Saturday, December 31, 2011


Novelist Stephen King is best known for his horror stories.  In 1991 he published a story called Needful Things – an elderly gentleman arrives in a small country town and sets up a little gift shop.  It's a quaint little store with nooks and crannies in all the right places, and the gentleman himself – Mr Gaunt – reminds everybody of their favourite uncle.  The gifts are quirky, if a little old-fashioned, and so within a few weeks just about everybody in town has been through for a look at the stock, and a chat with kindly Mr Gaunt.  Turns out this is a store you can lose yourself in – in more ways than one.  Because everybody who comes into the store and starts browsing finds – underneath the piles of dusty paper-weights and china dolls and calligraphy supplies and parchment – the one thing he or she can't live without.  The one thing that – as soon as they clapped eyes on it – they recognised as what they have always wanted, always hoped to find in a little gift store like this one – now that they think of it, the one thing they always knew they needed but never even knew existed.  The one thing – now they knew it did exist – that they couldn't live without.  But priced just out of reach.

But Mr Gaunt is in the business of making wishes come true, and so he offers the desperate shopper a deal.  You can have it, he says expansively.  My pleasure.  Just – perhaps a little favour?  A harmless practical joke on one of your neighbours?  Indulge an old man's sense of humour.  And so the deal is done, the townsfolk start to turn on each other, the worthless objects they guard so jealously make them selfish and paranoid – and Mr Gaunt who naturally turns out to be the devil himself moves on to the next country town to use the acquisitive self-centredness of its citizens against them.

This first day of the new year, it seems like a good idea to pause to reflect on the things we 'buy into' in our lives – what our actual behaviour tells us about where our central priorities lie – the actual centre of our lives around which everything else revolves.  We also observe today – because the actual day falls between Sundays this year – the feast of the Epiphany, the ancient feast-day of the Church that celebrates Matthew's tale of foreign kings or magicians or astrologers coming to visit the infant Jesus.  The word Epiphany is quirky enough in itself, literally meaning something like a sudden apparition from another dimension – in our common speech we use it to mean a sudden moment of insight, the idea that springs fully formed into your head when you're cleaning your teeth, the 'ah-hah' moment.  And in our Church calendar we associate it not just with the birth of Christ at Christmas, with the entering of the divine into the physical here-and-now world – but with the realisation that there is something here to be noticed if only we will look.  Something that bursts in from outside us, that changes everything.  If just we can be bothered paying attention.  Epiphany asks the question: Where do we see God to be present among and in us? What are the signs of the sacred among us? It is with that quest, that search, that discovery, that we concern ourselves today as we consider the main thing.

It's a quest that we are all on, whether we like it or not – and as the Stephen King story points out – a quest on which we all too often take a wrong turn – mistake something worthless for the main prize.  But I think a close examination of Matthew's story of the wise men from the east who follow the leading of a star to Jerusalem and beyond in search of the one who would make all the acquisitions of wealth and knowledge relative, gives us a few clues about our own quest. And there are three things that this story tells us about the quest, about the search for what's most important.

The first is that they follow a star.  According to Matthew's story, these travellers are not kings but magoi, something like a cross between astrologers and scientists but at any rate people who looked to the heavens for guidance and to the natural world for signs.  The quest for the main thing begins for them with an upward look, with a posture of prayer and an attitude of humility.  Their journey begins, in other words, with the assumption that the spiritual world and the natural world – and the social and political worlds too – are not separate but interpenetrate each other.  It's an assumption that distinguishes them from we supposedly enlightened 21st century men and women who for the most part assume we inhabit a mechanistic material universe and a social and political universe driven solely by the clash and interaction of self-interest – with the holy, the divine or the spiritual world confined – if we admit its existence at all – to our inner landscape or even to the remoter dimension of the hereafter.  Without abandoning the benefits of a modern worldview driven by science we do, it seems, have much to learn from the ancients who more readily than us looked for signs of God's leading in the world around them, in the subtle undercurrents of nature and in the movements of empires and the dreams of women and men.  The attitude of prayer is fundamentally one of perceptiveness, of paying attention not just to your own circumstances and your own needs and desires, but to the signs of movement in the world and the community around you that show where God's Spirit might be leading.  And so they put their own agenda behind them, they accept the instruction of the cosmos and they follow the star.  This is the first lesson for us, and of course it has nothing to do with futile literalistic arguments about how a star can lead people across a desert or signal the arrival of a king.

