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

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Pentecost 22C

Over the next couple of weeks, thousands of WA teenagers will be preparing for the biggest test of everything they have learned in 12 years of full-time education – everything they have learned and much of what they have done for over two thirds of their lives – the TEE exams!  If you know a young person who is sitting the TEE you may be privileged to witness the mix of emotions, the strategic choices between quiet last-minute preparation and feverish cramming, the reflection of the study habits learned or avoided over the last few years and above all, the sense that now the time for daydreaming and planning and procrastinating is over, the culmination of everything that has been done and everything not done has arrived.  And of course it is a culmination that can be accompanied by anything from quiet confidence to blind panic.  If you know such a young person, now is the time for some words of encouragement!

Over the last few weeks we have been reading through the second letter to Timothy, one of the so-called Pastoral Epistles because they contain words of advice to Timothy, the young pastor, written in the name of Paul but probably penned by a disciple of Paul after the great missionary’s death.  It is in the form of a farewell discourse.  And in today’s brief passage we are struck by a sense of sadness, a sense that time has, at last, run out. 

The context of the letter is the impending end of Paul’s life, writing from prison where he awaits execution in Rome which he suffered during the persecution of Emperor Nero in the early 60s.  Where or not the letter was actually composed by Paul it is authentic and vulnerable.  Paul seems very alone, and a bit scared, disappointed and let down.  Today’s passage includes some of the most poignant and poetic phrases of the whole Bible – ‘I am poured out as a libation’, he writes, ‘and the time of my departure has come’.  And yet it seems to me the most authentic and human phrases are the ones left out by the framers of the lectionary, verses 7 to 15 in which Paul names those who have helped him along with others who have deserted him – Phietus who swerved from the truth, Alexander the coppersmith who did him harm.  The whole letter, in fact, just four chapters, contains 26 names, many of them mentioned in what amounts to a shopping list of mundane tasks and favours.  And so it has the ring of defensive vulnerability, the sense of frail and lonely humanity that, for me at any rate, helps to put in context the soaring theological structure of Paul’s great letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth.

It is clear from today’s reading – and even more so from the verses we missed out – that Paul feels isolated and betrayed even by those who he thought of as his most loyal friends.  Maybe the young pastor, Timothy, to whom the letter is addressed, is experiencing something similar in his own ministry – at any rate we ourselves know the feeling of finding isolated and let down.  What did it all mean?  Was any of it worthwhile?  These are the questions Paul is asking himself at the end of his life, and again we hear an echo of our own experience. 

At the same time, Paul is still grasping hopefully but unrealistically at opportunities to spread the word of goodness and grace among the Gentiles.  Perhaps there is still another epistle to write, another journey to undertake?  It sounds a bit pathetic, especially when with the benefit of hindsight we know that under the pressure of persecution the Christian community around Paul has already collapsed.

And yet – beneath all this we hear the assurance in Paul’s response to his own questions – the assurance of hope that is daring but not ultimately unrealistic in the context of his whole life – the hope that God is God, and that there is no need for fear at the end of this earthly life.  Perhaps Paul also has in mind his own teaching, and the apparent self-confidence with which in his letters he sketched out his vision of the crucified and risen Christ at the heart of all things, drawing the whole of creation into unity and completion.  It is all too easy to fall into uncertainty when faced with the reality of our own vulnerability and mortality, but Paul seems to understand that, when it comes down to it, he doesn’t have to have all the answers.  Not everything needs to be sorted out, not everyone has to agree with him.  In the end it matters less whether Paul has been right, and more that God is always right.

This is not a sort of withdrawal, or a tuning out from reality, but just an expression of trust that our human limitations are OK.  In the context of the end of his life, Paul reviews all that he has done and seems to remind himself that it is OK to have left his life’s work incomplete.  It is OK not to have been able to fix everything, and the important thing is to commend the mix of partial successes and false starts and half-conceived plans of our lives to God.  It is OK to have run our race with integrity, even if our recollections are tinged with regret.  This is of course about the assurance of forgiveness, and it’s also about the reality of grace.  The reality that our flawed and misunderstood lives are transformed because God chooses to see us through the filter of resurrection.

