Friday, July 30, 2010

Pentecost +10C

I got one of those supposedly funny emails the other day.  Now before anyone starts thinking, ‘oh, he’s into those’, and puts me on their sender list, I’m really, really not in to them.  But anyway this one said,

If you can start the day without caffeine,

If you can always be cheerful,

If you can resist complaining and  boring people with your troubles, 

If you can eat the same food every  day and be grateful for it, 

If you can understand when your loved  ones are too busy to give you any time, 

If you can take criticism and  blame without resentment,

If you can resist treating a rich friend  better than a poor friend, 

If you can relax without alcohol,  

If you can get to sleep at night without worrying about the day’s problems …

...then you are probably the family dog!   

The rest of us, of course, can’t get away from the fact that we live in the real world where we do have worries and responsibilities, where we have to make adequate provision for ourselves and our families.  We worry because it’s hard enough to make ends meet at the best of times, we worry because we don’t know what the future holds, what emergencies or difficult times might lie ahead, we worry because even though we’re earning more today than we ever did in the past, the cost of everything keeps going up, interest rates are back on the upward spiral.  We worry because our lives are lived in the tension of a wealthy country in which our desire for material things is manipulated by the images of consumption and success that surround us, the contradiction of a society in which great wealth and persistent poverty sit side by side.

So when Jesus teaches us about money, about the conflict between wealth and justice, about the difficulties for those burdened down by wealth in getting into God’s kingdom, it can be hard to listen without feeling defensive, the sort of internal disclaimer by which we exempt ourselves from being the ones Jesus is talking about.  ‘Not me, I’m living on the pension’.  ‘Not me, I haven’t even got a job’.  ‘Not me, sure, we’re comfortable but we’ve worked hard for what we’ve got’.  And so we find various ways of telling ourselves that this one is for somebody else.

Except the conversation Jesus has with the envious man in the crowd before he starts telling this story tips us off that it’s not so much about wealth.  Jesus tells us it’s about greed, the unattractive human characteristic of putting ourselves first.  It’s about what our actions reveal about what is really most important in our lives.  And it’s about insecurity, the ways in which we try to give ourselves a bit of insurance against future uncertainty.  In the context of eternity, what really matters?  And so Jesus tells this story about the farmer with the bumper crop.  He’s done the hard work, he’s had some good luck, the rains have come at the right time, none of the workers went on strike, he’s got the best problem a farmer can possibly have, not enough room to store his windfall.  And who can blame him for feeling good about himself, for making a few plans for expansion?  In our country, at least, we’re used to expressing approval for the person who is reaping the rewards for good planning, hard work, and a bit of luck. There’s no suggestion he has ripped anybody off or cut any corners.  Why shouldn’t he feel a bit self-satisfied?

‘Except’, says God, who doesn’t usually get a speaking role in these stories, ‘that you’re going to be dead by tonight’. 

Like the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.  In the context of eternity, in the context of the last day of your life, what really matters?  What would you look back at on that last day and say, ‘I wish I’d done more of that’?  The story suggests he has got his priorities wrong.  The farmer has been successful in the things that his culture and ours tell us are important, hard work and material success, a comfortable lifestyle – he just hasn’t been successful in what really matters, he hasn’t been rich toward God. 

There are a number of levels we can unpack this on.  The tantalizing or maybe infuriating thing about the story is that Jesus doesn’t actually tell us how the farmer has been poor towards God.  Which means we have to think about ourselves, and the ways in which we ourselves substitute our own needs and our own security for the perspective of God.  On this level I don’t think it matters whether you have a barn-full of wheat or not, the story applies to you and me just as much as it does to James Packer.  We view ourselves as people who don’t have, or who might not have, or who might lose what they have.  It’s an insurance mentality, which assumes the future is fearful and which focuses on managing risks.  And so we make our calculations, depending on where we are in the lifecycle, so much superannuation, so much savings, pay off the mortgage by such and such a year.  Or we calculate which political party is going to guarantee our security, to protect us from unfair dismissal or rising interest rates or global warming.  And I actually don’t want to suggest that the calculations are wrong, that we shouldn’t plan for the future or think carefully about what is promised at a political level.  Except that somewhere along the way we forget the lesson of the lilies and the birds, the parable, incidentally, that Jesus tells straight after today’s reading.  We forget to be in touch with what is, we lose touch with the beauty of creation and the wonder of every present moment, we stop noticing the Holy Spirit murmuring in our own hearts or smiling in the face of a stranger on the street, we forget what God is like, and we forget that the God who surrounds us with blessedness is also the God of the future.  We forget to trust that our own lives are unfolding in God, and that what seems hard or fearful or cold in our own lives, the absence, as we sometimes see it, of God – we forget that what hides God from us sometimes – is us.  Like the rich farmer we are in danger of lapsing into what one writer has called practical atheism, the credibility gap of Christians who say they believe in God but act as though God is absent.  Jesus is reminding us that our security and our future rests in God.