The second thing is that the quest continues with a journey.  Perhaps it is not coincidence that Matthew's story of the magoi involves a similar sort of journey of faith to that of Abraham and Sarah, who left their home in the east and journeyed across the same landscape on the assurance that God would be with them, that all peoples would be blessed through them and that their descendents – among which we surely must be counted – would be more numerous than the stars in the heavens.  In purely physical terms the journey of the magoi driving camels across the deserts and mountains of Mesopotamia and the Middle East would rank with any of the tales of courage and endurance in the modern world, with ever-present risks of predation and thirst and exposure – but the point is this – that standing as a metaphor for the quest for what is truly most important in lives the journey of the magoi tells us that we can't do it from the comfort of closed minds and sheltered lives.  To encounter the numinous in your life – to touch the spirit – means to sacrifice other options, to leave behind some creature comforts, to get out of the rut of easy routines and self-centred choices, and to take some risks.  The goal of the quest for the spirit doesn't just land in your lap as you watch TV, but comes into focus only as you travel towards it.  The journey as a metaphor might stand for the choices we need to make in how we can sacrifice our own self-obsession and think more about the lives of those around us, how we can move out of our own comfort zone and give up some of our own resources and our own certainties in order to provide for the needs of others. 

The journey also involves opposition, and the need for intelligence and discernment, as the magoi discover when they make a wrong turn and find themselves in Jerusalem being interrogated by the wily despot, Herod.  The journey of the spirit – the quest for what is truly most important in our own lives – will lead us into places where we need moral courage, where the easiest thing might seem to be to go along with somebody else's agenda but the important thing is to think clearly about right and wrong, to remain true to our purpose.

And the last thing is this.  That when the magoi reach their goal – and we can trust that we are in fact led reliably – they offer gifts.  Matthew tells us they are overwhelmed with joy.  The New American Bible translation reflects the Greek even better I think – they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy – four Greek superlatives piled one on top of the other.  This is not just being mildly excited, but connecting with the very source of joy, because they have discovered that which is undeniably the object of their quest, the very main thing embodied in the unlikely looking surroundings of a farm shed.  And they give the costliest treasures of their lives – yes, myrrh might sound a bit funny as a birthday gift, but the point is that the realisation of the treasure of the spirit makes everything else relative and leads them to offer up those treasures of earthly wealth that all too often we cling on to for security.  Even when you encounter the treasure of the spirit there is something you have to give up in return.  To realise the joy of the spirit in your life and to own it as the one thing you can't live without – means giving up some of the other stuff we all too often act as though we can't live without.  If the spirit is the main thing, then your iPad or your expensive car or your overseas holiday isn't.

Like the townspeople in the Stephen King story, we make choices.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Day

I wonder if you have ever heard of the Higgs boson?

It's certainly not surprising if you haven't.  But it might – or might not – be one of the fundamental building blocks of time and space, it just might be the subatomic particle that kind of glues everything together and prevents the universe from falling apart into a kind of cosmic soup.  Because without the Higgs boson – and bear in mind that scientists don't even know for sure whether it exists – but without the Higgs boson scientists have got no explanation for how physical objects have any weight.

The Higgs boson has been likened to a pretty girl at a party.  As soon as she enters the room a crowd of adoring young men start to gather around her, and as she moves through the room she attracts a bigger and bigger following.  She's as light as a feather herself, but surrounded by admirers she's harder to stop – both she and her fans have gained momentum. 

