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’.