head. ‘Tough crowd’, she thought to herself.  ‘Well, what about if I came to church every day and made cups of tea for everybody and helped out at the Op Shop, would I get into heaven then?’  ‘No way!’ they told her, quick as a flash.  ‘Well, what about if I took in lots of stray cats and dogs and was kind to kids?’  ‘Still no!’, they all said, without even thinking about it.  ‘Well’, she said, ‘how can I get into heaven?’.  ‘Silly!’, a smarty-pants little girl told her condescendingly.  ‘You can’t get into heaven unless you’re dead’.

Our Advent lessons lead us to thinking in terms of absolutes.  Isaiah especially, the prophet of the grand vision and the big picture.  Sin and salvation, judgement and vindication.  If we’re not thinking uncomfortably about our own moral shortcomings during the four short weeks of Advent, then we’re obviously not listening.  And to be honest, most of us probably hear the message in fairly individualistic terms.  If we’re being saved, then what from?  God’s punishment, perhaps, the just desserts of our own sinfulness?  Or somebody else’s sinfulness, a divine rescue mission to pluck God’s faithful people out of the swamp of contemporary Godlessness and moral relativism?  And what does salvation mean for us?  Getting to heaven?  Of course for many Christians that’s exactly what it’s all about.  And the work of evangelists and preachers is about convincing as many people as possible to get with the program, get as many people as possible into heaven before they close the doors.  Except that if we stay at that level of the story then - as the kids pointed out to my friend - the one essential prerequisite is to be dead.  The problem with the Christian story if we focus on the afterlife is that we end up not thinking seriously about the shape of the world we actually live in.

And so, by week three, we need to start listening carefully to what the prophets are actually saying.  Because both Isaiah and John the Baptist – and for the first time this week, also Mary of Nazareth, in the song of praise Luke puts in her mouth as her response to an angel’s good news – all of them are talking this morning about salvation.  And guess what?  None of them are talking about heaven.  All of them are talking about salvation as God’s priority for the world that we live in, salvation as a wake-up call, something that should be galvanising us into action in the here and now.  Salvation as nothing less than the in-built bias of God for human freedom – freedom from hunger, freedom from oppression, freedom from injustice.  The sort of salvation that, let’s face it, sounds a whole lot more enticing to the final year apprentice whose boss has just told him he’s being laid off because of the recession we didn’t have to have.  Or the self-funded retiree who has just seen her retirement savings halve in value because of the global share-market crash.  Or the Zimbabwean mother whose daughter is lying in a makeshift hospital with cholera caused by the Mugabe regime’s wilful destruction of the basic protections of an entire population.

Actually, there’s no avoiding it.  Isaiah, or to be more precise, the third big chunk of this prophetic text that spans a number of centuries and different episodes in the story of God’s people – the so-called ‘third Isaiah’ – is talking to people who barely remember the heady days of liberation from exile – the return of the captives was celebrated in Isaiah chapter 40, in our reading last week – and this week we’ve swung forward to a later period, a period when God’s people are stagnating, when the excitement of homecoming no longer has the power to sustain the imagination and God’s people are living in the doldrums of a half-finished Temple and the reality of being an economic and geo-political basket-case, and they’re asking, ‘is that all?’ – and in response the prophet starts talking about justice, and the recognition of human need, and that oft-misused word, ‘righteousness’, which means to live within the circle of covenant relationships that give life.  ‘My job’, the prophet says – whether speaking of himself or the one who is to come it hardly matters, because later Jesus is going to pick up exactly the same phrase and apply it to himself – my job is about setting people free to really live – and that’s good news for people who are used to being bullied – it’s good news for people crippled by passivity or negative self-image, or by the controlling agendas of those with more power.  The priority of God for relationships that give life – the prophet announces – means that we experience God’s blessings in our lives to the extent, and just as soon, as we start living as a blessing for others.  The transformation that you yearn for – that happens just as soon as you start living like a transforming community.

And then onto the stage steps Mary of Nazareth.  We’re going to hear a little more about Mary over the next few weeks, we know that.  And when we get there, to the stable in Bethlehem, there’ll be so many babies and animals and so much hay that we run the risk of overlooking what’s so special about this pregnant peasant girl setting out on an epic journey across Palestine on the back of a donkey.  So the lectionary gives us this snippet today, and Mary of Nazareth who, to be sure, starts out praising God for choosing her to be the vessel for bringing God’s salvation into the world, telling a story of meekness and radical dependence on God’s promises – abruptly shifts a gear and starts sounding a whole lot like the Isaiah of chapter 61, also a whole lot like the feisty Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel who anointed King David.  And if we read Mary’s song as just a reflection about personal salvation, God’s noticing of Mary despite the poverty of her personal circumstances, then we miss half the message.  Because, as feminists used to say back in the fiery 60s, the personal is the political.  Mary signs on to the big themes of Isaiah – justice, the radical reversal of the world’s status quo – and the point is that the personal and the political go together, the great work of justice and compassion that Mary of Nazareth tells us is God’s number one priority necessarily involves us in personal transformation if we dare to get on board.

We know it’s the exact same message that Jesus picks up, and the key to understanding Jesus’ whole message and his whole career.  Too often, though, the Church has missed the point, selling salvation as the other side of the coin of personal sinfulness.  For the people these prophets were talking to, salvation meant somebody being prepared to stick up for the underdog, salvation meant radical fairness, and that’s what it still means today.  And in the picture Luke gives us of Mary’s response we see the simple contrast between the truth and a lie – God’s peace, God’s salvation that depends on radial self-giving love, versus the lie that props up Rome and every status quo ever since – peace as the result of power and conformity.

And so to John – the baptiser, that is, not the Gospel writer – who today announces his job to bear witness to the light that enlightens all things.  Not for this Gospel the confronting demand for personal repentance but the more nuanced image of light that lights the way for everyone – not the false light of Empire that’s just illuminating for the top end of town, for mining magnates or Telstra executives.  And in a direct challenge to the myth of Empire, John claims that this light is made known in a human being, one whose life grows out of God’s own life so intimately that we recognise the light of God shining through him – not the Emperor Augustus who calls himself the Son of God because he has the power to, but Jesus, who is the Son of God because he gives form to the promise of God’s salvation.  And perhaps we recognise that that’s the way it has to be – that salvation, which is the lived experience of God’s priorities – can only come to us and be enacted for us in the flesh and blood actuality of a single human life.

Far from needing us to be dead first, as the price of entry, salvation starts to look like a game for the very much alive.  A game in which God needs us to provide the hands and the heart, to be God’s daughters and God’s sons, the ones who give shape to the priorities of God in our own church, our own community and our own time.  The question is, are we up to it?  Is that the good news we actually want to live by?


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reign of Christ

Does anybody know the Robert Frost poem that starts, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’?   It seems we human beings are a tribal lot – psychologists tell us our almost universal tendency to set up divisions between insiders and outsiders helps us to see the world as orderly and even safe.  If I work out that there’s two sorts of people in the world, and I’m one of the right sort, then that’s OK.  Well, this morning we hear about the ultimate distinction – you’re either a sheep or you’re a goat.