The second thing, perhaps, to notice about this story is that the man’s ‘I-s’ are too close together.  My Bible commentary points out that in this story the successful farmer uses the word ‘I’ or ‘me’ eleven times – never the word ‘we’ or ‘our’ and certainly not the word ‘their’.  Toxic insecurity makes us self-centred.  Holy insecurity – learning to trust in the rightness of God and the goodness of creation – holy insecurity makes us other-centred.  And so the farmer doesn’t rush into town to ask for help in dealing with the unexpected problem of full-to-overflowing barns, he doesn’t ask himself how the blessing he has experienced might be the opportunity to be a blessing to others, instead he sits at home alone, he turns inward and stays there, calculating that he can be self-sufficient and secure. 

It’s helpful, sometimes, to ask how the stories Jesus tells would have been heard by his original listeners, the farmers and day-labourers and fishermen, the old folk and children who gathered around him in the villages of the rural backwater of Galilee.  The poor folk, in other words, who know that community is a safety net, not a lifestyle, and who suspect that their own poverty is what keeps other folk in comfort.  This is one of the Gospel stories that liberation theologians in the slums of Manila or the impoverished rural areas of Bolivia claim reveals God’s perspective on human life, and God’s priority for the poor.  That God is on the side of those who suffer economic disadvantage while the successful and the powerful hoard what they have.  For us living in a wealthy, often fairly self-satisfied, country, who whether or not we think of ourselves as particularly well-off live a lifestyle that two-thirds of the world would consider opulent, and who consume energy and water and natural resources at a profligate rate – the parable of the rich fool raises some awkward questions about our own need for generosity, our need to share more and to consume less.  In the context of an election campaign maybe we need to ask ourselves whether, nationally, we are like the farmer with the full to overflowing barns.

On this level, the lesson of the parable is that human communities are interconnected, that in God’s perspective the human economy depends both on earning and on sharing.  Vitally, it makes the connection between being rich toward God and being rich toward others, understanding our own lives as interconnected with the lives of others and the blessings of our own lives as an opportunity to live as a blessing to others.

If you want to take it with you, give it away.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

St James the Great

In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, the king leads his troops into a spectacularly successful battle against the French with the cry, ‘God for Harry, England and St George!’  As Aussies, we maybe don’t quite get it.  Our country isn’t quite old enough, our roots don’t go far enough back into the sources of Western Christian culture to really do saints with any great enthusiasm.  Perhaps the nearest we could come is to invoke the name of a football team, maybe St Kilda would work for us.  But the days were, back in the 12th and 13th centuries and the beginnings of the Crusades, when national saints were all the go, when the marauding armies of Western Europe were happy to invoke all the help they could get to hack down the Saracens whose countries they were invading. 

For Spain, it was St James, who with his brother John were nicknamed by Jesus, ‘Boanerges’, the ‘sons of thunder’, presumably because that was how they acted.  It was James and John, remember, who in our reading a couple of weeks ago volunteered to call down a lightening bolt from heaven to zap a hapless Samaritan village who didn’t roll out the red carpet.  These are ‘bull in a china shop’ kind of guys, impatient, enthusiastic, literal-minded, scary but loveable.  In today’s reading, their mum asks Jesus for a favour – let them be your no. 1 and 2 lieutenants when you embark on your programme of world domination.  James and John assure Jesus they’re up for the job and Jesus doesn’t doubt them – he knows their love and loyalty, he knows that they will drink the cup of martyrdom that lies ahead but he knows, as well, that they just don’t understand yet.  His programme isn’t quite what they think, God’s kingdom isn’t a prize for control-freaks and crusaders.

How St James gets to Spain is quite a story.  Central to the legend is that during his lifetime St James may have travelled on a preaching tour to the Iberian peninsular.  Then after the unfortunate episode in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in which he gets his head chopped off by Herod Agrippa I, James’s body is gathered up – according to one version of the legend, by angels – who sail it in an unattended, rudderless boat all the way back to Spain, where his relics end up encased in a massive rock in the town of Compostela.  The tradition claims that a little while later, in 844 to be exact, St James miraculously appeared on a white horse during the battle of Clavijo and helped the Christian army to defeat the superior Muslim forces of the Emir of Córdoba.  Hence the traditional battle-cry of Spanish soldiers and soccer players, “Santiago y cierra España,” (“St James and strike for Spain”).  As a result of his post-mortem exploits, St James won the title, at least in Spain, of Santiago Matamoros – St James the Moor-slayer.

Which sounds in character, at least, if not quite how God’s kingdom is revealed according to the stories Jesus himself tells.  St James the Moor-slayer still doesn’t quite get it.

However there’s another tradition associated with the saint whose supposed relics are encased somewhere in the stone of the ancient church of Santiago de Compostela, the altogether different tradition of the Way of St James, the pilgrimage which became popular in the early Middle Ages and today attracts thousands of people every year.  This tradition, I think, might be a little more helpful.

