Saturday, December 25, 2010

Feast of St. Stephen - 26 dec

You wouldn’t think it would be that dangerous being a waiter.  The occasional grumpy customer when you forget an order, inconvenient hours and low wages – but stoned to death? You wouldn’t think so. Yet in the sixth chapter of Acts Stephen is chosen as one of seven who will "wait on tables," an occupation and a witness that will lead to his death. The 12 apostles must not be distracted from their preaching to attend to the daily distribution of food to the widows.  So Stephen and the others are chosen not to preach or to teach but to serve – an apparently lower-ranking occupation that is actually subversive because in his ministry of care for Jews and Gentiles alike Stephen manages to draw the ire of some powerful factional groups and that, Acts tells us, is what gets him killed.  The point, in other words, is that the first Christian martyr is not a missionary, not an orator or a theologian or a bishop but one whose calling is to feed the hungry.

And today’s reading picks up the story just as Stephen, having preached a fairly forgettable sermon, prepares himself to meet his Maker.  And in Luke’s made-for-Hollywood version we can’t help but notice some similarities between the death of Stephen and the death of Jesus.  Like Jesus, Stephen is attacked by an angry crowd and taken out of the city. In his last words, Stephen commends his spirit to Jesus, just as Jesus commended his to the Father.  At the end, as Stephen prays for his enemies and forgives his attackers, "Lord, do not hold this against them," we hear the words of Jesus rattling in our ears, "Father, forgive them". 

Clearly, as he builds up the story so we can’t help but notice the echoes behind it, Luke is trying to tell us something, trying to make both a theological and a practical point.  Which is that discipleship – the decision to follow and try to behave like Jesus – leads inevitably to the cross.  Discipleship – bearing witness to Jesus by imitating Jesus’ model of self-sacrifice – carries a high price-tag.  If we do it right – that is, if we are actually whole-hearted about it, if we follow Jesus’ path of self-giving love even when it leads to confrontation with selfishness and vested interests – our own self-centredness as well as the insular attitudes of those around us – then there is a cost.  Comfortable Sunday Christianity, Luke is reminding us, the sort of Christianity that affirms our own view of the world without demanding too much of us, the comfortable congregation of the like-minded is not actually discipleship.

I maybe should clarify that I am not actually recommending – and I don’t think Luke is, either – that to be Christian means you have to go out and deliberately make such a nuisance of yourself that people want to throw rocks at you.  The bishop might have something to say about it, if too many St Michaels parishioners start coming to sticky ends ... actual martyrdom, after all, is not an end in itself but a consequence, in particular times and circumstances, of the choice to live Jesus’ way of love with integrity and without compromise.  But Luke’s basic point, I think, is this: that the way of Jesus necessarily costs us something – that the cross, ultimately, is not just something we hang around our neck but something that comes with the decision to follow Christ.  And it’s a good litmus test – the question to ask ourselves – has my faith got too comfortable?  is this just a lifestyle or even worse, just a habit, just a way of keeping in touch with friends on a Sunday morning, just something I do because I’ve always done it?  And the test is to ask yourself: what does my Christianity cost me?  Is there really a struggle for me?  Am I constantly finding I need to confront the contradiction between my own desires and the way of Jesus?  Am I giving of myself – financially, my time, my personal space – to the extent that it really costs me something?  Because if not, then Luke suggests I’m not doing it right.

Well, you might be thinking, what a cheery little number for the day after Christmas.  First, the Church says, all through Advent – hang on, we’re not ready for the stable and the star yet, we’ve got work to do!  And then the very next day, the Feast of St Stephen and the preacher is telling us to go out and get uncomfortable.  Can we at least wait until we’ve eaten all the Christmas dinner leftovers?

But you see, there is a reason why the Church puts St Stephen on the 26th of December, why we celebrate the martyrdom of St John on the 27th and Holy Innocents Day on the 28th – and that’s because unless we do, then Christmas is incomplete.

Christmas – God’s creative initiative to bless and perfect creation by stepping inside it, the joining together of earth and heaven – is incomplete.  Jesus, the Word of God made human flesh – who makes the mess and chaos of human life holy by taking it on himself – is unable to complete the work of incarnate love – without us.

There is an ancient Christmas blessing which I love, because it suggests that Christmas is not a fait accompli, not a done deal, until we do our bit.  ‘Receive Christmas’, is the greeting.  God has done this, God has entered our world and that changes everything – so long as we receive Christmas.  God has been born into human flesh and that makes us holy, that gifts us and all creation with the language of heaven – so long as we are willing to receive it.  We, in fact, have still to do the work of Mary of Nazareth, who consents to allow God’s Word to gestate and come to birth within her.  She, of course, is the first human creature to receive Christmas, to recognise the task of allowing her own DNA to be transformed by nurturing the enfleshed Word of God within her.  But the work of Mary is the work of Christmas that we all are invited to do.

God has entered our world, we are invited to enter the love-song of the angels, and yes – there is a cost for us as there was a cost for Mary, a cost for Stephen and as there has been a cost for every human child of God who has consented to be the parent of God’s Word.  The wood of the manger, as is often pointed out, is also the wood of the cross, and the shadow of Good Friday falls in the corner of the stable.  We know what this child is born to, and deep within us we also know what it means for us.  That our own burden of suffering and joy is made holy – that the burden of suffering and joy of our world has entered into the body of Christ and so is no longer separate from us – that our own lives are incarnate within the frail and wonderful web of all that draws breath.  We can never again see ourselves as separate from any creature for whom Christ suffered, the suffering, for example of those whose fragile boat was smashed against the limestone cliffs of Christmas island last week is the suffering of Christ, and wounds us wonderfully.  To receive Christmas is to look for the woundedness of Christ in your own life, in the lives of those you love and in those whose lives never intersect yours at all.

To receive Christmas is to be wounded, to know that Christ is incarnate in you, to receive in equal measure joy and sorrow, and to accept the way of the cross.

Receive Christmas!



Friday, December 24, 2010


A little while ago I watched a video that demonstrated a new approach taken by a group of therapists working with young people suffering from autism.  At first, it seemed to me that the approach being taken was somewhat strange.

One young man got so disturbed when the therapist came into the room that he started walking quickly up and down the room, twisting and untwisting a piece of string, refusing to acknowledge her presence.  It would have been hopeless trying to communicate with him.  So the therapist also picked up a piece of string and started twisting and untwisting it.  When the young man made a noise, so did she; when he began to do something different, like banging his hand on a table, so did she. Very slowly, over two days, the recordings of their sessions showed that a relationship had begun to form – when the young man glanced at the therapist she glanced back at him – eventually he smiled at her, and she smiled back.  Finally, the point was reached where the therapist could initiate some contact, and the young man would respond with a smile.  He was starting to trust her.

Apparently, when someone with autism feels they’re being bombarded with too much information – if there’s too much going on at the same time – to stop themselves panicking they withdraw into themselves, stick to doing only what is familiar, and don't acknowledge anything going on outside.  But if, after a while, they begin to notice that somebody else is also gently engaged in the same familiar actions and rhythms - slowly the wounded mind of the autistic person begins to recognise that here there is a part of the outside world that isn't fearful, that isn't threatening.  Here is someone doing the same things that I do - When I do this, someone answers - I'm not powerless.  And gradually communication begins: gradually a relationship starts to grow.

I don’t think we need to be autistic to know what this is about.  Perhaps most of us have experienced this from time to time.  When we’re locked into our own nightmares and we don’t know how to get out, the only thing that’s going to help is if somebody joins us in there, if somebody takes the risk of being there with us and going through the same thing we’re going through.