Maybe you’ve already noticed that there’s a connection between this passage and Jesus’ very first speech in Matthew – the beatitudes – because in both of them he makes some fundamental contrasts that turn the world’s priorities upside down – in both the beatitudes and today’s gospel Jesus tells us that the standard for salvation isn’t whether we’ve got the right set of beliefs, but whether or not we show mercy – whether or not we’re willing to cross the dividing line between the people the world approves of and the people the world disapproves of.  ‘Guess what?’, Jesus seems to be saying to us, ‘none of the divisions and none of the categories that the world thinks are important actually matter at all’ – so here’s the hint that if Jesus is a king, then he’s not your usual sort of king.  In fact if he’s a king at all, then this controversial rabbi who scandalises religious folk by the scruffy and questionable company he keeps – if he’s a king at all, then Jesus is the king of the beggars.

But there’s a contradiction in all this – the problems I had with last week’s readings are continuing, because right in the middle of demolishing the divisions of this world, Jesus seems to be setting up a new outsider group in the next world!  In this world you might be part of the ‘in’ crowd, but watch out, because on Judgement Day you’re going to be a goat and you’ll be ‘out’.  You’re ‘out’ now, but don’t worry, because later you’ll be a sheep and that’s good, because you’ll be ‘in’.  And I think that’s a problem because this passage seems to contribute a whole lot to the wonky image of God that I spoke about last week, the split personality image of God – on the surface a genial, Father Christmas character who really wants the best for us in a vague sort of way, but who deep down is really just waiting for us to make a wrong move so he can cast us out into eternal hellfire.  And whose demands, when it comes down to it, are the next best thing to impossible.  You know, that’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s not so far removed from the sort of image that a lot of people have, and it does a lot of damage – for a start, when we have a picture of God as being judgemental and vengeful, then it’s hard to act towards other people in ways that are forgiving and loving.

You have to wonder, too, whether the Jesus who eats, not only with prostitutes and tax collectors, but with Pharisees as well – the Jesus who stands on the side of the woman caught in adultery – how good a prosecuting attorney is this guy really going to make!  Much more in character, I reckon, is the imaginative vision in the first letter of Peter of Jesus going to be with sinners in hell on Easter Saturday, in between dying on the cross and rising again, choosing to be with the very ones who have made the choice to close their hearts to God.  It’d be a problem for the sheep too, wouldn’t it – I mean, talk about do-gooders! – this lot have fed every hungry person they ever saw, given a couple of bucks to every down-and-out they ever came across, regularly visited the local hospital and the local jail, helped out at the local soup kitchen.  Now they’re expected to trot happily off to their eternal reward while the goats end up as kebabs?  I don’t think so – if the sheep are as selfless as all that they’d be all for solidarity – ‘we’ll go with them’ – and so, I believe, would Jesus the Good Shepherd.

I read a while ago about a group of elderly nuns, discussing this passage from Matthew’s gospel, and someone wanted to know how you could be sure whether you were on the right side.  So the person leading the discussion asked for a show of hands – maybe we might do it here, too [1]

How many of you, even once in your life, have ever done what Jesus asks at the beginning of this passage and fed a person who was hungry, or given clothing or blankets to a family in the cold months, or visited somebody in prison or hospital?  That’s great – you are all sheep.

How many of you, even once in your life, have ever walked past a homeless person and not offered help, or have known somebody in hospital or jail and not visited when you could have?  That’s not so good – you’re all goats.

And this is the whole point – every single one of us is a sheepish goat - or a goaty sheep – our goodness and our failures are all mixed up together so that it’s impossible to really untangle it, and that, I think, is part of what it means to be human.  We spend our time trying to divide the world into two kinds of people, trying to convince ourselves that we’re the right kind, when the reality is that the world doesn’t divide that easily, and the sheep and the goats both represent our own personal experience.  The reality is that it is we who are divided, and we both pass the test and fail it at the very same time.  What’s God going to do with that?

The key to all this, I think, is to fast-forward the story just a little bit – because in Matthew’s time-line we’re still on the wrong side of the cross, the pre-Easter side.  The key to understanding the king-ship of Christ is the cross.  Actually, this day in the church calendar that we call ‘ the Reign of Christ’ is a very recent tradition started by Pope Pius IX in 1925 as a protest against the arrogance of fascism, and a reminder that there is only one authority that really matters.  Yet what sort of kingship is it that doesn’t have any of the trappings of worldly authority or power, the sort of kingship that’s on the side of beggars and prostitutes, and ends up being executed as a common criminal?  Well, it’s an upside-down sort of kingship, but it’s also a kingship that’s based on a completely different view of what power is about.  In the world we live in, a less than perfect sort of peace is maintained by dividing the world into those who matter and those who don’t, between us and them, goodies and baddies – and power is exercised from the inside out – that is, to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in.  In Jesus, God shows what a different idea he has of power – you might call it relational power, the power to demolish the false divisions of the world by coming amongst us as an outsider, by giving himself up to the violence and the hatred of our competitive human power, at the very same time as loving and forgiving us.  Jesus’ sort of power is the power to reconcile what the world holds to be irreconcilable, the power to heal the false divisions within us and between us.  The kingship of Christ is the power to join together what we can’t join, to make the divided reality of human existence whole and complete.

So what if the story of the last judgement ends like this:

All the nations and all of history is gathered before him in that in-between and timeless space that’s neither life nor death, and the king asks which among them have seen him in the face of the homeless and the hungry and the condemned of this world – and with one voice they reply that yes, they have seen him there, they remember that when they most showed compassion that was where they found the Son of Man.  And so he places them all on his right hand.

And then the king asks which among them were sometimes too busy or too self-preoccupied or too afraid or in a hurry, or which among them didn’t want to get involved, and didn’t stop and look into the face of the Son of Man lying drunk on the footpath or sleeping rough at the railway station.  Which of you closed your hearts to me when it really mattered?  And they all say yes, that was them sometimes, too.  Sorry.  And so they shuffle over to the left hand side.  Some of them try to stand more or less in the middle.

Well, says the king, you know the score.  As much as you did this to the least of these little ones, you did it to me.  You were created with the freedom to choose, and what you’ve chosen is to turn away from what gives you life.  Over and over again, you’ve chosen death over life.  I have to accept the integrity of your choice.  I’m sorry.  But then the king steps down and joins them and says, ‘But if I really am king of the beggars, then clearly I belong with you lot.  Haven’t you worked it out yet, that nothing you can do will ever separate you from my love?  So I think I’ll hang about.  We’ve got as long as it takes.  Then, when you’re ready, we’ll rise together on Easter morning.’


[1] Matthew, Sheila and Dennis Linn, Good Goats: Healing our image of God, (1994, New York, Paulist Press).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Pentecost 27A

I’ve heard it said that the Church of the early 16th century – the Church that in a few years was going to be torn apart by the Protestant reformations – that as the new century dawned the Church was essentially a cult of the living in the service of the dead.  Saying mass for the souls of the dead was big business, in fact, literally business, because the economy of the Church also depended on the big sums of money that changed hands in exchange for a certain number of Masses to be said for the soul of a loved one.  The idea, more or less, was that each time somebody had Mass said for them that was a little bit of credit to their account, a little bit to balance out the difference between the bad they had done and the good they had done in their lives, a few years off Purgatory.  It was a cult of high anxiety that is maybe hard for us to fully comprehend - the next world loomed every bit as tangible but at the same time just as precarious as this world – to be fair, Europe had just emerged from a most horrible couple of centuries, beginning with the Black Death in the early 14th century, wars with a resurgent Islam to the East and the Inquisition.  For the illiterate and poor majority, it seemed, life was a short and desperate struggle to accumulate enough brownie points with God to see you safe after you died.