I recently came across the diary of a modern-day pilgrim along the Camino, the network of paths across Europe that converge on the church at Compostela, a young man named Richard who at the beginning of his journey bemoaned the fact that the idea of pilgrimage seemed too religious.  Richard’s pace slowed somewhat over the course of several weeks, not apparently from exhaustion but because he found himself falling into step with unlikely companions, a man in a wheelchair, a couple of cheerful American nuns, a young Japanese couple, a devout Muslim man, an elderly woman who composed and sang Gregorian chant while she walked.  His pace also slowed because he found himself noticing some things about himself that he hadn’t noticed before – his need for solitude and silence, the refreshment of companionship and the joy of receiving and offering hospitality, the wonder of travelling towards a goal that he gradually came to realise was hidden not within the stone pillars of the church at Santiago de Compostela, but within himself. 

St James, of course was not just a hot-head.  There must have been more to him than that or Jesus wouldn’t have loved him so much or teased him with such a colourful nickname.  With his brother John and with Peter – another ‘act before you think’ sort of guy – James is one of the inner circle of disciples, the three Jesus takes a little further into his confidence.  It’s Peter, James and John who are present with Jesus when he raises the little girl from the sleep of death, who are with Jesus on the mountain top where he is transfigured with the light of heaven, who walk with Jesus a little farther into the dreadful garden of Gethsemene.  If James still doesn’t get it, that’s not because Jesus doesn’t understand and love James.  It’s the same three – James, with John and Peter – who according to Luke’s Gospel are the first who hear and respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, leaving behind their boats and nets and a miraculous but highly perishable catch of fish.  It’s the beginning of a life-long pilgrimage that may or may not take him to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, but that might be the best and most enduring relic of St James.

Pilgrimage is about leaving behind the familiar in order to find what you already have.  I get leaflets and emails all the time about pilgrimages, 20 days in the Holy Land, retrace the steps of St Paul’s missionary journeys in Asia Minor, that sort of thing.  I’d love to do it one day when I’m rich and retired.  But it may or may not be pilgrimage.  It might just be pious tourism.  Pilgrimage, on the other hand, is a holy duty, and the business of every Christian.  You don’t necessarily have to leave home – housebound pilgrims, pilgrims without fat chequebooks aren’t disqualified, workaholic pilgrims can also come – but the business of discipleship is necessarily the way of a pilgrim.  St James shows us how, and it starts by noticing that we’re being called to leave something behind.

This is the first thing about being a pilgrim, which is to be in motion.  To be a pilgrim means to have left something behind and to be going somewhere.  A pilgrim is somebody who hears Jesus’ invitation to follow and understands that to mean joining Jesus on the way of insecurity, living towards something that we don’t quite see and never fully comprehend.  We can be pilgrims at home in Cannington, but to be a pilgrim means never being quite settled, always living in the moment without finding our security in what we have or where we are or what we do, never taking ourselves too seriously.  For modern pilgrims, that might mean resisting the latest purchase, recognising that where we live is also home to other living creatures, noticing and responding to the needs of others.  Pilgrimage is an attitude of holy homelessness that means we recognise our only true home is in the heart of God. 

The second thing about being a pilgrim is not to have an agenda.  The reality of modern life, of course, is that we have a ‘to do’ list and an appointment diary, we live by schedules.  To be a pilgrim is to balance the responsibilities of our lives against the need to be available, to be interruptible, to learn to turn aside for new experiences, to hear new voices.  On the Camino del Santiago, the Way of St James, pilgrims learn to walk not aimlessly but in openness to new experiences and new challenges.  Pilgrims learn that much of what makes us so busy is actually a fancy way of insulating ourselves from what really matters, of switching off from listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit.  Make time for reading, for conversation, for prayer and meditation.  Make time to be alone, to be with friends, cultivate the expectation that God wants to break into your schedule, and make room for it.  Not having an agenda means cultivating a heightened awareness.  Pilgrims on the Camino del Santiago learn to listen and see and touch and smell the world around them, learn again the delight of being immersed in the natural environment.  They also learn a heightened awareness and perceptiveness of other people, the tell-tale signs that another is in need, the signs that one needs to talk, another needs to walk in silence.  Pilgrims learn again the delight of human companionship, and the delight of ruminating and noticing what’s going on in their own bodies, their own hearts and minds.  Pilgrims learn again the skill of listening for the murmur of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly of all, pilgrims learn the way of hospitality.  To be a pilgrim is to learn to offer and to receive the service of others.  On the Camino del Santiago Richard learned to exchange stories and to give encouragement, to share food and blister cream and fresh socks, to accept the gifts of bad poetry and out of tune singing, to walk slowly enough to stay in step with others.  You can’t be a pilgrim by yourself, and the gift of pilgrimage is to learn the countless ways that we are dependent on one another, that our spirituality as well as the practical circumstances of our lives depend on hospitality offered and accepted.  To be a pilgrim is to be intentionally attuned to the invitation for companionship, the opportunities to sustain and encourage others, the offers of assistance when we ourselves are finding the going tough.