I don’t know about you, but for me it seems like there’ve been a few road-blocks this year on the road to Bethlehem.  Literally as well as figuratively.  Our world doesn’t seem to have learned a thing from two thousand years of hearing the Christmas message of peace and goodwill year in year out.  What’s Christmas got to do with the ugly reality of earthquake and epidemic in Haiti, car-bombings in Baghdad or last week’s closer-to-home tragedy on the limestone cliffs of Christmas island?  How is any of that helped by the cute Christmas image of reindeers and multiple store Santas – or the not so cute image the Western world offers of conspicuous over-consumption?  Might there be a credibility gap between what we tell ourselves at Christmas time that it’s all about – and what we see in the world around us?  I have to confess – I feel like I’ve got to Christmas Eve this year unprepared and a bit out of sorts.  There’s never enough time the week before Christmas is there??  The sheer bad temper of the last-minute rush seems to drown out any lingering strains of ‘peace on earth and good-will to all’ that you’ve been hearing all week.  Sometimes the problems aren’t exactly earth shattering but they still cause some stress, like the Christmas lights on the tree aren’t working.  Or you haven’t got all the cards out.  And then there’s the family celebrations, and you want to make a meaningful connection with family members you maybe haven’t seen for a while, or maybe there’s been some things said that can’t be forgotten, and not everyone in the family is talking.  Things start to get a bit frayed.  And for some of us, around Christmastime, emotions get frayed as well.  Relationships break up – ironically enough it really is harder to find a room for the night in a women’s refuge around Christmastime – and if you’ve got to deal with the hard facts of domestic violence or unemployment or a credit card that’s getting out of control, at the same time as you’re hearing the Christmas message in every department store that loving your kids means spending more money – at Christmas time when expectations are so high – if you’re by yourself or you’re not living in a picture-perfect family or you’re waiting for a medical diagnosis – it can be the hardest time of the year.  If there’s a credibility gap between the lifestyle the glossy magazines tell you should be having, and the one your reality check tells you you’re actually having, then the closer you get to Christmas the wider it gets.  There can be some road-blocks on the road to Bethlehem.

But the thing about Christmas is, it’s like one of those children’s pantomimes where the actor’s pretending to be deaf and everybody in the audience is yelling, ‘no, look behind you!’ – because all the characters in the Christmas story are like signposts, whether it’s the shepherds or the angels or the wise men it’s like they’re all yelling, ‘no, look over here!’ – and at some point on Christmas Eve whether we’re ready for Christmas or not, they get our attention and we find ourselves looking at a baby in a crib – even though at some level we’re still thinking about the road-blocks.  Which ever way we look, whether it’s up into the sky or over the horizon, we see these larger than life characters all yelling at us, ‘it’s not the road-blocks, it’s the baby!’  These characters have got one job to do, and that’s to get us here on time, to Bethlehem, whether we’re ready or not.

So, what is it with the baby?  How do you tell the woman whose defacto has beaten her up the week before Christmas, and she’s piled everything into the stationwagon, and the kids as well, and she doesn’t really know where she’s headed to, how can you tell her that this baby two thousand years ago matters?  How?  Because the meaning of the baby and the meaning of Christmas is that God is right here with us.  That’s what the name Emmanuel means. God is with us.  In our grief, in our mixed-up-ness, in our selfishness and our fear, in our love and our pain and our laughter, in the stuff of our everyday lives – God is with us.  God is born among us, God does all the same things we do.  And just in case we don’t get the point, this baby also bangs into the same road-blocks that we bang into.  This baby is born to parents who live in poverty.  This baby doesn’t make it to hospital on time to be born.  This baby is going to have to be whisked away in the middle of the night and smuggled across the border into another country to escape the authorities.  This baby is going to preach the way of peace but die the death of a common criminal.  If this baby really is God-made-flesh then it means that God is committed to going the distance with us, that God isn’t out there somewhere running the show from a safe distance.  God-made-flesh isn’t born into a fairy-tale world of cotton-wool snow and Santa Claus, God-made-flesh is born right in the middle of the great and gripping darkness that we sometimes call the real world, and that’s the good news.  That means that it’s OK to take the risk of living compassionately and loving wastefully because whatever happens the future is going to be in God’s hands.  God will be with us.

And that’s the good news. That while we’re wrapped up in our fears and our self-preoccupation, while we hide from our real selves in the darkness, God quietly creeps in beside us as a baby: who is born, who grows up, and lives a perfectly ordinary life just like ours, eating, sleeping, working, partying, loving, hurting, grieving.

God-made-flesh does what we do, feels what we feel, speaks our language; and slowly we learn that this is a God we can trust, and that we needn't be afraid.

And when God-made-flesh begins to do new things, shockingly different things like healing and forgiving, turning tables and the world upside-down, dying and rising again - when God-in-Jesus begins to tell and live a radically different story, the new story of the kingdom of God, then maybe we don't need to panic and run away and hide in fear.  Because maybe we’ve learned we can trust this God. 

In Jesus, tonight’s vulnerable baby lying in an animals’ feed-trough, God shares our life, in order that we can share God's life; God embraces our fears and frailty, in order that we can embrace God's faithfulness and love. Because God has become flesh among us, inhabiting our familiar world, becoming part of our story, because of this, we can dare to receive and embrace our unexpected roles in God's new story - whether as angels or shepherds, inn-keepers or pilgrims - and God can begin to draw us out of ourselves, mend us, call us, and make us back into who God always intended us to be.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Reflection at City of Canning Carols by Candlelight ...

Why does the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago in an unimportant corner of the Roman Empire still matter?  Why do we still sing about it, why does the story of the birth of Jesus have such power that somehow we understand even the magic and joy of Santa Claus to come from a rickety feed-trough in a run-down farm shed in Bethlehem?

One of the carols we sang this evening even stopped a war.  It was 1914, and the obscenely misnamed war to end all wars had only just begun.  The night of Christmas Eve was cold and clear, turning the slush of the trenches into ice.  As if by mutual understanding, the regular firing of snipers on both sides had fallen silent, when across the short gap of dangerous territory that separated them, the British troops heard the voices of the enemy singing - ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’.  As they listened and the snow began to fall the British troops on their side joined in with the English words, ‘Silent night, holy night’ – then one by one the first brave men climbed out of the trenches on both sides, enemies met as friends in the middle of the field of battle, gifts were exchanged and the next morning, on Christmas Day, a game of football was played.  History doesn’t record who won – but does record that despite their best efforts the furious generals were unable to get World War One going again for a full fortnight.

It matters, because Christmas tells us that God longs for a world in which human beings speak the language of peace.  At Christmas, God makes God’s self known to us not in power but in vulnerability – and so draws to us imperceptibly closer to our own better selves.  At Christmas, we pause and remember who we really are, what really matters in our lives, in our community and our world.  For a moment we forget to be competitive and self-protective, we become less hard-edged, more compassionate.

This year, the love-song of the angels echoes in the aftermath of Wednesday’s tragedy on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean off the far north coast of our own State.  It challenges us to reflect on the shared humanity that connects us with strangers who travelled so far only to perish on the rocky cliffs of their destination.  It challenges us to reflect on what joins us to one another, and to re-commit ourselves to building a community in which men and women and children of all ethnicities and cultures, of all religions and of none, might live together with dignity and peace.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent 3A

As a young university student I worked for two or three summers on the wheatbins – specifically at Balla, a little spot you probably won’t find on the map, the very northern-most tip of the fertile wheatbelt, within a day’s drive of Kalbarri Gorge.  We lived in a little tin shack in the middle of nowhere and day after day our only visitors were dusty farmers bring truckload after truckload of the wheat that somehow or other they had wrestled out of this unlikely looking country.  In fact it was very fine wheat they grew around Balla, we only accepted A-grade wheat and only once in my memory did we ever have to turn away a truckload to another bin that accepted lower quality.  But the country – as any of you who know the area – was spectacular – low scrubby vegetation, deep red earth hard-baked, the only living things seemed to be snakes and rabbits and emus and birds of prey.  The hot summer days were brutal – you sought out patches of shade and minimised your movements, any hard physical work you tried to get done early in the morning or during the cool of twilight – and the nights were cold under a sky brilliant with stars.  It was quite an experience for a teenager from the big city.  Just once I saw a different side of the place – a storm blew up from nowhere and within minutes in the middle of a scorching day we got an inch or more of rain – and the landscape turned from parched red earth to a slushy mud.  It rained solidly for a day or so, and spent another 24 hours drying out – and then the insects came, and the birds, and almost overnight a carpet of green shoots, and little flowers – and for a brief moment the parched and dusty spot we called home was transformed.