It was in this topsy-turvy world that a monk named Martin Luther had one of the revelations that happens every few centuries and turns the Church on its head.  You might think we’re about due for another one in our own, also fairly frightful, century.  But Luther, a diligent and ascetic monk who worried even more than everyone else whether he was going upstairs or downstairs, had a sudden flash of inspiration from reading and re-reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans.  It isn’t about what you do, he realised.  It isn’t works that put you right with God.  It’s faith.  You can’t earn your way to heaven. 

Actually, it was a back to basics message that millions, ever since, have found reassuring.  A focus on scripture. A focus on God’s grace, totally gratuitous, totally unearned.  At its very heart, the message of Martin Luther was simplicity itself.  Don’t worry.  God’s got you covered.

Unfortunately it wasn’t very long, in the overall scheme of things, before Protestantism began to develop some performance anxiety of its own.  If it’s all about faith – how can I be sure I’ve got enough?  It seems like it’s human nature to worry.  It’s human nature, perhaps, to be anxious about what’s going to happen to us when we finally meet Jesus face to face.  And so the rumours that began to trickle in last week get a bit louder.  He’s coming back!  No, really, says St Paul in the early, alarmist version of his gospel in the first letter to the Thessalonian Church.  Any day now.  Don’t let him catch you napping.  And you know he knows who’s been naughty and nice.

Well, St Paul was a little bit out on his timing and Jesus’ return performance.  We’re still waiting, and the Bible still keep reminding us we need to be just a bit more worried about what we’ve been up to while he’s been gone.

In our gospel reading we heard the very familiar story from Matthew’s gospel of the three servants who are given large sums of money to look after while their master goes on holidays.  Older translations of the Bible use the word ‘talent’ which in the original Greek means a large weight of silver or some precious metal – and that’s always given this story a certain ambiguity because where in the original it’s about enormous, lottery-sized sums of money, in the English version it sounds as though it’s about abilities, the talent for playing music or writing poems.  And preachers get something useful out of that – the message becomes something like ‘don’t waste your God-given abilities’ – even if you think you only have one or two talents, God intends you to use what you’ve got.  And that’s an OK message, but it overlooks the main point, which is that Jesus is talking about our accountability before God at the end of all things – and in the story what the servants are entrusted with is not the ability to crochet or talk in foreign languages – but huge, over-the-top amounts of money.  And this story follows another well-known story, last week’s story about the girls who miss the party because they run out of oil.  So if the first story tells us to say alert, and today’s story tells us we are accountable for what we’ve done.  Alert and alarmed!  Taken at face value this story says something like, ‘don’t get caught out playing it safe – the stakes are too high’.  Well, that’s one level of meaning in the story, and the fact that the sums of money are so huge – in one commentary it is estimated that a talent might be worth up to half a million in today’s terms – so that begs the question, doesn’t it – what have we as disciples been given that is so valuable?  If we’re not talking about crocheting, and we’re not talking literally about how much we’ve got in the bank – then what is Jesus saying is this wealth that we have been entrusted with?  And when you say it like that then the answer pops out by itself – the treasure that we have as disciples is the gospel itself – it is the good news of Jesus Christ, and it is the indwelling inspiration and the creative power of the Holy Spirit.  As disciples we should be busting with it, we should be splashing it around like a high-roller down at the casino, the last thing we should be doing with it is hoarding it away for safe keeping.  Like all of Jesus’ stories, this one uses wild exaggeration to make the point – discipleship doesn’t mean living defensively and hoarding away spiritual brownie points, it means taking the risk of living and loving joyfully.

But there’s a problem, and I think this problem has got something to do with the anxiety I have been talking about.  Because in the ancient world there was really only one way to double your money, if you were a landowner, and that was to turn the screws a bit harder on the peasant farmers that worked your land.  It’s not so very different today except we call it short-selling.  The only way the first two slaves can meet their master’s demands for a huge profit and make a bit extra for themselves is by creating a bit more misery and hardship down the line – but the third slave – who refuses to take that option – simply gives the master back what belongs to him.  The third slave who knows very well what his master is like is thrown out to join the peasant farmers he has refused to exploit – but is the ruthless master in this story really supposed to be an image of the loving, generous and forgiving God that Jesus has been telling us about?  If our image of God is anything like this nasty character, no wonder we’d be anxious!  Have we done enough – could we ever do enough - to please him?

And the problem I think is that many of us do have an image of God that’s like this character.  A punishing image of God, an image of a God who’s just waiting for us to put a foot wrong and then – wham!  In fact for many Christians God is a schizoid sort of character, one minute behaving like a jovial Father Christmas, whose sole purpose seems to be to give us whatever we ask for, and the next minute turning nasty, punishing us for some cosmic infringement we didn’t even know we had committed.  No wonder Christians are caricatured as anxious and guilty.

But like all Jesus’ stories – none of which we should take literally! – this one can mean different things depending on which way around we turn it.  I think the clue might be right in front of us if we just read the very next thing that Jesus says, the gospel reading in fact for next week – ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ – we already know, don’t we, that in the way he lives Jesus identifies himself not with the profiteers but with the ones who live ‘in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ – and when we do find ourselves excluded or pushed out because of our love for the gospel, then we discover that Jesus is there ahead of us.  If we dare to look at the story this way around, then maybe it is the third slave who represents Jesus himself – rejected and discarded because he refuses to accept the logic of worldly power.  If this story is about accountability – and no doubt it is - then maybe it’s about our being accountable for whether we have dared to resist the false and anxiety-producing, self-serving logic of the world we live in.  Looking at it this way around, Jesus says to us ‘don’t be afraid, for it is my Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Wherever you end up for my sake, I will be there ahead of you’.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Pentecost 26A

I wonder if you’ve ever seen one of those T-shirts that’s got a message on the front: ‘Jesus is Coming!’, and then when the wearer of the T-shirt walks past and you can’t resist peeking at the other side, it says: ‘Look Busy!’.  Or else it says, on the back, ‘And Boy, is He Mad!’

Yes, folks, today is the day for squirming in your seats.  Today both of our readings from the New Testament warn us to get ready to meet Jesus in person.

A few years ago the ‘Left Behind’ series of thrillers by Tim La Hayes made a huge impact in some Christian churches.  There even seemed to be some confusion as to whether these books were truly fictional, as the writer claimed, or maybe some sort of prophesy of the much-fantasised End Times.  Believers worked themselves into a perfect lather of excitement about the Second Coming, mixed up with a not-so-healthy dose of fear.  Will I be amongst the chosen few?  And for those of us who fail to make the grade, for those of us who don’t get whisked away in the Rapture, leaving our cars driverless on the freeway, the Second Coming of Jesus looked like very scary stuff indeed.

But as you’ve probably already worked out, I don’t take that sort of speculation too seriously.  I’m not impressed by the sort of supposedly Christian writing that tries to alarm people into believing as a sort of insurance policy.  I definitely agree with the idea that we need to be ready to encounter Jesus in the here and now – I think we need a bit more of that sense of urgency, in fact – but books like the Left Behind series have got a whole lot more to do with Hollywood than with the Bible, in my opinion.