To be a pilgrim, of course, is ultimately to discover that the goal is in the journey, and that the gift is to discover what you didn’t know you always had.  We sometimes need to travel a long way to discover who we really are, but the only real tragedy is never to begin.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pentecost +8C

I heard recently that the word ‘hearth’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘heart’.  What it means is that in Anglo-Saxon society the hearth was the heart of the house, the centre of its human activity.  The hearth was the centre of the household, where people sat and talked, and sewed and mended, and it was also the place where food was cooked in a pot hung over the fire.  The hearth was the place where men and women and children would be together at the end of the day, where stories would be told and important affairs discussed.  The hearth, of course, is not so much the lounge room with the gas fire and the comfy chairs, as the kitchen, where people can be both busy and relaxed at the same time, where homework and phone calls compete with potatoes to be peeled and dishes to be washed.  The kitchen - at least in the house where I grew up, was where the really important business of the family happened.

Of course, we Aussies also have - or used to have - houses with verandahs, semi-public shaded areas at the front of houses where kids could play and old people could sit, where you could read the newspaper and still see what was going on in the street and pass the time of day with passers-by.  The verandah was where private space intersected with community space, where different sorts of conversation happened and the business of the whole neighbourhood took priority.  Front verandahs especially suit countries with warm climates like Australia, like Galilee in the first century AD, where houses were built, not with front verandahs, but with front courtyards which worked in the exact same way.  Courtyards and front verandahs are places of hospitality and daydreams, where kids can fly rocket ships and old men can solve the problems of the country.

So, where does Jesus want us to sit?  In the warmth of a summer’s evening Jesus sits, surrounded by men and women and kids and perhaps a dog or two, and tells stories.  We know what Jesus’ stories are like, they are stories that come out of a keen observation of life, stories about farming and the natural world, about crops and wildflowers and sparrows, about sharp practices and dishonest neighbours, about the desperation of a tenant farmer who loses a sheep or an old woman sweeping her floor to find a lost coin.  One of the sisters, Mary, sits and lets her imagination run freely, wondering at how God’s kingdom might be glimpsed in a buried treasure or a pearl or a crop spoiled by weeds.  While Martha tries to figure out where everybody is going to sleep for the night, and makes bread, and runs next door to borrow some extra cheese and olives and dried figs. 

Is our spirituality based on busyness, or on stillness?  Is there even a choice?  Dishes need to get washed, paypackets need to be earned, kids need to be clothed and fed, even Jesus and the men and women who follow him on the road would have been expecting dinner.  To tell the truth, most of us probably relate better to Martha than to Mary.  How do we hear this story, and Jesus’ valuation of Mary’s receptive listening over Martha’s busy hospitality, without feeling a bit nicked off about all the times we helped out in the kitchen or vacuumed the church or did the flowers without anybody even noticing?

As always, part of the answer probably lies in who we think God is, how busy we imagine God to be.  Sometimes our prayers in church would seem to suggest a God who needs lists of things to do, a God of details or, as modern political commentators would describe it, a God who micro-manages.  And of course we do believe in a God who is creatively and redemptively engaged with the earth and all its creatures, in all its minutest detail.  And we understand that we ourselves for this very reason are called to a love of others that is practical and self-giving.

And yet - we also believe in a God who is the still point at the heart of chaos, the still centre of a universe that explodes into being, of swirling superheated galaxies and stars that are born, and grow old and die in unimaginable fury, the God experienced by Elijah as the sound of sheer silence at the heart of an earthquake, God made known in Jesus asleep in the bow of the boat as it is swamped by the watery chaos of the sea of Galilee.  We know God to be the eternal stillness at the heart of our own agitated over-activity, the eternal truth that measures our own moral murkiness, the heart of changelessness that gathers up the fickleness and impermanence of our own lives and makes them holy.

We think that today’s story asks us to make a choice between being Martha or Mary, but maybe what we are actually being asked to do is to notice that we are both, that we need a way of bringing the two halves of our lives and our spirituality into balance.  That our spiritual health depends on being able to resist choosing one over the other.

The Benedictine monks who live at New Norcia explain St Benedict’s emphasis on manual work - the Martha stuff — as being a way of sustaining the appetite of the human mind and spirit for God — a way of preparing the human heart for the work of lectio divina, divine contemplation or the listening to the word of God — chosen by Mary.  And so it seems that Mary and Martha might represent two aspects of our own life, and the point might be how we can find a healthy balance between activity and stillness, between serving others and listening attentively for the sound of God’s presence in our lives.  And for every one of us the balance is different, we need to find it for ourselves because our circumstances and our personalities and gifts are unique.  But for every one of us there is a capacity and a need for the sort of spiritual stillness and contemplation chosen by Mary, which actually leads us into relationship with God who we know as a Trinity, the creative centre of our lives, revealed to us in Jesus, active in us in the Holy Spirit. 