The desert, for Australians, has got a special resonance, hasn’t it?  Even if we don’t and couldn’t live there, we feel its presence at the heart of the country, and we have got an awareness of its power.  And the symbol that the prophet gives us this morning, the desert bursting into green flame – is one that as Aussies we ‘get’ – we can visualise the earth springing into new life and we understand the ramifications of that for human life, for farming communities that battle drought, and battle flood, in the hope of catching the once in a lifetime transformation that produces bumper crops and fat animals.  It’s an image of renewal, of hope and transformation that appropriately belongs to the third Sunday of Advent that we call Gaudete Sunday and mark with a pink candle, a day to celebrate in the middle of a season of waiting.

The prophet is talking to a people who have endured years of anxiety and terror at the hands of the besieging Assyrian armies.  It is a time of desperate political alliances, of betrayals and false hopes, and the prophet warns against relying too much on Israel’s stronger neighbours, counselling instead a return to faith in Yahweh, and encouraging those who have fled to return to Jerusalem and the Temple.  But we need to step back just a little bit in the Book of Isaiah, to chapter 34 just before today’s reading – where the prophet unleashes an oracle or prediction of judgement against one of Israel’s tiniest neighbours, the little, maybe 30 square mile kingdom of Edom that has apparently been an unreliable ally – and the images are horrible – of blood and fat and sacrifice, and rivers turning to boiling tar, and the land turning into sulphur, and an unending stench.  Faithless Edom, the prophet says, is going to become the haunt of jackals and ostriches and vultures – a hell on earth.

And then abruptly – today’s oracle of restoration for Israel, a delightful reversal, the land itself rejoicing and blossoming, an echo of images of Eden and of the Exodus stories of the miraculous provision for God’s people in the desert.  The prophet is talking about climate change – a very different sort of climate change to the sort that preoccupies us today – but still a message of hope to a people who have a long stretch of hostile environment between where they are now and where they need to be.  The sudden reversal gives the reader of this book a sort of theological whiplash – why would God act like this?  Doesn’t the prophet see the contradictions of his two chapters?  What are we to make of this sort of worldview that wishes destruction on others at the very same time as claiming a vision of hope for ourselves?  And I think we don’t need to rationalise it away, rather we need to see the contradiction as saying something about the mystery and contradiction of life and history itself, and the fact that sometimes the reversal and renewal God promises can only come out of the deep yearning of devastated hopes.

But the prophet is ultimately pointing to the mercy and power of God, and he is trying to get a people who have got used to hopelessness, ready for hope and transformation and change.  Political scientists tell us that change – in the middle of disappointment, when people have got used to limited horizons and thwarted hopes – that the promise of sudden reversal is hard to take, that it leads to instability.  People fear the very renewal they long for.  And the prophet has a hard time preaching hope to a people whose lives have been overwhelmed by fear, vulnerability, and lack of courage.  History tells us that the prophet was right – that in the middle of a long siege the Assyrian armies encircling Jerusalem suddenly got up and left, for reasons historians still can’t explain, in the middle of the night, and peace returned for over a century.  But preaching hope can be dangerous, when the people to whom you are preaching have got accustomed to dreaming to living with a small vision of themselves.

And so, before we can really hear it, we need to remind ourselves of our own hunger, to get in touch with what in us is still unsatisfied.  The message comes to us today in the middle of the Advent season when the world around us has already rushed on ahead into the Christmas season and by December 26th will be sick of it and looking for the next thing.  But the church counsels us to wait, and to listen to the message of hope with full awareness of how and in what ways we ourselves have run empty, have got used to minimising our expectations and turning the message of hope aside.  Of course we know we are in the business of proclaiming that the hope of the world is encapsulated in the child of Bethlehem – but what would that hope look like for us and for the world we live in?  What would the deserts of our lives and our world look like if they suddenly blossomed?

Well, the first thing we can do is look at the obvious level of the prophet’s own metaphor.  Last week in our reading from Isaiah we heard the prophet’s vision of universal peace – this week the land itself bursts into flower and demonstrates creation’s capacity for restoration and healing.  Not a bad image for a week in which delegates from the world’s major economies have sat locked in yet another round of talks at the climate change conference in Cancun.  It’s a reminder, perhaps, that the hope to which we commit ourselves when we assure one another of God’s actual presence in human history is not just a deferred hope for individuals at the end of their lives, but a hope for the whole of creation – and that the redemption of the whole creation that St Paul talks about needs us to learn to see the earth not just as a commodity for our use, but as God’s creation and as the very incarnation of God’s love.  And to learn the truth that human flourishing is inconceivable without a new view of ourselves as living in harmony with God’s creation.

And secondly, perhaps, we might reflect that the capacity for rejuvenation that we see in the desert country where the promise of new life lies dormant for years in the earth until the rains come – we might reflect that the same capacity is built in to human life despite our repeated failures to live in peace and to share our resources.  Because the promise of restoration – which as Christians we connect with the Word of God made flesh in Jesus – the promise of restoration is not just the blind hope that one day things will be different but the realistic assurance that ultimately all creation including we ourselves seeks its true purpose and reveals its Creator.  And the intuition of the prophets made explicit in the Word made flesh is that God’s promises are always made in flesh and blood, and that history itself is the painful, three steps forward and two steps back coming to realisation that we ourselves are templates of forgiveness and peace, that the coming true of God’s promises for our world depends on us realising and yearning for the promises to come true in our own lives.

For God to take on flesh in our world, in other words, requires our ‘yes’ to God taking on flesh in us – our willingness to take a new perspective on our own lives and our relationships as the landscape of God’s new creation – in which we commit ourselves to living God’s priorities and believing in God’s promises.  Our ‘yes’ to the greening of the deserts of our own back yards.


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Advent 2A

I recently read a sermon on today's reading from Isaiah preached by a Jewish rabbi named Margaret Wening.   The rabbi was preaching about hope, and she made the point that while she loved to attend Advent services when her Christian friends invited her, she also found them troubling.  She said, "you sing songs like: 'O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel',  like it is a one-off event at the end of all things, like God sits back and observes human history for thousands and hundreds of thousands of years and does nothing, and that men and women are powerless to do anything except wait in hope that one day, against all the weight of human history, God will intervene to set things right, that - perhaps at the end of all things - Jesus will return and that will balance the scales.

And the rabbi told a story, the true story of the survivors of Buchenwald, a World War 2 concentration camp that held political prisoners many of whom had been rounded up and interned up in the years before the war, and which had a perhaps enviable record in that “only” about 30% of all the 300,000 captives that came through its gates perished there.  And in Buchenwald, in the dying days of the war, a dream was born that kept hope alive and perhaps also kept many of the prisoners alive - a dream of returning to Palestine and establishing a kibbutz.  And the survivors of Buchenwald did just that, in 1948 in the middle of another war, the war of independence from the British occupation forces, and they founded a kibbutz called simply, Netzer - a shoot from the old stump, regrowth from a forest fire - in reference to the passage we read today from the Book of Isaiah.

And the rabbi made the point that God's people are always waiting, always enduring injustice with hope, always resisting oppression and working for restoration.  And she explained, "to Jews, Isaiah's promise of redemption speaks not only of the advent of the messiah at the end of time but also of our recurring experience of redemption through time."  The promise of Isaiah, she said, has already been fulfilled over and over again, whenever God's people live with courage and live faithfully in hope toward the time when new green shoots of life appear from the ruin of injustice and oppression.  On the other hand, Margaret Wening said, the promise of Isaiah is also forever unfulfilled, because as we look around us we see a world in which competition and violence still reign - it is no safer today than it was in Isaiah's world for lambs to lie down with wolves - people still die of poverty and plague and the earth is filled with violence as water covers the sea.