This short letter is a wonderful inspiration for Christians who know themselves to be a bit wobbly.  Like me, for example.  Christians who know that even their best is overshadowed by the self-knowledge of past failures, by self-doubt and by secret feelings of selfishness and jealousy, and who are privately convinced that God is probably not taken in by the appearance of living a life that is holy and loving and forgiving.  Like the rest of us, Paul wavers between quiet assurance and grasping at straws. 

The reality of Paul’s ministry during the middle years of the first century is that it was underscored by conflict.  Most of what today’s Christians understand as the fundamentals of our faith was still fluid, still up for grabs, and different Christian communities held on to different traditions, different ideas about the meaning of Jesus life and death, even different parts of what we now know as the New Testament.  As a persecutor of the early Church, Paul was not universally accepted as an apostle.  He conducted a long-running and apparently sometimes fairly heated argument with Jewish Christians who held that Gentiles had to become Jews first, Christians second – and he also argued with Gentile Christians who ran after every wacky doctrine they heard but did not practice the generous hospitality of the Eucharist.  And it reminds us of what we also know in our own time – that the life of the Church is conflicted territory precisely because as Christians our very understanding of who we are and what our lives mean is centred in the experience of worship and Christian community.  Precisely because as Christians we understand that so much of who we are is at stake in how we do church.

Sometimes of course that comes out in the big-picture arguments that seem to be conducted at a level far above our heads – the arguments between dioceses about the ordination of women priest and bishops, the inclusion of gay Christians and the right way to read scripture.  More often the flawed character of the Church is obvious in the different visions we have for our life and our future as a parish, and the imperfect relationships we have with one another.  It is easy – not just for priests and pastors but for all Christians – to become disillusioned and to wonder whether we have lost our way, whether our best has been good enough.

Paul is a mirror in which we see the reflection of our own attempts to live as Christians, a challenge for us to live in a way that makes a difference not only in our community of faith but in the world around us – a challenge to live with energy and integrity and conviction - but a challenge also to see that in the end what matters is grace, what matters is God.  In the end what matters is the pouring of ourselves out in love, the reflection of the self-offering of Christ in our own lives, and the trust that the completion, the justification and the redemption of our efforts is grace.  It is a good attitude with which to face the final exams – also a good attitude with which to live.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pentecost 21C

This week the world held its collective breath as the 33 Chilean miners trapped three quarters of a kilometre underground were finally winched to safety, one at a time, through a shaft drilled 700 metres through solid rock.  They had been underground for 69 days – almost three weeks before any contact with their rescuers and initially they were told they probably couldn’t be got out before Christmas.  So this has been nothing short of miraculous, an amazing feat of engineering and endurance.

Looking at the images of the capsule being hauled up through the rescue shaft I found myself reflecting that these men were experiencing quite literally what the psalmist talks about when he says to God, “you pulled me up from the pit”.  From the place of darkness and no hope, against everything that logic tells us is possible, God pulls us back to light and life and new relationship.  And it reminded me too of the resurrection itself, from the tomb to new life.  Certainly, as the Chilean President remarked, the men who came up out of the earth were changed, not the same men who entered the mine 69 days earlier.

For the last two months, Chile has been a nation at prayer.  The President made the remarkable claim in his address on TV that what had saved the miners was not human skill and perseverance but the faith and the prayers of the Chilean people.  And the miners also saw God’s hand in their deliverance, with miner Mario Sepulveda, the second to be brought back up to the surface, telling the world, “I have been with God and the devil.  I seized the hand of God – it is the best hand.  I always knew God would get us out of there”.

It seemed a good perspective with which to begin this week, as our Gospel reading invites us to consider the nature of prayer, and the nature of God.  Does prayer work like that?  Is God more likely to reach in and act to save and heal if our prayers are multiplied, if more and more people are storming heaven on our behalf?  Does God count the number of signatures on our petitions?  Is Sepulveda right to give the credit to God, rather than for example to the Aussie mining engineer who after precision drilling the escape shaft in record time admitted that he wasn’t watching the actual rescue because it was as boring as watching paint dry?

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus seems to suggest to his disciples that that is indeed how prayer works, like the steady drip of water wearing away at a stone.  The widow in Jesus’ story is like the water, humble and persistent – and the judge is like the stone, stony-hearted, caring for nothing and nobody.  So in this story the widow’s persistent naming of injustice overcomes corruption and self-centredness.