We each have the spiritual capacity to be drawn into the heart of the life of God, because that is where we find the balance of our own lives.  And the ways that draw us into this contemplative nearness are also going to be different - we need to seek the way of prayer that best suits our personality and our lifestyle, we need to discover how we best come close to the heart of God in music or meditation, in the garden or in the bush, through reading or painting or cooking.  We generally need the guidance of others in learning how to be still, and an important spiritual discipline is to seek out a spiritual companion who will listen attentively with us for the pattern of God’s presence in our lives.  Like any human activity worth the effort, tuning our lives to the presence of God takes intention and discipline and a lifetime’s worth of love.

Our second reading from the letter to the Colossians also points to Jesus as the point of intersection between the unseen, unchanging character of the life of God, and the busy, changeable world of our everyday lives. Colossians makes a cosmic-sized claim - that through Jesus, God reconciles and brings together all things, the things of earth and the things of heaven. It’s a claim that our lives might somehow bring together both the everyday activity of human busyness and relationships, and the still attentiveness in which we become aware of the nearness of God.

I remember a few years ago being at Lake Tekapo in the southern highlands in New Zealand near Mount Cook.  We had driven for days through the remote and mountainous country of the west coast, risking our lives on the rickety narrow single-lane bridges and gasping our way in wonder around every corner.  We were blessed by clear skies and solitude and exorbitant petrol prices, and finally arrived at Lake Tekapo at the end of a long and tiring day as the sun was setting redly and magnificantly across the lake.  For some unfathomable reason the cheapest place to stay in town was in the caravan park on the shores of the lake, so we boiled our billy and set up the tent with a million dollar view.  Early in the morning I went down to the lake, which was mirror-perfect and crystal clear, and I looked across the water to the mountains which, even in January had snow on top, and across the lake, in fact, reflected in the lake, I also saw the little stone Church of the Good Shepherd, built on a rocky headland that juts out into the lake.  And I realised that reflected in the still water of the lake I could see pine trees and mountains and sky, and the little church that reminded us that this was a place where heaven and earth had come together.  And it seemed to me that the water of Lake Tekapo was like the water of the baptism font, the water in which the life of heaven and our earthly lives do come together.

The water of the baptism font is like a mirror that reflects to us who we really are.  And when it gets disturbed, when it is scooped up this morning in handfuls and used to baptise Lily, then the life of heaven and the life of earth come together.  Lily will be indelibly marked with the image of the risen, ascended and glorified Jesus. It is a symbolic and ritual action which reveals something invisible - the mirror of heaven is disturbed in order to reveal the mystery of who Lily really is in Jesus, in the heart of God, so that heaven can be reflected in her.

In the water of baptism we see the coming together of activity and stillness, of what we do and who we are.  And the water, which is living and moving, reveals to us that the stillness of heaven is not passive or static but dynamic and active.  The mirror of the font, like the mirror of Lake Tekapo, reflects the dynamic stillness of God.  Our lives, of both busyness and contemplation, are centred in the same reality.

Of course, if we are really listening, Jesus’ voice is strong enough for us to hear him even in the kitchen.  The saint who might best help us in Practising the heart of stillness in the middle of the busyness of our lives is the seventeenth century Carmelite, Brother Lawrence of the resurrection, who for most of his life, because, as he claimed, he had no education or special gifts, scrubbed pots in the monastery kitchen.  The secret, he tells us, is to recognise that every mundane task is an opportunity to experience God’s love, an opportunity to express our love for God and for one another.  Brother Lawrence’s kitchen was especially busy, in a special way the heart or hearth of the monastery because of its reputation for peace and holy conversation.  The secret of our own lives, it seems to me, is to discover that same holiness in the middle of whatever it is we have to do tomorrow morning.


Friday, July 09, 2010

Pentecost +7

Did you hear the one where the lawyer and the priest and the Muslim asylum seeker are walking past a pub?  A hot summer’s night in a rough neighbourhood - the very air smells dangerous and they’re walking back to their cars as quick as they can go.  The asylum seeker is walking back to his taxi.  And each of them sees a man lying in the gutter outside the pub.  You recognise the scene, I’m sure - and the lawyer says to himself: ‘Not me mate, soon as I touch you, you’ll sue me’.  And he crosses the road even though his BMW is parked on this side.  The priest comes past a minute later, muttering to himself because he’s saying his evening prayers under his breath.  And he can’t fail to notice the man lying in the gutter.  So he walks a bit faster, closing his eyes and concentrating on his prayers - remembering of course to say one for misguided souls who abuse the demon drink.