So we are all still waiting for the advent of justice and peace. But, Rabbi Wening said, the promise of Isaiah is that God doesn't give death the last word. The promise that we see both fulfilled and at the same time unfulfilled is a challenge for us to work and to hope, to give flesh and blood to God's promises and to wait in trust for their fulfillment in situations where human efforts fail and human hope seems unrealistic.

I like Wening's point because it reminds us of our own responsibility, and it is a helpful rebuttal of a particular kind of Christianity that is passive, and that says, look, all you have to do is believe the right things - and of course this kind of Christianity fails the test of being Christ-like because it encourages Christians not to get involved, not to care about this world.  And the other reason I like Rabbi Wening's point is because she understands that God's promises are incarnational, they rely on human commitment and human flesh and blood.  This is the intuition of Judaism which in Christianity becomes explicit as we see it demonstrated perfectly in Jesus.  And I agree with her that the incarnational logic of God's love for human beings and for all creation is not just limited to the life of Jesus two thousand years ago but is built in to the structure of the universe, the breath of God's Holy Spirit which exhales the galaxies and is woven in to the life of every living creature.

But there’s also another, even more confronting, aspect of today’s reading from Isaiah, which is its hint of a great struggle between God’s yearning for human freedom – and the contrary choices so often made by God’s people.  Because right at the end of the chapter before today’s reading the prophet says God is going to cut down all the trees – that’s why the stump is there in the first place – it’s the result of what Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the “great conflict and contest” between Israel’s political ambitions and the spirit of God for justice and renewal.  God’s own people, in other words, are sometimes the problem – but the prophet is desperately calling the people to take notice, and promising that this is not the end but the beginning of something new.  And in the context of Israel’s political situation, and the threat posed by the Assyrian Empire, the prophet promises something specific – a leader who will rule with justice and mercy, who will be guided not just by his own ambitions and his own counsel but by the spirit of wisdom and righteousness and mercy.  And the prophet promises that the whole order of society, indeed the whole order of creation, is going to be reversed – the rules of life are going to be changed, bent in the direction of God’s original creation and the re-establishment of God’s vision of peace, of shalom, of Eden as it should have been - when all God's creation turns away from hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating. 

And the prophet gives a hint as to how this is going to be accomplished, because the most striking and indeed uncharacteristic thing about the promised ruler is that he will live out of the humility of a deep relationship with the God to whom he knows he has to give an accounting, and whose priority is for the protection of the weak.  And it’s a reversal that again as Christians we see made explicit in Jesus, because the power of this ruler is not going to be the arrogance of military power or administrative control but the relational power of humility and compassion.

And of course the lectionary gives us this reading in Advent for a reason, because as Christians we reflect that the promise of Isaiah is fulfilled, and its challenge is sharpened and made more urgent in the person and ministry of Jesus, the one full of power and humility who demonstrates the way of peace.  And Walter Brueggemann points out that the reading from Isaiah is a challenge to images of Jesus that get reduced to a figure of private devotion, because – if we do identify Jesus with the promised one of Isaiah – then actually we are emphasizing the fact that he was “received, celebrated, and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of this vision of social possibility”. [1] And Brueggemann asks what might happen if Christians allowed Jesus to come out from behind the curtain of our religious piety and actually committed ourselves to bringing Jesus' vision to reality in our shared, public life.

Part of the problem, I think, is that – even as Christians – we have got so used to the way things are that we have forgotten to long for how they should be.  We’ve got used to hearing, for example, about violence in Iraq and Afghanistan – where just last month alone hundreds of innocent people were slaughtered – we’ve got used to hearing about the military dictatorship in Burma and we’ve even got used to hearing about the misery of tens of thousands of Haitians living in tent cities through the wet season and enduring the entirely preventable second tragedy of cholera.  Did you know that we – that is, Australia, our country – spent $46 million dollars this year on trying to persuade the World Soccer Federation to play a game of football here - but contributed only $10 million dollars in emergency assistance to Haiti after January’s earthquake that killed over 200,000 people?  And we get used to this, we accept it as normal, we forget who we are, children of God who have been promised better than this and whose job it is to demand and to work for better than this.

So this is the work of Advent, the deep listening to the voices of prophets and angels that tell us not just that a baby is coming, but that remind us of who we ourselves are, of what our greatest hope is, and of what it might mean for us to live towards that hope instead of settling for a restricted and insulated vision of reality.  What it is – Advent - is the season for setting aside romanticised and sentimentalised images of the child of Bethlehem, and looking instead with hope towards the upside-down, totally improbable Reign of God - the season of asking ourselves what we actually want, what we really hope for and what we are prepared to live for, to give ourselves for.  The season of asking ourselves: if this is really God’s vision of creation, then what’s yours?  If this is the sort of world you want – the world the prophet promises us – what are you prepared to do about it?


[1] Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent Sunday

Well, it’s the season for making lists, and that is exactly what we have been doing this week in my household.  Letters to be written, cards sent, celebrations to attend, presents to buy, decorations and parties to plan, and just in case you’re thinking of putting it off for a week or two, the horrible piped Christmas carols in the shopping centre are winding up to full volume and the store Santas are looming.  It is of course the frantic season, followed by the shortest and most inaptly-named season on the secular Aussie calendar, the season to be jolly, before we plunge as a result of over-consumption and too much fun into the inevitable and rather blessed relief of January, silly season, and nothing much to do except listen to the cricket.

You make the mistake of coming to church, however, in the middle of all this commercialised holiness, and you might be forgiven for thinking you had arrived on a different planet.  Not only do we firmly resist the temptations of tinsel but the readings from the Bible focus our attention – not as you might think on the impending birth of an inoffensive little baby in a scruffy unimportant outpost of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago ... but on the end of all things, and on judgement, all the vaguely scary stuff that seems out of place in the countdown to Christmas. Perhaps the desire of many Christians is that this year, finally, the Church will let us get a bit earlier to the message of peace and goodwill and the general excitement of anticipation of the birth at Bethlehem.

Except, of course, that the sort of nostalgic anticipation that focuses on the birth of a baby two thousand years ago without noticing the connection between that event and the future promises of a God who continues to break into our lives and our world today, tomorrow and the next day – also misses the bigger and ultimately more helpful reality hinted at by Christmas – the claim that history itself is the story of God’s saving activity, and so has a shape, or a trajectory – that history is not random or meaningless because it is headed somewhere.  One thing I can’t help noticing about our Christmas celebrations – both the church kind and the secular kind – is how much they focus on the past, on a romanticised but not deeply thought-about memory of a birth in a stable that is emotionally satisfying because it affirms our own religious traditions - but is of little real help in connecting us with the realities of the world we live in.  Advent, however, forces us to think not backwards but forwards, toward the challenge and the fulfilment of all things, the hope that someday the world will be at peace, that one day, finally, creation will be as God wants it to be.

We live, as I may have suggested before, in an age of anxiety.  Probably every generation has its own unique things to worry about – as a university student in the late 70s I remember a general feeling of anxiety about the threat of nuclear oblivion – someone somewhere had a finger more or less permanently hovering over the button that would start the countdown to the end of the world as we knew it.  Today the end of the world comes in a variety of slower-motion scenarios – images of a planet that is drying out, running out of oil or heating up, losing its wealth of plant and animal species, running out of space and food as the human population continues to grow unsustainably; endemic levels of political and ideological conflict creating entire populations on the move and increasing our anxiety even further – and we have seen recently how politicians of all persuasions play on our general anxiety and sense of helplessness, re-focussing it as a fear of asylum seekers, re-branding our insecurity as a demand for stronger border protection.  Little wonder then that at this time of year we long for the familiar fairytale narrative of shopping, and decorations, and carols?