One problem with this sort of speculation is that it is self-centred.  Like the pre-Copernican belief that the sun revolved around the earth, this sort of speculation depends on reading obscure passages in the Bible as being prophesies about us and our own time, 21st century time, rather than cryptic political comment or interpretation of current events happening in the here and now for the writer’s own community.  And when we do that, when we read the Bible as though it were a sort of riddle to be solved, we forget Jesus’ own warning: "No one knows the day or the hour -- not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son, but only the Father." [1] And the second reason – an even more serious reason – not to pay too much attention to this sort of speculation, is that it seems to forget who exactly it is that we are expecting to encounter.

It’s hard to read the gospels, I think, without drawing the conclusion that, all things considered, Jesus was a bit of a disappointment to friends and enemies alike.  By that stage there’d been hundreds of years of speculation that when the Messiah does appear, he’s not going to take any nonsense.  Watch out if you happen to be one of the long list of foreign nations who took turns invading and occupying Judea – you’re going to be sent off with a flea in your ear for a start.  Watch out, too, if you happen to be a bit lax with your religious observances, the Messiah isn’t going to stand for any of your laziness or hypocrisy.  And time and again, it seems, Jesus disappoints his disciples who have come to believe that he really is the one sent by God, but who can’t get their heads around the fact that Jesus’ agenda isn’t the one they expected. 

Because the sort of Messiah they were expecting wasn’t Jesus, but someone a bit more like Arne Schwarzenegger in ‘The Terminator’.  Or a military hero like Alexander the Great.  Unfortunately, Jesus has got other ideas.  Jesus’ idea of showing us what God’s reign is about is to tell stories, to touch and to heal, and to share food with people, especially the poor and the sick and ne’er-do-wells who decent folk avoided.  So far from chasing the Romans out of town, Jesus instead lets himself get chased out of town and onto a Roman cross.

And that’s the biggest problem with these seriously scary versions of the Second Coming, like ‘Left Behind’.  Because, what sort of Jesus are we really going to encounter at the Second Coming?  Actually, that’s not such a hard question to answer because Jesus already did appear in the middle of his uncomprehending disciples for a second time, and that’s the event we call Easter.  And when he did come back for the second time, what was he like?  What did he do?  He walked with them, he listened to their disappointments and their fears, he opened the scriptures to them, he forgave them and encouraged them and he cooked them breakfast.  Still refusing to behave like a proper, Arne Schwarzenegger, kind of Messiah.  Still seems to think his job is to make broken people whole.

And anyway it seems to me we’re not even waiting here for the Third Coming, because that’s already happened too, and the Fourth and the Fifth, and about the Trillionth.  Because if we’re going to take Jesus seriously when he talks about coming among us again, we also need to believe him when he says to us, “whenever there are two or three of you gathered together in my name, that’s where I am, right among you.  The bread that you break and share, the wine that you pour out and drink, that’s my life poured out for you, over and over again, so that as you fill yourselves with my brokenness you will be made whole”.  How many times have we stood here and assured one another, ‘we are the body of Christ?’  What do we mean by that??

I think the Greek word the New Testament writers use to talk about the reality of Jesus among us, is a real clue.  Because St Paul, presumably looking around for a word that’s adequate to express the reality of the risen Christ’s presence, borrows a word that belongs to the political jargon of the day.  Parousia.  And in that jargon, parousia meant the arrival in your city of the imperial presence, a visitation by the Emperor of Rome himself, who would first ride past the city’s dead citizens – past the mausoleums and graves on the way in to town – and then the procession would be welcomed by the living, all the pomp and pageantry would happen way out on the road, or as St Paul puts it because the king he’s talking about is coming from the direction of heaven, up in the sky – but here’s the point – the Emperor’s procession doesn’t stay on the outskirts of the town – or up in the sky - because the people meet the procession and bring it into the city.  It’s a symbolic way of saying, we acknowledge the reign and the authority of the Emperor in our city.  So the parousia isn’t about us joining Jesus up in the sky – not about the dead but about the living - not about heaven but about establishing the reign of God on earth.  And then when Matthew comes to use the same word, parousia, a few decades later, he uses it in ways that suggest the Risen Christ is already present in his Church, arriving not like an Emperor but secretly, sneaking in like a thief in the night and staying hidden among us and within us until God’s purposes for the world are established. [2]

So it’s not really a question of when Jesus comes back, is it?  It’s more a question of when we’re going to start noticing him when he does.  And every time we do encounter the Risen Christ- every single time Christ returns - it’s not the end of the world, it’s another opportunity to act on what we pray for every time we say the Lord ’s Prayer - the realisation of God’s purposes among us.

You know, I don’t think it’s coincidental that in this story we read from the Gospel today, that what the girls with the lamps are waiting for in the middle of the night is a party.  These girls, like the Cyndi Lauper song tells us, just wanna have fun!  A wedding feast – in first century Palestine that would have meant food and drink and dancing and an earthy celebration of life and sensuality.  And that makes sense, because every single time Jesus comes among us, that’s an opportunity to open our lives – open our minds and our hearts and our senses – to the goodness of creation and the love that is meant to flow in us and through us.  Every single time Jesus comes among us, that’s for one purpose only – to connect us with what gives us life, and to open our lives to God and to one another

We certainly do need to get ready, or like the sleepy girls we’ll be in danger of missing the party.  So, how do we do that?  Primarily, I think, by loving what Jesus loved, and by doing what Jesus did  We prepare for God’s kingdom by living in a way that puts people first, by loving justice, by practising compassion and generosity, by gaining strength from the practice of prayer to enter into the rhythm and the beauty of creation and to expect the fulfilment of God’s purposes in the world around us

Jesus is coming!  Look busy!


[1] Mtt24.36

[2] Mtt 24.27, 37, 39.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

All Saints

I know it’s not uncommon for young children to play let’s pretend games where they become the super-heroes of their own fantasies.  That’s perfectly normal, and if adults don’t do that, well, it might just be that we’ve lost the essential art of improving on reality.  But most children of my acquaintance settle for Superman, or Batman or Wonder Woman.  Not many children base their let’s pretend fantasies, as I did, on St Simeon the Stylite.

Have you ever heard of St Simeon the Stylite?  Do you even know what a Stylite is??  This all got started in the deserts of Syria back in the 3rd or 4th century, when, to be frank, a lot of people went a bit potty.  St Simeon perhaps went even pottier than most, but at any rate he was a spectacularly holy man, and decided that the very best way he could express his dedication to God was to sit on top of a pole.  And so he did.  A sixty foot long pole, in the middle of nowhere.  And he sat on it for thirty years.

So at the age of six or seven, I thought this was rather fine.  As I remember, so did my sister, Bethwyn, and we decided that was the life for us.  Luckily we’d thought things through a bit better than Simeon and we had a support team.  Or at least, we had our mum, who helped us up unto the top of the kitchenette and gave us sandwiches and a glass of milk for our lunch  Unfortunately, after lunch, mum said she couldn’t stay in the kitchen all afternoon, but she was sure we could get on with our pole sitting by ourselves and if we needed her, just to call.  Which, a few minutes later, we had to do because we realised the exact same thing St Simeon no doubt realised five minutes after his sandwiches ran out, which is that it’s not much fun sitting on top of a kitchenette with a sister who keeps arguing.  I do remember being quite upset but mum gave us some good advice, ‘Don’t be too disappointed’, she said, ‘at least you gave it a try.  St Simeon probably had lots of practice before he went for the record.  And anyway, it’s next to impossible to be a saint in your own kitchen.’