And another minute later the Muslim asylum seeker comes past, having got out of his taxi for the fifth time that day to kneel in the direction of Mecca and pray.  And seeing the man in the gutter, he remembers his friend who was pulled out of the water by a young Aussie sailor more dead than alive after the boat exploded.  And so he checks.  The man’s breathing and yes, he does smell of alcohol and vomit, but by the time he has a drink of coffee from the asylum seeker’s thermos flask and they get him home in the taxi, he manages to stagger to the front door.

It’s clear enough why Jesus tells this uncomfortable little story.  The scribe who comes to question him - an expert in the Torah - is playing the old and deadly game of ‘trap your opponent into contradicting himself’.  A game we mostly nowadays see played out between politicians.  And he says: ‘what is the one thing I have to do to be right with God?’  It’s a variation of the story in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus comes up with the most important commandment of all - in Luke’s version Jesus gets the lawyer himself to give the right answer, the answer that we ourselves repeat every single Sunday which is that there is no distinction between loving God and loving our neighbours.  ‘Do this’, Jesus says to the lawyer, and to us, ‘and you will live’.

Actually, even when we hear this and recognise the importance of it, Christians can and do still get it wrong.  In some Christian traditions it even gets marked wrong - because what saves you is faith in Jesus Christ.  Loving your neighbour as a way of being right with God sounds too much like salvation by “works”.  But Jesus here isn’t talking like a good evangelical Christian, he is talking good Judaism in which the commandments are observed whole, not broken into bits, and he recognises a fundamental connection between loving God and loving our neighbour - that they are one commandment, not two. 

For Christians, the connection between the two commandments has all too often got obscured, or even broken.  Sometimes there seems to be a tension, or even a contradiction, between them - because we think we have to put God first, our first loyalty has to be to what we believe.  And so all too often throughout history Christians have behaved in ways that ignore the rights of others or discriminate against others who we see as having the ‘wrong’ beliefs.  We get a bit closer to the mark when we think, ‘well, I need to love my neighbour because Jesus commands it, so loving my neighbour is a part of loving God’.  But the problem is, when I go through the motions of loving other people as a religious duty, am I really loving them or am I just patronising them?  Am I really treating other people as a means to my own end of making sure that I am OK with God?  And so Christian charity can sometimes come off feeling like condescension or even judgmentalism.

I think the key to recognising how the two commandments become one, is to think about who God is.  And if our idea of God is like a judge or a stern authority figure who keeps a count of all our sins - like an extension of all the power and control that affects our lives in the world around us - then there’s a built-in problem because pleasing a God like that is a completely different thing from behaving towards others with compassion and forgiveness.  There’s a built-in contradiction between the two commandments.  But when we have an image of God whose very being is love -  and whose life is the creative and redeeming outpouring of love - then loving our neighbour is no longer a separate commandment, but an invitation to participate in the life and being of God.  When we have a picture of God whose love and whose power is most fully revealed in the abject figure of a humiliated and crucified slave - then it becomes clear that in the forsaken and the powerless of this earth we encounter the very children of heaven.

And so the scribe - whose understanding of the two commandments seems to be that they are in opposition to one another - tries to limit his liability.  Notice that his question to Jesus: ‘who is my neighbour?’ - actually means: ‘who isn’t my neighbour?’  What he is really interested in is not how far he can go in extending compassion, but when and where he can stop.  Who can I ignore, what is the very least amount of compassion I can show and still be OK with God?  When you put it like that - then the answer is obvious, isn’t it?

I’ve never been there, but from the pictures I’ve seen the road from Jerusalem to Jericho would have been a very good spot for bandits.  Dropping over 3500 feet in 14 miles as you make your way down into the Jordan valley, this is wild and inhospitable territory, and nobody in their right mind would have walked it by themselves.  It even passes through an unlikely sounding place called the valley of the shadow of death, which presumably in ancient times was as scary as it sounds.  The point is, you’ve got no business being there, travelling this road by yourself is asking for trouble and maybe you have no right to expect anybody else to put themselves out for you when the inevitable happens.  A bit like the sixteen year old boat person who got herself into trouble in the Indian Ocean 4,000 kilometres west of Perth a few weeks ago.  Shouldn’t have been there, what did she expect, did she even have a visa, how much is it costing us and why should we put the lives of our own navy personnel on the line to rescue her?  And if we listen carefully we hear the voice of the scribe in the background asking Jesus: ‘who isn’t my neighbour?’

The Gospel speaks to us, of course, precisely because it isn’t a dead document from the world of 2,000 years ago.  When we call it the Word of God we mean that it is living, that it resonates and finds a living echo in our own lives and in the world we live in, the world of the 21st century.  That’s always my assumption when I sit down to write a sermon, and sometimes I scratch my head, trying to find an illustration from the world of our own experience.  This week, in our own country, in Australia, the voices asking: ‘who isn’t my neighbour?’ got a whole lot louder.  Where, this week, could I find an illustration for the parable of the Good Samaritan?