I like the point that gentle persistence and the refusal to accept injustice has its own integrity and strength.  There’s something here to think about, when we get dispirited about living in a world where self-interest rules, where sometimes it seems the voices urging compassion and generosity and justice get drowned out.  The widow is a good model for us, and I don’t think it’s any accident that Jesus talks about faith in the same breath as holding up this example of a person who cares passionately about justice.  I think that’s what Christians are called to do, to name where healing is needed in our world, to work toward justice and restoration, and if that often means that the church seems to be swimming against the tide, that we are taking a position that isn’t too popular, well, that’s when we need to remember this widow.

But how is this story a good analogy about prayer?  Because, what’s being said here? – that God is like this corrupt judge?  When we pray, we have to wear God down by going on and on about things until we get what we want?  This seems like a peculiar image of what the relationship between me and God is supposed to be like.  In verse 7 Luke has a go at working this out, presumably he has got this story that Jesus told, and in verse 6 and verse 7 he puts in some interpretation.  According to Luke, this isn’t an analogy, but a contrast – it’s not the sort of parable where Jesus says ‘the kingdom of God is like this’, but the sort where Jesus says ‘if it’s like this in real life, how much better is it when the one you’re praying to loves you, and wants to give you good things – when the Judge isn’t corrupt but just and merciful’.  If even this corrupt judge can be worn down, well, God is going to rush to help.

So that makes it better?  Your prayers are like that, no sooner do you ask, then – ‘poof’!?  There’s still a problem, isn’t there?  If this is your image of what the relationship between you and God is like, then I think there’s still a problem.  For two reasons.  One, because it’s exactly the same as the relationship between the widow and the corrupt judge, it’s just a difference of degree.  But the deal’s the same, it’s still the deal where we’ve got to pray hard and pray often, the logic’s still, ‘look, if we all pray for this then God will answer us’, the power of prayer is that if we bombard heaven then God can’t refuse us – and the problem with this is that it thinks of prayer as a string of demands, that there are some things that God is getting wrong in running the universe, so we need to correct the course, issue a few instructions because unless we let God know that we’re really serious about wanting these things, then God unfortunately is going to continue getting it wrong, keep on looking the other way.  The other thing that’s wrong about this image is that just occasionally God doesn’t give us what we want.  Or is it just me??  Even when the thing that you’re praying for is just and good.  Even when lots of people are praying for the same thing.  Have you ever had the experience of praying for something that matters a great deal and feeling that you’re not getting any response at all from God?  Just silence and darkness?  If so, you’re not alone.

Except, what if the silence and the darkness of God, that people who pray know all too well, is pregnant with  possibility like the drop of water gradually forming on some underground limestone stalagmite, slowly building up until it’s ready to splash onto the limestone of the cave floor?  What if God isn’t like the limestone rock, massive and rigid but bit by bit getting worn away, what if God is more like the insignificant but persistent drop of water?

So what if we pick this parable up and look at it the other way around?  What if we take the characters off the page and look at them, and see who they remind us of?  This judge, the one who cares about nothing and nobody, the one who’s corrupt and ready to take a bribe, the one who’s just out for himself even though he’s supposed to be there to hand out justice.  The one who’s set rigid in the concrete of his own selfishness – who’s that?  Does that sound like God?  Or does that sound like you and me?  Does that sound like the world we live in?  What about the widow, the one who comes humbly and persistently, so gently you sometimes don’t even notice she’s there, the one who loves justice so passionately that she’s prepared to take umpteen dozen knockbacks, the one who wears you down by speaking the truth and pointing out the difference between what the world is and what it is meant to be?  Does that sound like you?  It doesn’t sound like me.  Or does it sound more like God?  What if you and I are the stony-hearted judge and God is the widow who keeps bothering us, who keeps on hoping that we will notice what she’s saying and that we’ll have a change of heart.  Does that sound more like what the relationship between you and God is really like?  It does to me.

Because if this is really what it’s like, then it tells us some very important things about prayer.  It tells me that when I’m busy working out my list of instructions for God, when I’m telling God what to do, if I think that God is silent that might be because I haven’t been listening.  This widow doesn’t have a very loud voice.  You see, Christians sometimes think prayer is about us telling God what we’d like God to do.  It turns out the other way around - that prayer is about God whispering to us what God would like us to become.  It turns out that God might need me to be quiet and listen, that prayer might be about opening up to God everything that I am and everything that I’ve become, and letting God show me the difference between that and what God made me to be.  The one who needs to be worn down turns out to be me, not God.  God’s compassion, and God’s justice is a given, it is gently trickling, if you like, in the groundwater of the universe – it’s maybe me who is the whopping great rock that gets in the way, that needs to be worn smooth so the water can flow around me.