Mum, of course, was very wise.  Bethwyn and I had been looking at pictures of saints in impressive looking storybooks where everyone had masses of curly white whiskers and disks of light shining around their heads, and looked relaxed and radiant in the middle of being pounced on by lions or burnt at the stake.  And even I wondered how St Simeon managed to sleep up there, on top of his sixty foot pole, without falling off when he turned over in bed.  Secretly I was just a bit relieved to have been down before bedtime.  But the point, I guess, is that it’s all very well getting martyred or sitting on top of a pole for thirty years.  How much harder is it be holy in your own kitchen?

Now, you might be very fond of your kitchen.  I like the kitchen in the Rectory.  It’s got good benchspace, a good big pantry and it’s well-lit.  I actually like cooking, but I do make a mess.  I spill stuff, I spatter it all over the stove-top, I leave scraps all over the benches.  I’m living proof that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.  Luckily, we’ve got a rule.  One of us cooks, the other washes up.  But like most kitchens, ours is a functional space.  There’s always a work in progress in our kitchen.  Always something soaking, dishes waiting to be done, something unmentionable in the bottom of the fridge that’s gone mushy. 

Kitchens are places where things go wrong – sauces are lumpy, toast burns, people get tetchy. Kitchens are where we do that last minute desperate dashing around before the dinner party in the hope that it will look as though we didn’t go to any trouble at all.  Kitchens can be places where emotionally real and messy things happen too – where the real “us” gets exposed – and my guess is that the real “us” often doesn’t feel too saintly at all.

Today’s celebration, the feast of All Saints, is not just about oddballs like St Simeon the Stylite, it’s meant to be about all of us.  So, how do we go about it?  How can we be saints in the kitchen-y places of our own real lives?

Luckily, our reading this morning from the Revelation of St John is aimed squarely at us.

Have you ever wondered why this letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor is called ‘Revelation’ when it’s the strangest and most puzzling book in the whole Bible?  The whole thing seems to be written in a sort of code, and in fact, written during a time when the Christians of Asia Minor were facing persecution by the Roman state for refusing to worship the Emperor, in a sense it is.  Many Christians, facing the alternatives of abandoning their faith, or losing their lives, became martyrs.  Others weakened and left.  The writer of Revelation is painting a lurid picture of the very stark choice that Christians actually faced in these years.  Caesar, or God?  The passage we read today is intended for Christians who, maybe like us, at times, don’t know whether they’ve got what it takes.  Christians who want to be faithful, but who all too easily get overwhelmed.

In his vision, or day-dream, John of Patmos sees a great crowd of people.  In fact, a motley-looking crowd of people.  This is the first, very encouraging point.  People from every tribe, and nation and language.  In other words, not just Jews.  Not necessarily the people next to you in the pews.  Not just a few pillars of the church, elite disciples, great mystics.  Not even just the elect 144,000 of the previous chapter.  This crowd is the place for the rest of us. Membership of this unprepossessing bunch is inclusive, but who are they?  What have they got in common?  And John puts it in language that seems almost deliberately vague, ‘these are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal’.

This lot aren’t pole-sitters.  They haven’t been roasted, skewered, or eaten alive, but they have persevered in the face of the hostility of Rome, the invitation of the polytheistic and secular culture around them to forget this funny religion that could only make life difficult for you.  A culture very much like the one we live in, actually.  A culture based on consumerism and looking out for number one, that found followers of the Way of Jesus odd and threatening.  In the face of indifference, and hostility, and the seduction of self-interest, these are the ones who proclaimed the Way of Jesus because they knew it to be true and life-giving

But this is an image of faithfulness that is surprisingly active, not passive.  There robes are Persil-white, explains the guide, ‘because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb’.  Look, not quite a kitchen metaphor, but at least a laundry one!  It’s something you do, not something you have done to you.  We’re not just in the business of waiting for Jesus to do whatever Jesus is supposed to do for us, we’re in the business of inviting people to rest and be restored, making people whole, giving people dignity and integrity, bearing faithful witness, sharing and continuing Jesus’ own work of compassion and forgiveness.  Jesus cooks, we wash up.  It reminds me of the way St Paul puts it in his letter to the Church of Colossae, our job is nothing less than ‘completing what is lacking in the suffering of Christ’. 

There are no guarantees for God’s kitchen-hands.  It’s imperfect, messy work, you get misunderstood, you try a new recipe and it flops, there’s always the temptation just to give up and open a McCain’s frozen dinner.  Go with the flow.  We meet resistance and feel like giving up.  And this vision tells us that being God’s people is about unglamorous perseverance, a devotion that costs something but at the same time, that the trials of God’s people are part and parcel of the suffering of Jesus.

So this isn’t a word of affirmation for lukewarm Christians, or lukewarm churches, is it?  But it’s a word of encouragement, and a word of love for the saints of the church who hear God’s uncomfortable call to live and proclaim Jesus’ way of love and forgiveness – and know that it is meant for them.

And then – right in the middle of all this uncompromising talk of perseverance – a note of comfort and even tenderness.  God’s kitchen saints, op shop saints, saints of vacuum cleaner and newsletter – here’s the promise!  Refreshment, and sustenance, and the power to follow through.  It’s exactly the same word of reassurance that Jesus speaks in our Gospel reading, the Beatitudes.  Blessed are you when you feel inadequate, because you will learn to rely on the adequacy of God.  Blessed are you when you feel unappreciated, because you will discover the companionship of those who love God.  Blessed are you when people think you’re potty, because that’s what they thought about St Simeon as well.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pentecost 24 Loving people, loving God

Have you ever found yourself talking to somebody who thinks that because you’re a Christian you should necessarily be able to answer – off the top of your head – every curly question about life, the universe and everything that they can think of?  Things like – well, if God created the universe then who created God?  If God was there before anything else then what did he do?  Why did God create flies?  Can you prove God exists?  Did God know about the tsunami before it happened? And if so, why did she allow it?  As though if you personally haven’t worked out the answers to all these it’s really quite irresponsible of you to claim to be a Christian.  A bit like telling you you’ve got no business getting married unless you know how your kids are going to turn out.

The thing is, people don’t generally ask questions like these because they are really looking for the answer.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The real reason for asking questions like these is so you don’t have to think seriously about the answer – you throw up a thick enough smokescreen of argument and you never have to come face to face with the reality and the challenge of what Jesus is actually saying – you keep firing off impossible questions and you never have to ask yourself what things you maybe should be changing about yourself.

So Jesus gets a lot of questions like this, mostly they’re from people who feel threatened by the utter simplicity of what he is saying.  God loves you.  God made you and God knows you through and through.  God knows all of your weaknesses, all of your petty faults, yes, and your big ones too, but you are not small or wicked or useless in God’s eyes.  God’s forgiveness is absolutely unconditional, absolutely unlimited.  God’s kingdom becomes a reality just as soon as you learn to take the risk of loving God back – it’s not a complicated message, is it?  You wouldn’t think it was that threatening – but to the religious professionals and the theologians of the day it was very threatening indeed.