This week we were assured by our Prime Minister that it is OK to listen first to the voices of our own fears and prejudices.  This week the alternative Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition, assured us he would physically turn around at sea and refuse assistance to boats carrying asylum seekers.  This week we were invited to put the images of traumatised men, women and children at arm’s length and out of sight by bullying our impoverished neighbour, East Timor, into acting as a prison to detain for us those whose demand on our compassion and humanity terrifies us. 

Make no mistake about it, our fear of asylum seekers is not because we don’t have enough to share, but because the overpowering need of others makes us suddenly, and nervously, aware of the physical blessings and the material wealth that as Australians we have come to take for granted.  Sadly, the more human beings have, the harder it is for us to be generous.  The argument that all asylum seekers, or even that a sizable proportion of them, are really just economic refugees, simply doesn’t wash.  We have no problem accepting 180,000 economic migrants every year.  On the other hand, it was estimated the other day that at current levels it would take twenty years to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the desperate human beings who wash up on our shores - people fleeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, including wars in which our own troops are fighting, and in one case, a war we helped start.  Applying the language - and the technology - of border protection to the pitiable overloaded boats of frightened people limping up to Ashmore Reef might not be a racist and xenophobic over-reaction if our country was active in the places of this world from which refugees were fleeing, if we were carrying our fair share of the humanitarian task of caring for the forsaken of the earth.  But we are not - our refugee intake of 12,500 people annually represents just 0.6 percent of the numbers in the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran and India and Chad, for example, in which the millions who have fled conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and Sri Lanka and Sudan live in seemingly inescapable squalor, and we rank 33rd - 33rd! - in the world on a per capita basis for the numbers of refugees we accept.

This week, we were invited by both the Prime Minister and the alternative Prime Minister, to debate the issues.  But actually, the debate is not about asylum seekers.  So long as there are wars, so long as countries, including our own, use military force as a way of solving disputes and propping up alliances, then there will be human flotsam and jetsam to trouble our consciences.  The debate is not about who asylum seekers are, it is about who we are.

Who, Jesus asks us, is your neighbour?


Saturday, July 03, 2010

Pentecost +6

In some magazine or other that I came across years ago there used to be a regular cartoon puzzle that featured an intricately drawn scene - maybe a domestic scene or a shopping mall or work-place - with the caption, “What’s wrong with this picture?”.   At first glance it looked perfectly normal, in fact quite mundane and unexciting - people going about their ordinary business, doing ordinary things - but the small print would assure you that there were at least 40 impossible things happening, and the challenge was for you to try and find them.  Eventually you might discover that the curtains in the window were hanging upside down or that the dog had three ears.  The picture subverted your expectations in subtle ways, so subtle, in fact, that when you finally found the things that were wrong with it you realised you had been seeing what you were conditioned to see, not what was actually there.

The Bible’s like that, sometimes.  Stories that we think we know, that we’ve read over and over, and we keep just seeing what we’ve been conditioned to see until one day it strikes us - “what’s wrong with this picture?”

A man condemned to live with leprosy - that catch-all label that the ancient world gave to anyone suffering from a disfiguring skin disease, it could have been eczema or psoriasis or any one of the debilitating skin infections caused by parasites or poor hygiene - but the point is that it couldn’t easily be hidden, in the ancient world it was so feared that the sufferer was simply cut loose, expelled from human society and destined to wander and fend for themselves in the company of other lepers until they met an early death.  But in this story - a man living with leprosy who not only has not been cut loose from human society but is a great and powerful military commander and a friend of the king of Aram.  A leper with a name, in fact, the only one in the Bible that I can think of. 

A pagan general who has been given a great victory by God over God’s own people, Israel.  A small girl captured as a prize of war and brought home by the general to be a slave - a child who notices and cares about the suffering of the one who has taken her captive.  A powerful warlord who listens to what an insignificant child slave is saying, and acts on it.  Enemy kings who ask and expect favours of one another, and servants who know what their masters don’t.  A bald man of God who refuses to meet the great but possibly dandruff-ridden general, instead giving him advice by messenger.  Wash yourself seven times - the number of completeness - in the Jordan.  The river that signifies the entry of God’s people into Canaan and the bloody dispossession of its inhabitants now becomes the means by which a pagan enemy commander is made clean and whole and vulnerable as a small child.

What’s wrong with this story?  The powerful become powerless, suffering and exclusion are reversed, the humble and insignificant become bearers of God’s good news and agents of healing, and rivers run backwards.  God is made known through simple acts of compassion that cut across boundaries of ethnicity and religion and class.  The priorities of God are given voice not by generals or kings or prophets but by nameless and insignificant servants.

God’s purposes are revealed as subversive, which is to say, God’s agenda works beneath the surface of the story, percolating away in the choices and the actions of men and women and children, too rich and too powerful to be confined to any official version of events or any authorised religion.