But the tradition of the Church suggests otherwise, and nudges our attention towards the future, as well as towards the long-ago story that helps us to remember who God is, and how God works in the world, in our lives – and the reason for this double-focus is so we can get a sense of where we are headed, and what the promises of God will bring. And so Advent calls us to remember and re-tell the story of people who, like us, were looking to the future, and waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, and striving to live faithfully as they waited. One part of faithfulness, of course, is repentance, turning away from the paths that have taken us away from God, turning off the things that have drowned out God's voice in our hearts and minds, and turning toward new ways of living that offer hope not just to us but to those we encounter, in our personal lives, and in the wider world that God loves.

Our Gospel reading this morning is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ anxiety – anxiety about history, and events yet to come, and how God’s purposes could possibly be fulfilled in a world that seems oblivious to them.  And this text is part of a longer passage in which Jesus talks about how we should live in the ‘in-between’ times – the times between Jesus’ historical life and death and resurrection and his return to make all things whole, and right, and good.  While most Bible scholars agree that the specific focus of this passage is the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Roman armies in 70AD – an event that for the writer of the Gospel was already past history – it is clear also that Jesus expected that God to break into human history in a way that would transform and fulfil the initial act of creation.  And he speaks over and over again about the agenda of God in human history – but notice that in today’s reading Jesus specifically tells us he doesn’t know God’s timing, he isn’t giving us a future blueprint of history, just the assurance that God is active within it.  As Christians of course we see the main evidence for this in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus himself.  That however much God’s purposes in history are hidden from us, we know that God’s priorities are the ones revealed in the life of Jesus.

And I think it is significant that in this passage the focus shifts from grand and cosmic images to the mundane and ordinary, from a vision of the sun and moon going dark and stars falling out of the sky to a picture of workers in the field and women in the kitchen.  It reminds us that we need to connect the great and remote-sounding statements of the Gospel to our own lives, and the mundane events of our own time.  Theologian Mary Shore points out though that where apocalyptic writings like Daniel and Revelation seem to be addressed to people living through great and terrible persecution, giving hope that God will break in from outside to restore and set things right, this passage from Matthew seems to be addressed to sleepy people, people who have lost focus or forgotten their original vision.  People – perhaps like us – who have been living with limited expectations for so long they no longer believe that anything much will ever change.  And she describes the passage as what we Aussies would call a “wake-up call” – a reminder to expect the unexpected, a reminder that the X-factor in human history is God, and that ultimately, human power and human plans are not the last word. [1]

Which in fact is deeply reassuring, especially for disciples like us who look around us at the world we live in and see – a seemingly endless parade of human suffering, cynicism and indifference.  It’s easy, for example, to see the deaths of 29 miners in Greymouth, New Zealand, as a great and arbitrary tragedy – less easy, however, to see the deaths of 10,000 underground miners every single year as anything other than the consequence of misplaced human priorities that place more value on coal and power and industry than on the lives of men and women.  And living in a world defined by human competitiveness and greed, the only way to preserve hope, the only way to maintain a willing sense of discipleship, is to trust that at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God.  Today’s reading reminds us that the living God waiting for us around the next bend is the wild card of our own lives and of history itself, the holy surprise that not only illuminates and makes sense of our lives, but that finally gathers the whole of human history into the extravagant mercy of God.

And Matthew gives us in the very next chapter a hint as to how we are supposed to live while we wait for God’s promises, or, to use the familiar imagery of Christian expectation, for Jesus’ return.  As writer David Bartlett puts it: ‘one day, perhaps, Jesus will reappear, suddenly, in the clouds or like a thief in the night, and we had better be prepared.  But before that – in fact every single day of our lives -  Jesus is going to appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbour ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned’. And how we respond to Jesus in these situations is going to set the terms for how Jesus responds to us on the great day of judgement and fulfilment.

In other words, the focus for Christians waiting for the fulfilment of all things, in other words, needs to be on how we live our lives right now in ways that are pleasing to God and that demonstrate our trust in God’s goodness.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: ‘resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow’.  Focus instead on how you live today.  Ours, Taylor reminds us, may very well be the generation that witnesses the triumphant return of Jesus in the clouds – or else we might meet him in the same way that all the generations before us have - one by one by one, as each of us closes our eyes for the last time. Either way, our lives are in God's hands, and that’s OK. [2]


[1] New Proclamation 2007

[2] "On the Clouds of Heaven" in The Seeds of Heaven

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reign of Christ

A couple of months ago the world was stunned – and the governments of the United States, Great Britain and Australia among others infuriated – by the release on the Internet of almost 400,000 separate classified documents and images detailing the conduct of coalition forces in the war in Iraq.  The documents were released by the whistle-blower Internet media organisation Wikileaks, which somehow manages to operate beyond the reach of the governments it is criticising and has previously broken explosive stories on climate change, government corruption religious cults and espionage.  In the introduction to the mass of material on its website, Wikileaks comments that the material it is making available detail over 109,000 separate deaths in Iraq which include the deaths of over 66,000 civilians, or 31 non-combatant men, women and children every single day for six years, many at the hands of coalition forces including Australian troops.  The Wikileaks material documents in excruciating and horrifying detail the flagrant disregard of accepted international legal standards, and documents instance after instances of overwhelming force being used against civilian targets by coalition forces who apparently operated most of the time under a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ policy.  Also documented are allegations of coalition forces involvement in torture, summary executions and other war crimes.  The project’s organisers comment that they felt morally obliged to publish the material “knowing that we all stand under the judgement of God”.

Interestingly the response from coalition governments including our own has not been to dispute the truthfulness of the material released by Wikileaks but to complain that the release of the material puts coalition forces in greater danger, and to attack Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

The point, of course, is that if the Wikileaks material is genuine – and so far there is no argument about that – then its publication in defiance of the Pentagon, of the British and Australian governments is an act of moral courage, and a commitment to the liberating power of truth.  And – it seems to me – an appropriate introduction to our reflection on the kingship of Christ.  At first glance, you might not think the connection is very obvious – but today’s liturgical theme, the reign of Christ, is a newcomer to the Church calendar, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, in the aftermath of the war to end all wars and the looming shadow of the even darker war that began a half-century of violent aftershocks, in the context of the wave of destabilising European nationalist movements in the 1920s – and Pope Pius asserted in his encyclical that the Feast of Christ the King would call to mind for all earthly powers and authorities that their actions and their use of power is called into question and ultimately judged by the one whose reign is founded in the refusal to accept any limitation to the power of forgiveness and love.

And so we listen to Luke’s Gospel for an idea of what Jesus tells us God’s reign is all about.  And in our passage today we can hardly miss the note of irony that points uncomfortably to the contradictions in our own world and in ourselves.

Jesus, who has spent three years proclaiming and demonstrating God's reign, who has specialised in the telling of parables – pointed little stories - to tell men and women about the scandalous grace and the universal welcome of God's reign, in today’s passage is mocked on the cross as a false king – as a pretender and an impostor. He is mocked by the religious leaders, by the soldiers, and by the sign above his head that describes this dying 'criminal' as king of the Jews - when he clearly isn't. And the mockery follows the same theme through the whole episode - if Jesus is a king, then he should save himself, and he should also save others. For one of the brigands crucified alongside Jesus it gets even more personal - if there is any saving going to be done, he wants to be a beneficiary, and be released from the consequences of his own actions.