So in today’s gospel reading Jesus is fielding tricky questions.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the question - when you think that according to the rabbis the Law consisted on 613 dos and 365 don’ts it’s not such a bad idea to have an executive summary.  What’s the heart of the matter – what’s the bit I’ve actually got to remember!  But as the hearers of the story, we know even before the question is asked that it’s not sincere.  This is a question being asked by people who are hoping Jesus is going to give the wrong answer so they can publicly discredit him for holding unorthodox opinions and leading people astray.

“Oh, Teacher,” – butter him up with a little compliment first. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”

Well they must have been horribly disappointed with Jesus’ answer. You could not imagine a more thoroughly orthodox and uncontroversial answer. “This is the greatest and most important commandment, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And the second most important commandment is like it, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’

Every Jew listening would know that Jesus had given the right answer. Every Jewish kid can recite those two commandments since kindergarten.  Deuteronomy 6:5, known as the “Shema” from its first word in Hebrew, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Every religious Jew repeats these words every day. And the second bit – “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”?  Straight from Leviticus, chapter 19.  It’s not only Jesus who comes up with this answer - all down through history the rabbis have agreed that these two verses together are a near perfect summary of the whole law of Israel. It was probably the most non-controversial thing Jesus said in his entire life.  This is Jesus at his most Jewish.  And we know from the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke chapter 27, who Jesus thinks our neighbour might be.  That’s nothing new either.  Straight from the same chapter, Leviticus 19.  The alien who lives among you, the poor and the dispossessed – those are your neighbours. 

That’s what makes Jesus so dangerous, not because he’s coming out with something brand new but because he’s coming out with something absolutely straightforward, absolutely familiar – something the Pharisees know all too well - the real question is not how important you think the commandment to love God might be compared to the commandment to love the people around us, but how you actually live it – how do you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind?” 

I mean, how do you?  Is it just me, or does anybody else find it a bit hard, in the abstract, to love God?

Loving the idea of God is one thing.  Finding security and purpose in the thought of a loving Creator who has a particular purpose and a soft spot just for me – I love that.  Loving talking about God isn’t too hard either, for anybody like the Pharisees – or me – who finds a particular pleasure in theological argument.  But how do you love God – particularly a God who insists on having all your love, all your attention, all your energy and your time?  This God who insists he is indivisible, take it or leave it, no room left over for anything else – how do you do that?

You do it, says Jesus, by loving your neighbour.  That person who you bump into by accident, who maybe looks and sounds different to you, who maybe has a different language and a different religion to you.  The person who is made in God’s image.  Right from the start, loving God means loving other people, and even loving those people who most challenge your ability to love. It means radically rethinking who we are, and how we live, and how we relate to others, and what we value and devote our heart, mind and energies to.  Loving the indivisible, take it or leave it, all or nothing God means loving your neighbour.  You love and serve God – who you can’t see – by loving the grumpy, the difficult, the exasperating – who you can see.

And that’s just within your own family! 

How do you love people like that?  Even harder – how do you love people you aren’t related to?  I find it easy enough to love some people – in theory – for example when I read about issues like poverty and racism and injustice in all its forms – but loving the idea of justice and equality isn’t really the same thing as loving people, is it?  And how do you love people who seem to be part of the problem – those who commit acts of violence, those whose greed and power causes others to suffer?  Aren’t they our neighbours also?  How do you love them?

Here’s the oneness thing, the indivisibility thing, again.  Because Jesus, the orthodox rabbi schooled in the wisdom of the Law, refuses to separate these two great commandments.  The way you love your neighbour, who exasperates and challenges you but inconveniently is also made in God’s image, is by loving and responding in faith to the God who creates you.  By following the commandments, by studying the scriptures, by learning how to pray, by being attentive to the everyday movement of the Spirit within you.  By paying attention to God’s self-revelation in Jesus himself, by measuring your own life against the model of Jesus’ own life, and by looking to Jesus’ relationship with God as the foundation and the example for your own.  That’s why it’s so dangerous coming to church!  Did you know that?  Church is a construction zone, a hard-hat area, ‘Danger! Men and women at work!’  We don’t actually come here to get our prejudices confirmed!  We don’t come here for a private warm fuzzy or to hear the hymns and prayers that take us right back to the security of our childhood. 

Church isn’t a cocoon of personal spirituality, in fact, exactly the opposite.  Come here to get your prejudices challenged.  Come here to be disturbed, to be broken open, to hear uncomfortable truths and to learn the art of give and take with God’s other people who just might see the world, and God, a whole lot differently to you.  Come here, in short, not to stay the same but, by creatively allowing God’s love to percolate and bubble away inside you, to be fundamentally changed.  Into somebody who loves people.

In John’s gospel Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, just as he and the Father are one.  Jesus and his Father are made one in love, and he prays that we – his disciples – may also become one by loving each other as he has loved us.  As Jesus puts it, “so that they may live in us, and we in them”.  Again, it’s the oneness thing – the indivisibility of God.  The more we love one another, the more we participate in God’s own life – the more we move into the circle of what gives us life.  The more we love God, the more we grow in love for one another, and for all who Jesus tells us are our neighbours.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pentecost 23A - Give to Caesar

I’ve heard it said that anxiety, that free-floating sense of impending doom, a dread of something indefinable just waiting to happen that attaches itself to a new object of fear as soon as the last dreaded event doesn’t happen – that anxiety is the defining characteristic of the 21st century.  Globally, it’s what we do best.  And each tsunami of fear that attaches itself to a new object threatens to paralyse us.  Of course, way back when, it used to be the long impasse of the Cold War.  The threat of nuclear annihilation.  Then the threat of Islamic jihadists.  The threat of global warming.  The spectre of cities without adequate sources of water.  Oil’s running out.  Electricity prices up 40% next year, folks.  Global recession, the share market diving through the floor.  And each new object for our global panic attack is megalithic.  Each new threat is on a global scale, this one’s going to bring the whole house of cards crashing down, for sure.  I haven’t seen a similar survey done in Australia, but a study done in America earlier this year found 80% of adults were worried about how the global economy was going to affect their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs.  Sixty percent said they were feeling angry and irritable.  Over fifty percent said they were lying awake at night worrying.

I heard the other day an economist pointing out that the current financial and economic crisis – the slide into recession that there doesn’t seem to be any concrete reason for but we are powerless to prevent – that essentially what we are experiencing is a crisis of faith.  At its centre, he said, the global financial meltdown is happening because financial institutions no longer trust each other to extend credit.  This word, credit, comes from the Latin word, credere – it means to believe or to trust.  When you think about it, that’s the basis for a credit card or any other sort of credit transaction – a relationship of trust between the borrower and the lender.  It’s a transaction of faith – another Latin word that’s related to all this is credo – I believe – which of course is the first word of the Apostles’ Creed.  The scary thing is that the current worldwide financial meltdown is precipitated and fed by what we believe – about each other, about the future, about the world we live in.  So far, all the thousands of billions of dollars that the governments of the world have poured down the plughole haven’t changed that, in fact, the “spend your way out of trouble” approach doesn’t even start to address the crisis of faith that lies at the heart of our present troubles. 