So what’s wrong with this story?

Jesus, who as everybody knows, has twelve disciples, selects 70 of them for a special mission.    So, not just the big, official ones, even though there’s a bit of uncertainty about who they were in any case, Luke and Matthew giving different lists of names.  Jesus was accompanied in his travels by many more than that, men and women, think Joanna and Martha and all the Marys, Bartholomew and Cleopas and Matthias for example.  Actually, we shouldn’t get too hung up about the number, other than to notice that when ancient writers quote numbers they are more interested in their symbolic meaning than their mathematical meaning.  Twelve stands for Israel, like the twelve sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel, like the twelve baskets of food left over from Jesus’ miraculous provision of food in the desert that reminds us of the gift of manna in the desert for God’s people on the run from Pharaoh.  Seventy stands for the whole world, the number of nations in the whole world according to ancient writers, according to Jewish mythology the number of tongues of fire that descended on Mt Zion when God offered the Law to all the nations but only Israel accepted, and also the number of completeness and wholeness, like the number of times seven that Jesus’ followers are supposed to forgive.  In chapter nine - the chapter before today’s reading, Jesus sends out 12 disciples with specific instructions - no bag, no staff, no money or change of clothes.  Today he sends out seventy - no bag, no sandals - and in the verses that the lectionary leaves out we hear the names of some of the places they go to like Tyre and Sidon - coastal regions beyond Israel.  In other words today he sends his disciples, great and small, off to tell the whole wide world that the kingdom of God has come near them.  If 12 stands for showing signs of God’s kingdom at home, among family and friends, then 70 stands for showing signs of God’s inclusiveness and compassion where it most counts - among people who haven’t heard about it it yet.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  Well, lots of things, you might think.  The mission of telling about the kingdom isn’t just for big, professional disciples but for all disciples.  Armchair disciples who have got used to the idea that their job is to follow, to listen and to be reassured, today get pushed out of their nests and out of their comfort zones, forced to learn the wisdom of insecurity.  Don’t take anything that might make you feel too safe, too independent, that might give you an excuse not to depend on the people you meet along the way.  The ancient world had an expectation and a culture of hospitality.  Also the houses in the towns and villages they entered were built in a special way, with what we might call the front verandah being public space where strangers could shelter and hospitality would be offered.  Disciples need to know about the culture of the world around them and make use of it.

But - who is offering hospitality to whom?  Go into villages and towns, enter the courtyards of the houses, take what is offered and then show signs of the reality that God’s kingdom is here.  Proclaim the good news and heal the sick.  Disciples who have got used to the idea that we are the ones being ministered to, we are the ones hearing the message of healing and love and experiencing the reality of love and forgiveness - today get a rude shock.  We are the ones sent out, we are the ones bearing the message of God’s love and bringing comfort to people in our community burdened not just by physical illness but by the modern sicknesses of despair and greed and guilt.  God’s priorities made real in the words and actions - not of archbishops and prime ministers but of ordinary folk like you and me.

But there are three surprising things about this picture that might help on the journey.  The first is this - you’re not meant to travel alone.  Travel in pairs, when you’re setting out to show the world a sign that God’s kingdom is happening right here, right now, you need to take a friend.  Why?  Because what we’re about is modelling the reality of a community structured by Jesus’ way of forgiveness and love.  Because the way the disciples are instructed to go about being missionaries is - to talk to people, to eat with people, to offer and to accept hospitality.  The way to be a missionary is just take the risk of being with people and laughing and loving and eating with them.  But you need a friend - in fact the church is the community of friends who travel together, who have accepted Jesus’ hospitality and Jesus’ offer of himself as food for the road.

The second thing is this.  Jesus doesn’t instruct his disciples to drag people back to church, just to tell them that God has come near them, and to make a difference in their lives.  The wisdom of insecurity means learning to take a risk in offering and accepting the hospitality of strangers, but we don’t have to catch them and collect them.  We just have to make a difference to them, to notice the person who is depressed or fearful or lonely and to make a difference.  You’ll know when it’s right to tell somebody that God loves them, you’ll know when it’s right to suggest to somebody that they might like to come to church with you on Sunday morning - and you’ll know when the best thing is just to say nothing and listen.  The ministry of healing - which is both yours and mine - is the gift of faith that by just being present to somebody in Jesus’ name you make a difference.

And the third thing is best of all.  You’ll know when to stop.  The wisdom of insecurity means the wisdom of knowing that even though your gift will not always be accepted it is still precious.  You’ll know when to move on, without recrimination, without self-blame, without carrying the baggage of those who aren’t ready to receive what you have to give.

What’s wrong with this picture?  God has no Plan B.  The kingdom of God has been placed in your hands.  Squander it, give of it wastefully and without asking whether the one receiving deserves it.  Live joyfully, as a sign of God’s love, and the gift of God that is in you will grow.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing, it’s perfect.  Let’s do it.