And this is the irony that Luke the Gospel writer is spreading on thick: that right while Jesus is being mocked for his inability to save himself and others, for being a false king – is right when he is doing exactly what is being asked of him, and right when he is doing what any true king or political leader should do.  For everybody gathered at the foot of Jesus’ cross there is real saving going on – words of forgiveness spoken even as they mock; the promise of life for the repentant brigand; the recognition by the Roman Centurion a few verses further on of Jesus' true identity.  For Jesus himself?  The decision to die consistently with how he lived and what he taught and promised, to be a leader who lays down his life for those around him, for those who love him and for those who hate him.  And the vindication of Jesus’ topsy turvy policy of repaying hate and betrayal with forgiveness and love as first Jesus’ closest disciples, then gradually Jews and Gentiles and the whole of the known world begin to experience the shamed and crucified criminal as the risen one, the Word of God that unravels the mystery of our own lives by placing God’s priority of vulnerable love in contradiction to our practice of power and violence.

In short, on the cross, Jesus heals and saves those around him, and demonstrates the power of his kingship that ultimately calls all human institutions and all human pretences at power into question.

If we follow the logic of Jesus on the cross, then everything that we are accustomed to associating with kingship and power in human terms is not what the reign of Christ or the kingdom of God is about.  Actually we shouldn’t be surprised, because that after all is what Jesus taught in his parables and in the way he lived.  God’s reign, Jesus says, is surprising and humble and vulnerable, and it creeps in when you are not watching, and it is found in the smallest and the least valued of human experiences, and – as the Song of Mary claims – reverses our human priorities, our human love of wealth and power and makes worthless everything we thought was valuable and valuable what we thought was worthless.  Or as St Paul tells us – the power of God is what in human terms would be considered weakness and ridiculousness and yet – the folly and vulnerability of God makes relative and worthless all human claims to power.

Sometimes we read claims like these as saying just that God has got more power even in his little finger than all the nuclear arsenals of the world combined – even when he isn’t trying, even when he has one hand tied behind his back God is still way stronger than any sort of human strength – but that, I think, is not it at all.  Rather, I think, what is being said is quite literally – that the weakness of God, the vulnerability and powerless of God that we see in Jesus on the cross – is what challenges and relativises and erodes our human exercise of power.  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer looked around himself during World War 2 as his Jewish countrymen and women were being rounded up for deportation and claimed that only a God who is powerless to prevent human evil made sense.  The only God left for us, Bonhoeffer claimed, was the God who allowed himself, over and over, to be pushed aside onto the cross.  The only God that any longer made sense was the God who opposed human evil with nothing more than suffering love.  And this is the kingship of Christ, the reign of God that continues even into our present day to call into question and to critique human evil and to stand in solidarity with human suffering.

Today’s feast, the Reign of Christ, is not a feel-good, triumphalistic and over-spiritualised celebration of the risen Christ seated in heaven at the right hand of God, or even of the Christ of personal devotion elevated as king in the recesses of our hearts.  According to Pope Pius XI, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to St Paul and to the Gospel writer to assert the Reign of Christ is first and foremost an act of political defiance, a claim that God, not human power, gets the last word – and an undertaking to live by the reversed set of values that the crucified Jesus demonstrates.

To oppose murder and betrayal with suffering love and forgiveness.  To oppose meanness of spirit with inclusive love and generosity.  To oppose selfishness and greed with trusting love and self-sacrifice.  To oppose the fear and timidity of our own hearts with the vulnerability and transforming love of the crucified Jesus.

We are actually not very good at this.  We fall back, all the time, into patterns of defensive living and selfishness and mistrust of those who are different from us, different in appearance or class or ethnicity or religion.  We use our own faith as a way of affirming our own value and ignoring the truth of others.  We claim to follow the way of love but practice competitiveness and ungenerosity of spirit.  We are not very good at recognising or at living the reign of Christ.

The one thing, in fact, that stands between us and despair - is the vulnerability and weakness of the crucified and risen Christ himself who without condemnation calls all human practices of power to account, including our own.  Thank God for that.



Friday, November 12, 2010

Pentecost 25C

Arthur Malcolm Stace is, I suggest, the best-known and most widely quoted preacher Australia has ever known.  You might not know the name.  Maybe it will help if I also say that Stace is also Australia’s earliest, greatest and certainly most prolific graffiti artist ever.  Stace, of course, is the man who wrote the word ‘Eternity’ on the pavements of Sydney in chalk over half a million times between 1932 and his retirement in 1960.  Stace’s one-word sermon was quoted in full – in letters a hundred metres high –in lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the middle of the fireworks on New Years Day 2000 – making him also probably the Australian preacher whose sermons have reached the widest audience ever, and certainly the only Australian preacher whose collected works most of us know off by heart.

Stace, of course, is talking about the end of human existence – not the finish, not the last bit after which there is nothing left, but the end, the destination or the purpose of human existence, which is Eternity.  Stace also points us, in the sheer volume of his output and in the surprising ordinariness of the places it was and still is likely to turn up, to the fact that the end of human existence is among us and all around us, right here and now.  The end of all things is hidden, but turns up unexpectedly, as Jesus also suggests, like treasure buried in the backyards of our suburban lives; or the love note from your spouse that you discover half-way down your shopping list.

Every year, around the end of the cycle of readings before we get into the exciting business of Advent, the church gives us for the Sunday readings a set of texts that has us think about the end of all things.  For the mainstream church and for liberal theologians like me, this poses a few problems.  We’re more at home talking about how Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom challenges the way we live, challenges the assumptions of a comfortable Western lifestyle, challenges us to re-order our priorities in line with God’s preferential concern for the have-nots, for the ones who are left out.  We’re not quite so at home putting on the sandwich board and walking up and down the footpath with a sign that says, ‘the end is nigh’.  There are enough people out there doing that already, from the secular prophets predicting the end of civilization as we know it as a result of environmental breakdown or global warming, to the religious ones making tidy sums out of claiming to have cracked the apocalyptic code of international political events.  What’s the message for us in Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth, or in Luke’s warnings of the end of the old ones?

Two words probably sum up everything we need to say – the first one from Stace – Eternity – the second one from Jesus in today’s gospel reading – don’t panic!  But let’s look, firstly, at the message of Isaiah.

The first thing to notice is that these last few chapters of Isaiah were written some time after the Jewish people returned from their long exile in Babylon - after the homecoming, after the temple has been rebuilt, to a people who are disillusioned and disappointed because even though they have returned to the land, the reality hasn’t turned out quite as wonderful as the expectation.  The glorious future they’d built themselves up to expect had turned out to be fairly ordinary. In this section of the writing, the message of 3rd Isaiah says that Israel’s expectation of political restoration was too narrow, what God is on about is nothing less than a new creation – and if we read it carefully, Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth where meat-eaters turn into vegetarians, where people will live heroic lifespans and children will not be born for calamity – where peace will prevail for every creature except that old trouble-maker, the serpent – Isaiah’s vision reminds us of the creation story of Genesis, it’s a vision of Eden before Eden went wrong.  It’s a vision of a new creation where instead of trying to keep secrets from God, and trying to compete with God, humans will depend on God and trust in God’s good purposes.  Everything that has prevented creation from being what God intended is going to be taken away – the details of this utopia are less important than the vision itself – of a new creation in which the daily disasters we see on the TV news aren’t going to determine the future of God’s creation – neither terrorism nor military force are going to have the last word in God’s creation – neither political deception nor domestic violence, neither environmental neglect nor poverty are going to limit what human life can be.  The suffering in Haiti or Burma is not going to have the last word.  Isaiah announces that there’s going to be a radical makeover of the whole creation, a re-integration of the physical and the social and the spiritual aspects of life, and the renewing of our relationships with one another and with God – as Christians, we understand this as the coming to fullness in creation of the resurrection of Christ, or as the outworking of God’s kingdom that Jesus promised in his ministry and demonstrated in his death and his rising into new life.  So this reading from Isaiah reminds us not only of the beginning and the purpose of creation, but of the one event within creation that holds everything together - the joining of heaven and earth that begins with the birth of Jesus, and is completed in the resurrection of the Christ.  The initiative in all of this is God’s and our job is just to trust in God’s purposes, and to trust that God’s intention is to complete and to fulfil the creation that God loves.  When we fall into the temptation of pragmatism – when we look around and say to ourselves, ‘what if this is as good as it gets?’, then we need the perspective of Eternity.