A financial crisis that’s actually about trust.  A global epidemic of anxiety that’s actually, deep down, about what we believe in.  An environmental crisis that’s actually about learning to see creation not as a commodity but as an infinitely extended network of relationships.  Is there solid ground underneath our feet, or is it all a mirage?  Are these just matters for politicians and diplomats, for bankers and climate change scientists?  Are they just problems for the secular world to solve or do they represent an underlying crisis of faith that dares us, as Christians, to offer a word of hope?  Is it Caesar’s coin, or God’s?

Here’s the first thing, the word of hope that’s consistently spoken to people in the Bible whenever they find themselves thrown out of the orbit of national or personal security.  It’s the promise that human life, indeed the life of all creation, matters to God, the promise to God’s people in exile, travelling through the desert away from slavery and towards an uncertain future, that we hear in our reading from Exodus this morning: ‘My presence will be with you, and I will give you rest’.  Or as Jesus puts it, ‘Don’t be afraid.  Even common as muck, five-a-penny sparrows are known and loved by God who sees when they fall.  How much more does God love you’.  Have faith in God, have faith also in the future into which God is leading you.  It’s a reminder that we get our true security not from external things, not from relying on our own selves, but from giving ourselves in relationship with one another and with God. 

So the question is a trap.  Both Matthew and Mark point out the obvious, that it’s a loaded question, dreamed up late at night by an unholy alliance of Pharisees teamed up with the pro-Roman king Herod’s spin-doctors, designed to land Jesus in it whatever he answers.  Wouldn’t play too well with the crowds for Jesus to support the idea of paying taxes to the hated Roman occupation forces, also not too good for his health if he looked like he was advocating a tax-strike.  And so Jesus, being politically fairly astute himself, replies with a third alternative.  ‘Just give Caesar what belongs to Caesar’.  Hard to argue with, and fair enough, all the coins of the realm do have Caesar’s head stamped on them.  It’s fairly clear – Jesus isn’t advocating civil disobedience in this circumstance.  He’s prepared to pay his taxes, even to a regime that he, like most Jews, would have seen as illegitimate.

Yet it isn’t a blank cheque.  We know that, for Jesus, the time is going to come soon enough for tipping the money-changers’ tables over and chasing them out of the temple.  There’s an implied limit in this – just give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

‘And give to God what belongs to God’.  Here’s the sting in the tail of Jesus’ reply, a loaded answer for a loaded question.  This half of Jesus’ response is fairly dripping with ambiguity, in fact it gets quoted even today by people who don’t get the point just as much as by those who do.

Just give God the God-stuff.  You hear it all the time from politicians of every political hue who wish pesky church leaders would just stick to their prayers and stop meddling in public policy.  ‘I don’t argue theology with you’, they’ll say.  ‘So stop trying to lecture the rest of us about the morality of locking up asylum seekers, or about how public housing and unemployment are issues that God has got something to say about.  This is Caesar-stuff.  Butt out.’  Or words to that effect.

Rubbish.  The point, of course, and it’s a point that the Pharisees knew for themselves just as much as Jesus knew, even if Herod’s minders didn’t get it, is that it’s all God-stuff.  Which means, too, that this pointed little tale can’t be used either by preachers to suggest to their flock that they can buy all the swimming pools and take all the holidays to Bali that they want, just so long as they give God his share, the magic 10%.  Jesus knows it, the Pharisees know it, you simply can’t divide reality up into compartments, God’s interested in being prayed to and sung about and kowtowed to, and the rest of the time, well, just pay your taxes and you can get up to whatever else you want to.  It doesn’t work like that.  It’s all God-stuff.

Politics, the discourse of the obligations and responsibilities men and women owe one another, the duty of care we have for one another, our commitment to one another, to our environment and to the future we are building for our grandchildren.  This is a coin with God’s head on it, is it not?  Ultimately it is a conversation about faith, about believing and hoping in and through one another, a conversation about justice, about compassion and finding the meaning of our own lives in what holds us together.  The tax system, the sharemarket and the banks, not just long lines of improbably big numbers sliding down computer screens all of which, inexorably, add up to the fact that I’m worse off today than I was yesterday, but actually a credo of integrity, trust, and belief in the future.  It’s God’s coin, which doesn’t just mean that how Christians operate in these areas is part of how we live the gospel, the practical living out of what we sing and talk about, theoretically, on a Sunday morning.  It also means that, as Christians, we have to take our place in the marketplace of political and economic argument.  We have to offer God’s perspective because we’re stuck with a message of hope.

So, where is God in this?  I’m reminded of Jesus, fast asleep in the bottom of the fishing boat while frantic disciples battle the storm and bale for all they’re worth.  It’s hard for us, even as disciples, to really believe God’s love holds us secure when common sense tells us the boat is sinking.  And the story reminds us that God is in control even of the waves that threaten to overwhelm us.  The anxiety that rocks the boat of our new century is not let’s pretend.  It’s not fictional and it’s not all in our minds.  The monsters of our nightmares cause real human suffering, real suffering to God’s creation that St Paul tells us, groans as if in labour.  But Jesus offers the disciples in that boat – and us as well - a new perspective, a view of creation and of history as filled with God’s purposes, and of ourselves as infinitely precious in God’s eyes.  We’re stuck with a message of hope because the reality – as opposed to the free-floating anxiety of our fears – is that God is with us, and for us.  Sharemarket crashes, extreme weather events, terrorism and global warming are the signs of our times, no doubt about it.  But the God of creation is the God of all that.  The ultimate reality of our lives is not the terrors we invent for ourselves, but God’s love that, finally, has the power to draw all things together to their true end in new and restored relationship.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pentecost 22A

It’s good to be preaching again after a few weeks break – some annual leave, some weeks in which we had visiting preachers at St Mike’s.  Today’s gospel story is the party that nobody wanted to come to (Matthew 22.1-14).


At the very beginning of the story, in Lord of the Rings, old Bilbo throws a party.  It isn’t a wedding party, it’s a birthday party because Bilbo is turning 111 – or eleventy-one, as the hobbits say, and that is an age well worth celebrating.  Unbeknown to the guests, it’s also going to be a going away party, but they don’t know that yet, and that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Because of a misspent youth robbing dragon’s dens, Bilbo is fabulously wealthy, and he has another unfair advantage because his chief party organiser is the wizard Gandalf, who in the weeks leading up to the party keeps arriving with covered wagons full of mysterious objects which everybody hopes are firecrackers.  For weeks and weeks disreputable looking strangers have been arriving at the front gate of no. 1, Bagshot Row, Bag End, and it has become a favourite guessing game for Bilbo’s neighbours to speculate on what, exactly, they are up to.  Unfortunately, there’s no way anybody can find out, because posted on Bilbo’s front gate is an enormous notice that says, “Strictly no admittance, except on Party Business”.

I tell this story, not because anybody stayed away from Bilbo’s party – in fact, everybody turned up, even those who didn’t receive invitations, having charitably assumed that they must have gone missing in the post.  Even Bilbo’s harshest critics, the Sackville-Bagginses, were there eating and drinking just as much as they could, and surreptitiously eyeing off the silverware.  No, Bilbo’s big party is the logical place to start from today simply because it was a proper party, an event that had piqued everybody’s curiosity for weeks before and miles around, where feuds were forgotten or at the very least laughed loudly at, where everybody knew that beer was for drinking, birthday presents were supposed to go in the guests’ pockets and food was for getting just as much as possible of stuffed down your throat before anybody else could lay their hands on it.