So without the Higgs boson - there wouldn't be anything very much.  It's the explanation for a lot of things we take for granted and rely on – like gravity for example.  Unremarkably enough, scientists have nicknamed it the 'God particle' – the one that makes sense of reality as we know it.  But here's the really remarkable thing – since Higgs started talking about his theoretical particle, the particle that he thought must exist so that reality would make sense – scientists have been looking for it for 60 years.  And spending billions of dollars in the process.  The latest news – just a few weeks ago – is that they are really very excited right now.  Because finally they think they have a pretty good idea where the Higgs boson – isn't.

You might think this is a remarkable exercise in faith.  In staking everything on the hope that what you think has to be there or else you don't understand what the heck is going on – is there.  Or maybe an exercise in wishful thinking.  Scientists of course don't call it either of these things.  They call it hypothesis testing.  You work out a hypothesis that might account for what you can observe, and then you test it.  You see if your theory can predict some things that happen – even more importantly, you see if you can find some evidence that your theory isn't true.  Some things that do happen that shouldn't happen if you were right about your hypothesis.  You test the evidence.

But the point is that like all the most interesting and worthwhile exercises in life, the mystery you are making hypotheses about is subtle and slippery and generally invisible.  Otherwise science wouldn't be hard, and we'd all be doing it.

But you know I'm going somewhere with this.  And where I'm going is to suggest that actually we all are.  Young children do it, when they first start to learn about the world and they look for evidence that they are going to be safe and loved, and that their needs are going to be met.  They work out the theory that the one who matters most is the one with milk and warmth and a soft voice and strong hands.  Adults do it, when they look around them for evidence that who they are matters, and that their life has meaning and purpose.  And they work out the theory that to be happy they need to live generously and with integrity, to practise hospitality.  To be concerned for the needs of others, and to nurture and care for those who are vulnerable.  To practise giving and receiving love.  And elderly people do it, when they review their lives and ask themselves why? and what it all meant? and they look for evidence that the love that they have experienced and the love that they have given might be sufficient for whatever their lives might open into next.  We are all scientists of the mysteries of our own existence and our relationships with one another.  This science, of course, is called human spirituality.  Unlike religion, it is always evidence-based.  You form a hypothesis.  Some people, for example, form the hypothesis that the really important thing is to go shopping.  What's going to make sense of everything else in life is an iPad 2 and the latest fashion and an overseas holiday.  Or you might form the hypothesis that the God-particle of human existence - the invisible glue that holds everything together and gives it meaning and direction - is love.  Not the icky kind, but the strong, compassionate kind that the New Testament writers call agape.  And then you live as though it were true, and you see how far you get.  The basic questions are always the same: who are we? are we going to be OK? do we matter? what does it all mean? And you see how far your hypothesis sustains you in the dark passages of life.

Spirituality isn't the same thing as religion.  You can have spirituality without religion, atheists search along with the rest of us for the Higgs boson of embodied human existence, which is to say the invisible, un-pin-downable something that makes sense of everything else.  The God-particle.  And as generations of churchgoers could attest you can also have religion without spirituality.  It's just not a very good idea.

The people of Israel started their search about 3500 years ago when – at first – they thought what they really needed was a war-God, a fearsome God of the desert who would give them a military advantage, and maybe a fertility-God who would ensure that animals would breed and that crops would be reliable and that children would be born and survive.  And then they started to perceive that the God of all this would be the creator-God, the God through whom the world as they knew it came into existence. And over the centuries they came to know this God – not as a remote, set-and-forget God who wound up the springs of the universe and then sat back for the rest of eternity to see what would happen – but as a God who came into creation alongside of them, who in the words of the Book of Genesis walked in the garden with the first humans in the cool of the evening, who wrestled with them as with Jacob as he faced the dark night of his own selfishness and indecision and cowardice, who spoke with them as with Moses on Mt Sinai when he received the Law – as a God whose main characteristic was compassion and whose main desire for human life was mercy and justice and love.  In short, the religion of Israel came to understand that the love that created the earth and all its creatures – was also actively present in and to and through the fabric of creation itself.  It's what theologians mean by Incarnation – the logic of God's own life that takes on concrete, flesh-and-blood existence, in our own lives and in the life of all creation. 