That’s one thing.  That prayer is about listening to God, and noticing where God is, and letting God flow into the cracks and crevices of our lives.  And the second thing is that what gets changed in prayer is us.  If our prayer is authentic, what gets changed is us.  I heard a story about a congregation who prayed for years that God would bless their parish by sending new people to them – and of course new people did come from time to time, they’d sit in the pews and nod and smile – and then they’d drift away again.  So the congregation thought about it for a while and asked themselves what they really should be praying for, and then they started praying that they would be changed into a community that was ready to include new people, new possibilities and new ideas.

That’s a scarier prayer, because it means we have to give up on the idea of being a rock – that things will always stay the same, that we’ll always be in control.  Instead, we need to ask God to reshape us, to make us more responsive, open and oriented towards the future.  Like water, in fact, flowing with the imperceptible, life-giving movement of God’s Holy Spirit.

Now, that’s a prayer!



Friday, October 15, 2010

Funeral homily for Jeannie McDowell

Jeannie was a teacher.  As a high school teacher for over 40 years, Jeannie knew something about getting her point across, and she also knew something about the different ways people learn, the unspoken needs for recognition or reassurance and the individual gifts and difficulties every learner has that make learning anything but a textbook exercise.  As a teacher, Jeannie was used to thinking about people, what lies beneath the surface, what motivates us and what sometimes prevents us from doing our best or seeing what seems obvious to everyone else.  That made her, of course, a force to be reckoned with in the life of our parish church – I often had occasion to be thankful for Jeannie’s ability to read between the lines and certainly for her local knowledge and the relationships she kept up with the schools in our area.

Over the last few months, I also had the privilege of seeing the teacher become a learner.  Jeannie invited me to share with her the journey we must all take, and it has been one of the great privileges of my life to have accompanied her as she accepted her diagnosis with grace, and as she reflected on her life in the context of eternity.

In one of the psalms, the psalmist prays that God will teach us to number our days, and in our first reading from the Bible this morning the Preacher reminds us that our lives are lived in the framework not of our own time, but of God’s time and God’s perspective.  We forget this so often, and think that time is our own to dispose of – we even talk about killing time! as if time were another commodity – but time belongs to God and unfolds before us as a mystery.  Jeannie’s death was not untimely, because her life was lived in the seasons of God’s time and God’s purposes, which are often hidden from us but which we always experience as loving.

And Jeannie has experienced God’s purposes these last few months.  She shared with me her growing understanding of the completion of God’s purposes in her life, and gave me a glimpse into the deep contentment and profound gratitude that she felt for the gift of life itself.  In this sense, Jeannie was a teacher to the last, because she taught me much about life in the way she lived her final months.

It has been said that death is our teacher, and I think this is true in a number of ways.  In the very obvious sense, death punctuates our human experience.  It sets limitations, and it imposes a perspective that we can’t deny.  You might say, well, that’s obvious enough!  not good – but obvious!  except that by revealing to us the limitations of our plans and experiences, death also reveals to us the relativity of our own purposes.  It asks us some questions – what you are doing today, the relationships you have with those around you – how well do your priorities stand up in the light of eternity?  Jeannie almost lived out the Biblical standard of three-score years and ten, but not quite.  Most of us would probably like a little longer.  But in the context of eternity we remind ourselves that time is not ours to command, just ours to fill with what is enduring and precious in God’s sight.

Secondly I think, because death reveals what is worthwhile in our lives and redeems what is not.  Jeannie knew this, the way she lived reveals that she understood and treasured what is of true value in the light of eternity.  The number of people here today, the great contribution Jeannie made as a teacher and since her retirement as a mentor, is testament to the fact that she set her priorities on people, not on things.  But death also redeems our regrets and our sorrows, and the burden of shame or guilt that prevents so many of us from being truly free to love and live as God intended.  Because as our lives are completed, so we come to participate in the mystery of resurrection through which we are completed and perfected, and through which our deepest regrets are transformed.   Jeannie saw her life as being a gift from God that she was handing back into God’s care, and as she reviewed her life was able to cherish all that she had seen and done, all whom she had learned from and shared her life with, and especially all whom she had loved.  Even in the final days of Jeannie’s life she was expressing care and concern for others, and blessing others with the gift of the time that she knew was now so limited.