And so to Luke where, at first glance, Jesus seems to be predicting the exact opposite, destruction and chaos and instability.  Here again we need to know the context, because Luke is writing after the event, after the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman armies and the destruction of the second temple in 70AD.  This was the result of a short-lived revolt against Rome during the late 60s - an unmitigated disaster in which a series of short-lived messianic leaders exploited the general panic – Maybe Jesus back in the early 30s predicted the fall of the temple, maybe Luke is putting words in Jesus mouth – that’s not the real point.  But Luke’s readers, this group of Christians, know what it is to have lived through catastrophe and terror, when everything that seemed solid collapsed around them.  The point Jesus (or Luke) is making is, know where your centre is, when you see people trading on despair to whip up religious or political fanaticism, people who claim to know the secret code of history – and we have enough modern doomsday merchants for this to be familiar – we’ve seen in recent times how fear of terrorism can explode into irrationality and victimisation – when we see that the realities of the world we live in are driven by fear, and hatred and suspicion, and the secular wisdom is to retreat into our factions, to react to the hype and the one-liners of media editors or doomsday preachers – Jesus says remember where your centre is, live out of the wisdom of God and the centre which is the Holy Spirit, not out of fear.  When we fall into the temptation of despair – when we look around at the madness and the darkness of our world and say to ourselves, ‘God must be dead’ – then we need the perspective of Eternity.  Luke is realistic – he knows something about conflict and betrayal, he’s not promising that Christians are going to be immune, that we’ll have special protection, but he’s saying live out of trust that our future is in God’s hands, and that even in adversity we can trust in God’s care for us.  Trusting God doesn’t mean withdrawing from the events of our time, it means opposing the madness and hatred that fear creates, it means opposing oppression wherever we find it, it means standing up for those in our community who are on the edges, but above all it means living out of the stillness and the wisdom of God, trusting in God’s purposes and God’s intention to complete and fulfil God’s creation.

Today Jesus says to us, don’t panic.  Live from the perspective of Eternity, instead.


Pentecost 24C

The  movie, Amadeus, about the life of Mozart as told from the point of view of his jealous arch-rival, Salieri, makes the point that Mozart’s life spans the closing decades of the 18th century, a time when much that was certain and fixed was breaking down.  It was the time of ending of old political alliances and notions of Empire, and the beginning of the age of modernism, a time of enforced change as the marauding armies of Napoleon tore down the old Europe and replaced royal courts with efficient bureaucratic administrations and the rule of the proletariat.  It was also a time of relentless cultural change, with Salieri at one point lamenting that proper Italian operas were being tossed aside for Mozart’s flashy music-hall extravaganzas.  I must admit when I first read the play on which the movie was later based I found the thought intriguing.  Mozart – who for most of us today represents a tradition that is time-honoured and for younger people even rigid and stuffy – through the eyes of Salieri comes over as a brash, self-opinionated pop-star, his music - brilliant and innovative and ultra-modern as it is – offensive to good taste.

And so it is with the Pharisees.  We in the church are accustomed – wrongly accustomed, in my humble opinion – to a jaundiced view of the Pharisees as seen through the eyes of the Gospel writers and the early Church.  The Pharisees seem to represent a way of looking at the world and of thinking about God that is rigid and hide-bound and unimaginatively tied to lists of do’s and don’ts.  The Pharisees – so the Christian tradition often supposes – completely miss the point of God’s love and of the stunningly free gift of grace.  And I guess we hold this opinion of the Pharisees because Jesus argued with them so much.  Well, but what if Jesus argued with the Pharisees because they were worth arguing with?  What if they argued a lot because they agreed about a lot?

Because in today’s Gospel reading it is the Pharisees – and Jesus – who represent the radical, fresh, smarty-pants new thinking – and who are coming under fire from the old school, the sect of the Sadducees.  Certainly, there seems to have been a bewildering array of different Jewish sects and splinter groups all arguing ferociously amongst themselves, and in the early Church itself there was also fierce argument between different traditions and communities who – as St Paul complains – see themselves as followers of Apollo or followers of Paul or even – some of them – followers of Christ.  It’s good for us to bear this in mind especially when from time to time we hear the complaint that we should all just go back to the good old-fashioned religion of the early Church where things were as they should be.  The reality is that disagreement about what God is like and what God expects us to be like is as old as religion itself!  The Sadducees believed in the good old-fashioned books of the Bible, the first five called the Pentateuch.  God had spoken through Moses and that according to the Sadducees was that.  The Sadducees didn’t hold with the idea that God was still speaking to God’s people, didn’t like the idea of letting newer writings like the prophetic literature into the Bible, and certainly didn’t accept that God could be revealing new truths through outsiders.  There was nothing in the Pentateuch about heaven or eternity, and like good religious people everywhere it became very important for the Sadducees to prove how ridiculous their opponents were - and so in today’s story they come up with a hypothetical example as a way of demonstrating how this new-fangled belief in resurrection leads to an impossible contradiction.

Well, we should probably pause at this point and feel sorry for the poor lady in the example who gets passed along from brother to brother like a sack of potatoes, and certainly we need to notice that the hypothetical situation revolves around the Levirate marriage system which was designed to ensure the continuity of families in a society where there was no such thing as social welfare.  A patriarchal society that more or less treated women as possessions.  But the real point that is being made in today’s Gospel story is about God.

And in fact, at this point in the history of the Jewish people, belief in life after death was very new-fangled.  Most scholars believe that teaching about resurrection started to creep into Jewish thought just a few centuries before the birth of Jesus, when the people of Judah newly released from exile began to re-establish their religious practices under the cultural and political influence of the Persian Empire.  Like the belief in angels, the idea of personal immortality may have been a fairly recent import into Judaism from Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Empire.  And new sects like the Pharisees picked it up and embraced it and thought yes, that makes sense.  That’s how God would be, that makes sense of God’s perspective on justice, especially when we live in a world where justice is so often denied.  A belief in resurrection seemed natural to a people who had lived through the destruction of the Temple and long years of exile.  And so the hope of liberation, that is at the very bedrock of the religion of Israel, began to also mean a hope that at the end of this life, at the end of the age, everything that keeps men and women imprisoned and oppressed would be transformed.  And so the righteous would surely be raised from the dead.  Life, they thought, just wouldn’t make sense otherwise.  And Jesus, like the Pharisees, embodies this hope and belief in resurrection, this hope that all that we are is not lost at the end of our earthly life, but is somehow gathered into God and completed. 

And Jesus answers the Sadducees’ hypothetical question, and his answer makes a couple of things really clear.  Firstly that he is on the side of those who think that God can and does keep speaking new words in new times, that faith is not tied to dusty old scriptures but also grows in response to new situations and new experiences.  That our thinking about God needs to take account not only of our own religious traditions but the insights of other traditions and other ways of seeing the world.  He is a Mozart, in other words, not a Salieri.

And the second thing is – in just a couple of words – he tells us why we don’t just die into nothing.  Which is surprising because at first glance Jesus answer looks a bit flaky.  Not one of his very best arguments.  Hey! says Jesus to the Sadducees, the books of the Pentateuch that you yourselves accept describe God as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – and everybody knows that God is the God not of the dead but of the living – so obviously Abraham and Isaac and Jacob must be not dead but living.  Well, um, OK.

But I’ve thought about this some more, and I think what Jesus is saying here is stunning in its simplicity.  He is actually pointing out the obvious, which is that the only sensible way to talk about God - is as a God whose character and existence are revealed in relationship.  In relationship with actual men and women in the unfolding of history.  What it means is that God is not God by Godself – but God with us.  God is love, God is the God of relationship.  And if that is the case, if God is first and foremost God with us, and if God’s loving care of us continues so that even in death God is still God with us, then we also are with God.  If God’s life is first and foremost a sort of creative relationality – a relationship which brings us into existence – then our own identity and our own existence is constituted out of relationship with God.  So if God remains God, then we remain in relationship with God.  If God’s loving care for us never ends, then our relationship and our life in God never ends.