Christianity, which of course grew up within and is grounded in the religion of Israel, recognises what the Jewish people have always understood about the God who is hidden within God's own creation.  That God's impulse is always to share our humanity - as St John's Gospel puts it, that the Word that is with God in the beginning pitches a tent and lives among us, or as St Luke tells it in his epic tale of angels and animals and shepherds and innkeepers, and a scared young woman with her equally scared husband looking for a place to have their baby – that in this baby at this time God reveals most fully what God always does – which is to inhabit our human lives at their deepest and most everyday level.  Jesus, whom we call God's Son because his life unfolds perfectly out of God's own life, and because in him we see revealed the nature of the God who created us – Jesus becomes for us not a strange or freakish exception to the rule of how human beings are normally conceived and born – but a message or a Word of God that says, 'see? this is what I always do.  Hidden inside your human DNA, the impulse of love that gives birth to galaxies and stars also gives birth to you.'  This strange and wonderful tale which we hear every year, over which theologians and Bible scholars – yes and amusingly enough, atheists – love to argue and say, 'well, but this bit can't be literally true, surely? Yes but was the star really a comet? Seriously - angels?' – or my favourite of all time – 'well, a virgin birth I can believe .... but three wise men?'  this strange and wonderful tale that won't go away because it has the power to tell us who we really are, why we matter and what we mean – this story tells us that the fundamental particle of our everyday lives is love.  And that the love that created us is what we need to discover within ourselves to make us who we most truly are.

Christmas time is the miracle of creation itself.  The miracle of the goodness and beauty of creation and the redemptive capacity of human goodness and love that is made possible by the fact that the one who created us in love – also chooses to dwell within our humanity.  The miracle that – despite our pettiness and selfishness, and despite the failure of our best efforts to live in peace and our struggle to care for the fragile planet God created us to care for and delight in – makes our humanity holy, and capable of bearing the image of Love itself.  That's what the birth of Jesus – the Incarnation of the Word and Wisdom of God – actually means, however much poetic licence the Gospel writers used.

The Higgs boson of human existence.  Telling us that despite our nightmares, we'll be OK.  That despite the triviality and wretchedness that pervades our human lives, we matter.  Showing us, despite our inattention and the distractions that clutter our minds, what we mean.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflection at City of Canning 'Carols by Candlelight', 18 Dec 2011

You sometimes hear that Christmas is all about Jesus.  I'm not sure that's entirely true.

Sometimes you hear that Christmas is about family.  Or about Santa, and about lots of good things to eat and drink – about being generous to the people we love, and about remembering the needs of those who don't have enough.  About hospitality and laughter and being grateful that we have other people in our lives.  About celebrating the first steps of the newest members of our families, and reminding ourselves of the lifelong love that has been the gift of our elders.  I think that's what God thinks Christmas is about, too.

Other times, you hear that Christmas is about community, about reminding ourselves that despite differences of language or skin colour or religion – we are all brothers and sisters, united by our common humanity.  About claiming the possibility and the urgency of peace - despite the deepest conflict that continues to shape our world.  About claiming the wonder and beauty of our fragile planet and all its countless creatures and living systems - despite our struggle to live in ways that nurture and protect it.  I think God agrees with that as well.

Christmas, in short, is the rejection of cynicism and the commitment to hope.  The rejection of everything in our world – and in ourselves – that is manipulative and violent and self-centred and unjust.  And the commitment to finding ways to live that are generous and inclusive, and healing and forgiving.

I don't actually think Christmas is about Jesus.  I think Christmas is about us - just God's way of telling us all this – about us.  The most ancient story of Christmas-time tells us quite simply that God can think of no better way of telling human beings how loved we are – than by taking on our own humanity.  Which means that the love that wove the whole universe together is now a part of our own human DNA.  And that human spirituality is to be found in our relationships and the physical circumstances of our lives – it means that to be authentically human is to be oriented towards hope, towards wholeness and towards others.  Even when we fail – which of course we do all the time – deep down we still know this to be true.