Death teaches us that the most important thing in our own life is the relationships that we have with others.  Death makes us thankful for what we have shared with Jeannie, just as it makes us sorrowful that she has departed from us.  Death teaches us the beauty and the priority of love, and the profound grace of forgiveness.  In the context of the completion of Jeannie’s earthly life, this is the time for the putting aside of regret for words left unspoken and to receive with gratitude the gift of forgiveness and the knowledge that Jeannie, although hidden from us, is now completed in joy.

Finally, I think death teaches us the reality of eternal life.  Jeannie knew this, we ourselves know this, but in living through the journey of her final months with gratitude and grace, Jeannie experienced the nearness of God’s gift of resurrection life.  In her own unique style Jeannie spoke with me about her faith, and about her conviction that her life was passing into eternal life in the fullness of the love that created the whole universe.

Death was Jeannie’s teacher, as she has been my teacher.  And I suspect, the teacher of so many of us.

And so we farewell our friend with gratitude and love.


Friday, October 08, 2010

The Micah Challenge (10/10/2010)

Today we follow the request of TEAR Australia to focus in our worship on the challenge of meeting the global millennium Development Goals which commit the developed nations of the world to halving absolute global poverty by 2015.  We use the suggested readings: Micah 6.1-8 and 2 Cor 5.1-15, and the RCL Gospel reading, Luke 17.11-19.


One of the very best British movies I’ve seen in recent years stars Bill Nighy as a painfully shy, aging senior public servant who falls quite improbably in love with a young woman he happens to meet while looking for a seat in a cafe.  Neither of them are good at flirting – or indeed any good at talking to people full stop – but a cup of tea leads to a meal and eventually to an invitation to come along on a weekend trip to Iceland where the leaders of the G8 group of nations happen to be holding a conference on global poverty.

This is one completely mis-matched couple.  Nighy’s character – the spindly old bachelor, Lawrence, lives and breathes public policy.  He cares passionately about public service – and his passion shows through even when he tries to dismissively sum up to Gina what he does for a living by saying, well, it’s just boring reports and spreadsheets.  But when he begins to talk about the purpose of the trip, and the chance to actually make a difference to the hundreds of millions of people in our world who live without any prospect of sufficient food, education or medical care for their children – Lawrence is clearly consumed by the career that has taken over his life.  Gina on the other hand is a young woman who has been dealt some blows in her life, who finds it hard to believe in herself any more – and who is carrying some secrets she can’t bring herself to share with Lawrence.

The movie of course has a message, a pointed and uncomfortable message about the obscenity of poverty that just happens to be wrapped in an off-beat and off-balance love story.  And in the end it is the characters in their fragile imperfection, not the international delegations with their set-piece speeches and their carefully thought out policy decisions, who are best able to explain why fighting against poverty actually matters – because poverty isn’t about numbers or budgets or government policy but about the everyday lives of human beings, about the awkward mix of insecurity and the hope that makes us frail and foolish and infinitely loveable in the eyes of God. 

Like the prophet Micah, Gina gets angry.  With Lawrence desperately wishing the ground would open up and swallow him, Gina tells off the assembled leaders of the most powerful nations of the earth, and what makes her so angry is the contradiction between the diplomatic phrases and the carefully constructed agreements and the simple fact that every day, 30,000 children die of hunger and preventable childhood diseases.  Like the prophet Micah, what gets Gina so angry is the hypocrisy of leaders who actually know what is right but who serve a system that makes its own power the highest priority.  Everybody ends up deeply embarrassed, security is called, nobody likes to be told what they already know.

Micah is writing eight centuries before Christ, at a time when God’s people were divided into two nations, when the realities of international politics meant that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah relied on a fragile web of treaties with the superpowers of Egypt and Assyria, and where subservience to the values of Empire over-rode the needs of the poor.  And Micah calls the ruling elites back to repentance, he reminds them of what they already know and he points out the obvious – your security is not in the great and powerful nation of Assyria, it is in God who demands justice and humility and mercy.