It’s a big claim, but it’s a simple claim.  We die into God because of who God is, and because of who we are created to be.

But then in Luke’s version of the story is where Jesus - or perhaps the Gospel writer himself - pads out the argument with the observation that the Sadducees’  hypothetical situation can’t arise in any case because there is no sex in heaven.  Which from the point of view of the poor seven-times married wife might seem like rather a relief though the rest of us might not necessarily see it as such a good idea.  It seems to come from the idea that because there is no more dying, there is no more need for babies – and of course owes much to the sort of over-religious values common in both Jesus’ day and also in our own that curiously overlook the blessing that God bestows on sexual union in Genesis chapter two.  And in fact Jesus’ own theology of loving relationship that lies behind his answer to the Sadducees suggests that we are who we are not only in relationship to God but in relationship to one another – that our human relationships are based on the foundational relationship we have with God – so without arguing the point perhaps we might also trust that the relationships we have with those whom we have loved throughout our lives might also be fulfilled and completed in the life beyond this.

The point is simply that God is God.  That the basis of all our hope as Christians is that we are formed and live our lives in the context of God’s love, and that trust in the eternal God of love to complete and fulfill us in love in the life beyond this is surely not misplaced.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

All Saints

In his famous novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke makes the cryptic observation on the opening page: behind every human being now living, there stand thirty ghosts.  Of course 42 years since the publication of Clarke’s story, the population of the world having doubled a couple of times, the proportion may be a little less, but it’s an intriguing thought.  For every living human being, for every man, woman and child alive today, there is a chain of long forgotten humanity that has lived and died.  I find myself wondering at how much of who I am and how I think and behave is passed on to me from the long line of ancestors whose genes I carry, and the infinitely wider crowd of spiritual ancestors who saw and reflected on and dreamed about and changed the world into which I was born.  For every human being now living, 30 human creatures connect us to the shadows of pre-conscious existence.  It’s an oddly disturbing thought.

Today’s celebration, the Feast of All Saints which technically belongs tomorrow, on the 1st of November, and the following day, All Souls on 2 November, prompt us in different ways to reflect on our connection with those who have lived and died before us.  Unfortunately in recent times the Church observance of All Souls has tended to be overshadowed by the brighter, more triumphalist and generally self-congratulatory celebration of All Saints – as well as the gaudy secular observance of Hallowe’en on 31 October (which is, of course ... today).  But the focus of all three is on those who have preceded us, our personal 30 ghosts.

According to Wikipedia – the source of much valuable if sometimes factually dubious research, the celebrations of Hallowe’en originate in the ancient Irish festival of Samhain, or ‘summer’s end’, the gateway between the ‘lighter, brighter’  half of the year and its descent into the darkness of winter.  Samhain was sometimes referred to as the Celtic New Year, and its theme - the passage into darkness – also led to the belief that at Samhain the membrane separating the visible from the invisible realm became thin and permeable, a luminous veil across which earth and heaven reached into one another.  In other words, at Samhain the unseen world leaked into this one.  And so at Samhain – which according to Wikipedia conveniently got displaced onto the Christian calendar to the eve of the Feast of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve – well at Samhain it was necessary to kick up your heels and have a riotous good time getting drunk, lighting bonfires and scaring farm animals in order to confuse any unwelcome visitors from the Other Realm.

A North American friend asked me a while ago how we Aussies could possibly do Christmas at a time of year when the days were not short and dark, when the planet was not locked in the grip of winter and everything in the natural world was not slipping into the self-maintenance of hibernation.  And I reflected that for us, at least, in the Mediterranean climate we enjoy in Perth the heat of summer functions in much the same way as a Northern winter - animals and humans alike seek out patches of shade and minimise their activity, the earth lies fallow and human activity becomes nocturnal.  As the grass browns we re-learn the wisdom of stillness and the virtue of sitting on verandahs drinking gin.  My American friend wasn’t convinced, I think, but I knew I was right.

Perhaps as Australians we also approach the onset of summer with the double-knowledge of people whose 30 personal ghosts lived in the Northern Hemisphere, who understood the threshold of All Hallows Eve as the invitation to let go of all their certainties about the world and God – and to allow themselves to be overtaken by the creeping darkness of unknowing.  The disturbing sense that this year, as the sun dies, it might never awaken.  This year, the sleep of winter might be forever.  And so the cusp between the seasons reminds us of the Christian tradition of silence and unknowing that the mystics call apophasis, the rich tradition of writers like Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross.  It is this tradition that reminds us that the darkness of hibernation has a rich ambiguity that contradicts our accustomed certainty about God and about ourselves – a deep silence that exposes the shallow chatter we so often substitute for prayer – and an invitation to a mature spirituality that is more about letting go than about holding on to our preconceptions.

The call to reflect on our ancestors in the journey of faith and the long struggle to become human is helpful, I think, in a world where human certainty about God is sadly the cause of so much violence and degradation.  Maybe we would be less inclined to wield our religious certainties as weapons if we were all to reflect on the necessary connection between resurrection and crucifixion, the dark night of unknowing that has to be travelled before we get to the making of images and the telling of stories.  Perhaps some fruitful reflection on our spiritual ancestors who have passed before us into the great night of the soul might help us to release our grip on what we think we know, to become less self-confident in speaking for God and better practised at waiting.  In these other Great Three Days of our faith, perhaps the most fruitful spiritual exercise is simply to fall silent and listen to the turning of the earth.

As the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”, and these days, it seems to me, are about more than just a cheery recitation of the virtues of the saints, or even a solemn assuring of one another that we ourselves are called to be saintly.  Rather, I think, we are called to reflect on and to learn how to recognise the connection between the stories of our past and our own uncharted lives.  Honouring the communion of saints implies that lives lived before ours still matter, still have an impact on the world we live in and on our own lives.  It means recognising that there is an ancient wisdom and a hard-won integrity wrung from generations of struggle and from the endless round of heartache and joy.  It means we live not just in this one frail moment of time because we are connected and in conversation with those who have confronted and finally passed beyond our sight into the great mystery of time and existence and God.  In earlier times every church was surrounded by a little graveyard, literally encircled in a tangible reminder that the living and the dead together are called to enact the mystery of praise.  How wonderful is that!

When we begin to hear the stories and see the faded photographs of the generations of our family who went before us, and to hear the pre-echoes of our own existence in long-forgotten lives, we start to learn afresh who we are and what we mean.  And so it is with our spiritual ancestors, the ancestors of our faith.  The memories live inside and all around us, waiting for us to give them flesh and blood in our own lives.  They are a sacred thread connecting us with the story of salvation and the story of our own DNA, the mystery of what it means to be human and the revelation that we are joined to the life of God.

A saint, of course, is one who is set apart as holy, consecrated – in Hebrew the word qedosim [1] or in New Testament Greek hagoi [2]- and it is true that in St Paul’s letters to the churches in Corinth and Philippi he speaks of the vocations of all Christians to be, or to become, saints.  Sometimes in the New Testament those referred to as saints are the helpers and enablers of the church – at other times the saints are those in need of help, but always those called to the work of prayer.  Those living and dead.  The context of our celebration in the great three days of reflection on those who have travelled before us into the light of God suggests that our vocation to be saints does not come to us in isolation but in the community of fellow travellers.

About whom, I wonder, are you reflecting as I speak?  The lives interwoven into the fabric of your own, the souls now resting with their Maker that converse with you, with whom the conversation of your life acquires its full meaning.  Those loved, those learned from and taught, those wondered about, those betrayed, those lost?  Your thirty?


[1] Ps 16.3, 34.9

[2] eg: Mtt 27.52, Acts 9.13, 26.10