Christmas is God's way of saying, 'you are not alone.  I love you.'  And Christmas unites us – men and women of all faiths and of none – in recognising this truth about one another and about ourselves, that we are not alone, that to be human is to be loved.  That for all our fragility and foolishness, to be human is to have meaning and purpose.

Christmas is a gift that comes around once a year, a mirror that we hold up to ourselves that shows us who we most truly are.  A gift that reminds us of what we already know – that our lives are lived to the fullest when we live for others.  This year – receive the gift of Christmas.

Advent 4

Of all the treasures that have come down to us from the history of Christian spirituality, of all the various ways of prayer, the one that I think speaks most clearly of the mystery of Advent is the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading.  The reality, of course, for most Christians since the time of Christ has been that they could only ever hear the scriptures, not read for themselves, because until fairly recently most people couldn't read.  And so in the monastery, every morning, a group of monks would gather together in the chapel around the lectern and a single monk, who could read, would come forward, approach the book and bow.  Then he would find the passage set down for the day, and, very slowly, he would begin to read the story of God's words in the world.  When he had finished, he would bow again and back away from the lectern.  After a short silence he would again approach and read again the same passage.  He would do this, over and over, until there was nobody left in the chapel to hear.  Each monk, as he heard the word that he needed to reflect on that day, would silently leave, the Word having invaded not only his ears and his brain but his whole body.  Throughout the day, the monks would chew it over – ruminate on the Word they had received until it literally transformed them from within.  We don't listen like that any more, since words to we folk of a more literate age have become black marks on a page that we scan at increasingly high speed, we've lost the art of allowing God's Word to sink into us at the level of our flesh and blood.

The most scandalous message of Advent comes through loud and clear today as Christmas approaches: despite everything, the angel tells us, God's true home is within us, God desires us and God chooses to be most fully revealed in us, despite all the violence, all the corruption and all the trickiness of human hearts, God chooses to be at home in us.  "My gospel," Paul says in the final verses of his letter to the Romans, "The heart of the good news that I share with you - which has been completely misunderstood all through the ages, this mystery that I am giving you is going to change the whole world."


What mystery?  What's been so completely misunderstood?  According to St Paul it's this: that God is not up there or over there - Do you not know, he asks almost incredulously, that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?  That God is incarnate in you.

It's what David finds out in our first reading.  David's intentions seem honourable enough – 'here I am, living in a palace – it's not right that God should live in a tent'.  It's what we do ourselves – let's do up the church, plant a garden, decorate the worship area – it's God's house and we want to praise God in it.  But God puts David straight – you've got it the wrong way around – you don't build me a house – instead, I'm going to make a house out of you.  It's a play on words – David is thinking about bricks and mortar but God has got something else in mind - a lineage, flesh and blood.  It might seem strange that in this last week of Advent we've left the sweeping visions of Isaiah to hear about David's building plans but here's the point – God doesn't plan to be confined to a building we visit on Sundays, or to a book on a lectern – or even to the bread and wine of the Eucharist – God doesn't even intend to be confined in the heavenly hereafter – God plans to live in us.

This isn't new or radical thinking about God.  St Paul knew it, the writer of the book of Revelation knows it when he writes, 'And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them"'. [1]  And the monks who allowed God's Word to seep into them in the practice of lectio divina also knew it.  The people of Israel knew it in their earliest writings, in the book of Genesis that tell how God breathes life into the dust of the earth, how God walks with human beings in the cool of the evening – but along the way we forget, we come to think of God as remote from us, as being up there or over there, or in a different dimension.