Which leads me to make two points.  One – that that’s exactly what a party would be like, in the towns and villages of Galilee in the first century, where Jesus first tells this story.  In this subsistence economy, only the relatively well-off could do such an extravagant thing as to throw a party with unthinkable quantities of free food and drink.  You’d prepare for weeks, everybody for miles around would have a sticky-beak at how the preparations were coming along, and then when everything was ready – you’d send out the word and everybody drops everything to come.  And the second point? – Jesus, just like all the very best prophets before him, says that God’s kingdom is just like that.  The kingdom of God is a slap-up party, not your polite, stilted conversation and hors d’oeuvre kind but the rollicking, drink yourself under the table kind, a real party.  A proper, tables groaning under the weight of it all, feast.  God’s generosity is extravagant, over the top, even wasteful.  That’s the point.  And the Eucharist we share every week is supposed to be a taste of that, a party that tells us there’s something physical and organic about our experience of God, inhibitions and hang-ups get left at the door, we come along, warts and all, and experience our own humanity as part of Christ’s humanity, like us or lump us, together we’re the body of Christ.  I hope you get that.

But the party in Jesus’ story, the guests don’t turn up.  Now Matthew, who is writing 50 or so years after Jesus death and resurrection, Matthew is writing for his own audience and so he embroiders a bit.  Matthew’s version of this story is just a bit different from Luke’s, for example.  Only Matthew tells us it’s a king throwing a party for his son, and that I guess tips us off that it’s a code.  Matthew means us to think of the king as God, and Jesus as the Son.  For Matthew’s community the next bit would have been just as obvious.  The guests who were invited first, who even got violent when they were invited for the second time, well, they must be God’s original in-crowd, the Jewish people, and the riff-raff who get invited to take their places – that’s us!  That’s Gentiles, non-Jewish folk – in Luke’s slightly different telling of the story you might be more inclined to think the extras press-ganged to make up the numbers are the poor, the marginalised, folk who ordinarily get overlooked in the general scheme of things - but actually the main point is exactly the same.  God stands for inclusiveness.  You don’t have to be good-looking.  You don’t have to be clever, you don’t have to be rich.  Doesn’t matter what gender you are, doesn’t matter about your sexual preference. You don’t even have to be reputable, that’s right, prostitutes, murderers and pickpockets are welcome at this table.  You don’t have to believe the right things, despite what some of the nastier intra-Church arguments might suggest, God doesn’t wait for you to subscribe to the right theological doctrine or belong to the right Church party – come on down, anyway.  The point, I think, is that Church is – and it’s about time it started to see itself as – a place for nobodies, losers and failures to hang out and experience the reality that here, you’re somebody.  Here you’re a winner, you’re a success – why?  Not because of anything you’ve done but because God wants you, God loves you to bits, in fact God needs you to make up the hodgepodge of humanity that constitutes the body of Christ.

If you’re not feeling comfortable with that job description, if in your heart of hearts you actually think you’re doing alright on your own terms, you haven’t got any insidious little voice reminding you right now about the stuff that’s gone wrong in your life that you actually don’t know how to put right – then here’s the news – if you’re human, it’ll happen.  And the fact that we’re all invited to God’s party means that – right in the middle of the compromise and heartache of life – there is a deep experience of joy just waiting for us to experience it.  But it’s not a solitary exercise.  You can’t party by yourself, only with all the other reprobates that God insists on letting in.

And so here’s the problem.  Not everybody wants to play.  And you can just hear Jesus’ exasperation, here.  He’s experiencing some rejection of his ministry.  In Matthew’s community, half a century later, ditto.  Not everybody thinks this is good news, in fact there’s a determined rearguard action being fought by many who think this undisciplined lot who don’t even expect converts to obey the Jewish food laws, to be circumcised and follow the do’s and don’t’s of the Torah – this willy-nilly message of totally unearned forgiveness and inclusiveness is way over the top and we’re sure as heck not going to party with them – and Matthew’s community is copping some opposition.  So it’s easy to see why this story of Jesus is one Matthew’s community can relate to.  We’re the riff-raff who got the point.  We’ve come to the party.

Two thousand years later, we can hang on to that same interpretation.  Them out there, they don’t want to play.  We’re the ones who did accept the invitation and so here we are.

Except, are we really playing?  If God’s scheme of things is a slap-up party, then how might God be inviting us to party today, and are we really listening?  What’s the 21st century equivalent of not being a stick-in-the-mud, of putting aside our preconceptions about what’s right and proper and accepting God’s invitation to let our hair down? 

Because here comes the second half of the story, and guess what?  It sounds wrong.  It doesn’t seem to fit the first half.  Because the king, wandering through the crowd of revellers who you would have thought must be the worst dressed - not to mention the smelliest and most unsavoury bunch of beggars and ne’er do wells who ever slept in a doorway - and he spots one poor sod not wearing a party outfit.  And the king throws him out.  So what’s all that about?

Certainly, the story as it stands is a bit clunky.  You don’t invite beggars and then expect them to be well-dressed.  Most Bible commentators, and I think they’re right, believe that Matthew has decided to cobble together two stories that don’t quite fit.  So we just need to let that little inconsistency stand.  Maybe the king’s servants have been handing out paper hats and party robes at the door and this chap refuses to put one on, he’s wandering around with a long face and a bad attitude bringing the whole party mood down with him.  I don’t really know.

But here’s the point.  It’s not enough to come to the party, it matters what we do when we get here.  You accept the invitation, you need to join in the festivities.  You can’t be a sad-sack like I sometimes am at parties and say, ‘oh, I don’t know how to dance  I’ll just sit here and watch’.

You have to join in.  But with what?  What’s God calling us to, today?  First and foremost, I think, to loosen up.  To actually listen together, to talk together about how we do this Church stuff in the context of a new century.  To work on actually being the inclusive community, the community that values the contributions of all its members.  To work on actually looking like we’re having a good time.  To work on how we go about telling the world around us that God’s love is worth celebrating.  The Diocesan Mission Plan is a good place for us to start.  Already it’s the result of some inspired listening, all it doesn’t have yet is our input, our ‘yes, we can do that bit!’.  It’s not just a job that Church Office or even Jesus says we’ve got to do, it’s about who we are, it’s what being God’s people is all about.

Maybe that sounds a bit scary.  Maybe even just calling it a Mission Plan makes it sound like it should be somebody else’s job, somebody qualified, for example.  Maybe, I think, we should call it a Party Plan instead.  You know what?  We made a good start last week.  We partied with a bit of pizzazz.  Folks, here’s the secret.  God’s party is meant to be fun.  We’re meant to be enjoying ourselves.  As the Reverend Elizabeth Smith told us at Synod yesterday, the gospel is way more fun than football.  We’re meant to be piquing the curiosity of neighbours for miles around, wondering what we’re up to.  That’s the whole point.  Because – so today’s story is actually telling us – on the door of the church there’s a great big sign, and it says, ‘Strictly no admittance except on Party Business’.