The connection with the realities of our own day, and with the call for the eradication of global poverty, is obvious.  Ten years ago, with the great hope of a new century, the developed nations of the world, including our own, joined together in agreeing to the Millennium Development Goals – eight over-riding goals by which they committed themselves to concrete and specific action to halve global poverty by the end of 2015.  This year, in fact last month, a review summit in New York met to think about what progress has been made.  And there has been some progress, with child mortality, for example, having been reduced overall by about 25%.  Which means that today only 22,000 children die every day from hunger and preventable diseases, down from 30,000 ten years ago.  Since 1981, the percentage of the world’s population living in what the UN defines as extreme poverty has halved.  This is good news, it is significant progress - but it is still an obscenity, for example when our own wealthy country ignores the Millennium Goal commitment of 0.7% of national income spent on foreign aid and instead commits itself to increasing our foreign aid spending from its current level of 0.3% up to 0.5% by 2015.  It means we still put domestic self-interest and domestic politics ahead of the needs of the world’s poor.  And so TEAR Australia, the consortium of Australian church organisations holding governments to account through the international Micah Challenge campaign, asks Australian churches today to pray for renewed commitment to this important work which actually we understand as the central priority of God.  Micah reminds us that God does not care about our worship, God does not care about our theology or hear our prayers or take pleasure in our hymns, God doesn’t care how many times we celebrate the Eucharist if we fail to practice compassion.  That the right worship, the only right theology, is the practice of kindness and mercy and humility.  Like Gina, like Micah, the role of the Church is to confront hypocrisy in ourselves and in the powers of the world, to point out what we already know and to refuse to accept the contradiction between weasel words and reality.  The role of the Church, in other words, your role and mine, is to be annoying.

Our second reading brings it a little closer to home.  Because we can reassure ourselves with the logic that we are just ordinary folk, that we don’t have much influence, that global poverty is bigger than us.  I think the movie begs to differ, making the gentle point that justice isn’t just the work of governments and economists, justice prevails only when ordinary men and women believe in it and are prepared to demand it.  I think in the movie Gina and Lawrence also end up teaching each other something about why they matter, why what they believe about the world matters.  In the letter to the Corinthians, St Paul teaches us something about the connection between who we are as a church and how we understand our responsibility to the poor.  The context is the need to raise some money for the impoverished church in Jerusalem – the sort of ABM appeal we are familiar with in our own time, and Paul makes the simple point that as Christians we participate in the generosity of God. He reminds the fairly worldly Corinthians that their brothers and sisters in Macedonia gave generously even when they themselves were living in poverty – he holds up the example of the Christian generosity of others – but he says the bottom line is that it is the poverty of God that enriches us.  The freely chosen self-emptying love of God that we see revealed in Jesus, that fills us.  It is the paradox of Christianity, the very main point – that in giving of ourselves we participate in the richness of God’s own life.

And St Paul makes three quick points that we need to notice.  First that the generosity of God is contagious.  The year before he had told the Macedonians about the generosity of the Corinthian church – now the way the church of Macedonia had given out of the little that they had was an inspiration and a challenge to the more wealthy Corinthians.  Secondly that as Christians we are enriched by the gift we give.  There is no point in giving reluctantly or begrudgingly, because Christian giving can only be an expression of love and an acknowledgement of the gift we have ourselves received.  Paul doesn’t only want to raise money for the Jerusalem church, he also wants the Corinthian church – and us – to see that by empowering and giving dignity to others we are participating in the generosity of God.  Finally, St Paul reminds us that Christian giving is not just an individual decision but an act of corporate commitment.  It defines who we are as a church and it raises our horizons above our own local self-interest.

So, how do we respond to the Micah Challenge?  First and foremost, I believe, by taking it personally, by taking it as a challenge to get involved as individuals, to be involved as a church.  A challenge to actively look for ways of giving financial support and to increase the financial support we are already giving, for example through organisations like Care Australia, World Vision or ABM.  A challenge to make a nuisance of ourselves, by writing to our local member or the local newspaper.  A challenge to learn more, to be involved with community organisations like LINC Cannington who demonstrate on a daily basis what love of neighbour really means.  A challenge, also, to ask how our life as a worshipping community reflects the priorities of God.