We forget so much that by the time of the prophet we call 2nd Isaiah the people of God have to be jolted awake by being called 'the people who walk in darkness'.  Even we Christians forget, when we elevate Jesus so highly that we want to make him the only human being in whom God is revealed.  When we so emphasise that God is present in Jesus of Nazareth that we fail to see the presence of God in the people we live with, that we fail to see the suffering of God in the faces of street children or homeless men; the God who is incarnate in those we fear just as much as in those we love.  When the Incarnation of God is an event that we think only happened 2,000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, that runs the risk of making Christmas too safe, mistaking the cuteness of the nativity scene or the sublime architecture of a cathedral for the utter scandal of God choosing to be revealed amongst the scruffy and the unclean and the dangerous.

And so we come, in the fourth Sunday of Advent, to Mary.  Writer Madeline L'Engle reminds us of the legend that Mary was not the only or the first teenage girl that the archangel Gabriel visited – just the first one to say yes.

"Are you sure? (L'Engle writes)

but I'm unworthy -

I couldn't anyhow -

I'd be afraid.  No, no,


Do I have to answer now?

I don't want to say no-

Let me have a few days to think it over."


Sorrowfully, although he was not surprised

to have it happen again,

the angel returned to heaven." [2]


What makes Mary extraordinary, according to this legend, was her willingness to stand face to face with an angel in all its scary splendour and open herself to God at work in her, the gift of God's Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us...  As William Willimon writes, 'incarnation means that the God who stands outside of time also enters into time, the God who is infinite becomes finite, the God who is all-powerful becomes all-vulnerable.  The God whose womb bore the world now grows molecule by molecule in Mary's womb to bear the good news of peace on earth'. [3]

I think Madeline L'Engle gets it about half right – but it's not just teenage girls in Nazareth who get a surprise visit from Gabriel – we all get the invitation to open ourselves up, to become pregnant with God's Word – I think, over and over –such an intimate, gentle breath of angels' wings that we often don't hear.  The beauty and the wonder of Mary is that she stands for all who are powerless and vulnerable, the 'yes' she gives is so incongruously self-assured – she stakes everything she has and everything she is on the utterly preposterous notion that God's Word taking shape within her is going to be sufficient not only for her but for the whole world.  Maybe you have to be poor and powerless to take a risk like that – how often, I have to ask myself, have I refused to let God's Word find a foothold in my life because I think there's more security or better prospects in following my own agenda?  The gospel of Mary is a gospel of challenge.

In a slightly grotesque image, St Augustine claims that when Mary says 'yes' she is impregnated by the Holy Spirit through the ear.  Maybe he could have thought that metaphor through a bit better, but what he means is that just as Mary conceives through hearing and responding to the Word, so too new life comes to us when we listen to the Word.  When we hear and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Word, we become "pregnant" with the Spirit.  The scandal of Advent repeats itself - Christ takes on flesh in you and me.



[1] Rev 21.3

[2] Madeleine L'Engle, And It Was Good: Reflections on


[3] William Willimon, Pulpit Digest

Friday, December 09, 2011

Advent 3

I wonder if you have ever worked in an organisation with a mission statement?  These were all the go in the 80s and 90s, it was very fashionable to have a mission statement, and I remember in a couple of places where I worked, Government Departments, having mission statements that more or less stated the bleeding obvious.  Stuff like, “we aim to provide clients with services to which they are entitled ...”.  Churches also got into the mood – the Diocese of Perth has a mission statement which is more or less a copy of the World Council of Churches version.  Our own parish has a mission statement too, which we print on the pew sheet every week, and like all mission statements maybe says more about us than we realise.  If our mission statement sums up whatever we think is most important about what we do as a church, it always begs the question as to whether God agrees with us.  Actually I think the best mission statement for the Church is just the Gospel – that we proclaim it, and that we are doing our best to live it – but basically a mission statement is also about being succinct and memorable.  A bit like one of those popular competitions where you win an overseas holiday if you can cram into 25 pithy words or less why you want it.  Anyway, today we have the mission statement of the second – or perhaps the third – prophetic voice in the Book of Isaiah.

We read a lot of Isaiah during Advent.  Of all the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah is most unambiguously a prophet of good news – some commentators even refer to the Gospel of Isaiah.  And the Christian church has never hesitated, right from the beginning, to pick up the bold announcements in the book of Isaiah and say, that’s about Jesus!  That prophecy comes true in Jesus, that’s what Isaiah is really talking about.  And even though the prophecies of Isaiah are written hundreds of years before Jesus comes on the scene, even though we know Isaiah’s confronting words of challenge and comfort are written for the people of the prophets’ own times, I think that as Christians we are right to claim them.  Because that’s what Jesus himself does. 

Because it’s Jesus himself who adopts these words from Isaiah’s Gospel as his own personal mission statement.  In Luke’s Gospel when Jesus bursts onto the synagogue scene at the beginning of his ministry he takes his place at the lectern as all observant Jewish males were expected to do, and he opens the scroll at this very place in the Book of Isaiah, and he reads these words and says: ‘Today, right in front of you, these words have come true!’  Jesus himself is claiming that this passage from Isaiah sums up his mission and his agenda.  That Isaiah’s words are about him and for him.

What a claim – and what a passage!  It’s nothing short of an announcement by the prophet that he has been called by God, that the words he speaks are not his words but God’s words, and that God is going to do great things through him.  The prophet claims that he is anointed by God – the Hebrew word for this is moshiach and that’s a huge claim because it’s only kings who are anointed – it is the claim that God’s message and God’s purposes have come true in the prophet’s own words and in his own person – it’s a huge claim because this is also the word - moshiach – that we know as Messiah.  It’s the most confronting claim imaginable, and it’s a claim that carries with it good news - not of the airy-fairy kind, but good news of the kind that alters history.

So, this is the good news that Jesus packs into the mission statement that he adopted from Isaiah:-

First, it’s good news to the poor – in Luke’s gospel, the word literally means those who are bent over, the lowly.  That’s the first priority, and it’s echoed in the announcement by the angels not to important folk but to dirt-poor shepherds freezing out in the hills near Bethlehem.  God taking on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth is good news for those who are literally at the bottom of the heap.  We go seriously astray whenever we forget this.  Because the good news for those of us who are not dirt poor - is that we are challenged to adjust our priorities and their practices. 

Second, the prophet says the good news is comfort to those who are broken-hearted –hope for people whose lives are dominated by anxiety, humiliation or fear.  This claim is getting bigger and bigger!  God has got a special priority for those who are left out, for those who have got used to living without hope.  But again, if it’s good news for people living on the edge, then it must also be good news for those of us who are doing OK.  Why?  Because it carries with it the invitation to see things from God’s point of view, to be the agents of God’s good news.

Then the prophet says the good news means freedom for prisoners – because freedom is the condition God created us for – the good news of God is good news for people whose lives are not free, for those who are literally locked up whether or not they deserve to be.  For real prisoners, of whom in our supposedly progressive country we have more and more.  For asylum seekers in immigration detention – for the young men who last week were moved into our newest immigration prison in one of the most inhospitable places in the Northern Territory.  Good news for them.  And for all whose lives are limited by their circumstances – the uneducated, the unemployed – refugees, those who are locked away in prisons of mental illness, the sick and housebound.  People locked away in prisons of loneliness and shyness and disability.  Jesus claims that the good news he embodies is powerful enough to open the gates of the most powerful prisons human society can invent.

And the biggest claim of all? – the prophet claims that this year is the year of Jubilee – the year of God’s favour.  This claim is even bigger than the Get Out of Jail Free card, this one says your mortgage has been paid off by an anonymous donor, your credit card bill has been settled for you – in the most ancient law of the people of Israel the Year of Jubilee that came once every 50 years was when everyone’s debts were cancelled, all slaves set free, all aliens living in the land were given permanent residency visas.  A fresh start.  By quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is claiming all that.

Has Jesus maybe overstated his case a bit?  Did he bite off a bit more than he could chew?  Has he really delivered?

In the movie, ‘Superman returns’, there’s a wonderful line from Superman’s dad.  Now Superman comes from the planet Krypton – I must admit I’d always thought he got to earth more or less by accident but apparently it had all been planned: "Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them...’ – this is what Superman’s long-dead dad tells him via a sort of hologram DVD message - "They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.  They only lack the light to show them the way.  For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." 

Well, apart for the obvious and kind of goofy religious overtones – don’t we sometimes wish that Jesus was a bit more like Superman?  – though when I think about it, it does seem that Superman’s presence in Metropolis has made the human beings there even more passive and dependent.  So maybe it’s a good thing that God – the real God, that is - chooses a different way to work.  Over and over again, in the story of God’s people, God chooses those who are weak, those who don’t have super-powers, people who are ambivalent and indecisive like Jacob, and Jonah, and Peter; people who are old and barren like Sarah and Hannah; people who are crotchety and unattractive, like John the Baptist, people who are young and scared and poor, like Mary.  The big claims that Jesus makes are claims about how God works in the world – that we are not alone because God is with us, in Jesus himself, born to love and laugh and suffer with the rest of us, God shares the circumstances of our lives - but Jesus’ big claims are also, I think, the claim that God works through human hands and hearts in all their weakness.

There’s a story about a travelling rabbi who finds himself in the court of the king of Egypt.  He is treated like royalty and the king shows him around the palace.  In one room, the rabbi is shown the paintings of an illustrious master who died prematurely, hundreds of years ago.  These are paintings that take the breath away, every one a masterpiece, like jewels that open onto another world – but one wall of the room is bare.  ‘Why’s that?’, the rabbi asks?  The king tells him that the master had died young, that the wall is left bare to remind them of what else he could have painted. ‘But nobody else can do it’, says the king.  ‘Give me a few days’, says the rabbi, ‘and a few chemicals – powered silver, antimony, a few things like that’.  And the king does – a few days later he comes back to find the fourth wall covered with a great mirror that reflected all the beauty of the paintings, which seemed to have come alive and moving, shimmering and radiant. [1]

The Advent journey this year is getting closer to its end.  We find ourselves looking ahead to a pregnancy, to an insignificant birth in a forgotten outpost of the Roman Empire that tells us we are not alone, that God has come into our world.  The message of Advent is that God works through human hands.  And Jesus’ big claims, his extravagant mission statement, tells us what our part of that is – to reflect the light, to rejoice at the presence of the light, wherever we find it, to be the mirrors that bring the light into the dark places that still exist in our world.  To be good news in a world that desperately needs some.  God, strangely enough, chooses weak and imperfect people to do that, people like you and me.


[1] Megan McKenna (1999), Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: stories and reflections on the Sunday readings, (Orbis, Mayknoll NY), p.72.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Advent 2

In the mythical world of fairy-tables and fables, one of the most important roles in the royal court was that of the court jester.  The jester, of course, was a clown, something like a blend of stand-up comic, Laurel and Hardy slapstick guy, social circuit-breaker and political commentator.  I say in the mythical alternative history of fairy tale because it probably never functioned quite like this in real history.  But the jester’s job was to say what everybody else was too frightened or too busy sucking up to the king to be able to say, the jester was the one who could make cruel comments about the physical appearance or the personal habits of courtiers, the jester was the one who could do a silly walk to defuse an awkward diplomatic moment, and the one who could tell the truth about that less than clever policy while everybody else was busily assuring the king how wonderful it was. The jester in fact was no fool, but acting the fool was how the jester managed to do his real job, most of the time without losing his head – the job that is of telling it like it is.  You can see how a jester might be quite useful to a king or queen.

So the jester is the fairytale equivalent of the prophet.  There’s a lot of misconceptions about prophets, for example that a prophet’s main job was to tell the future - like some sort of grumpy religious fortune teller.  And of course prophets were concerned about the future, because the job of a prophet was to tell the truth about who we are and what we have become.  The future grows out of the present like the present grows out of the past, so the prophet’s job was to remind people where they had been and how they got where they are now - and where they are likely to end up if they keep doing what they are doing.  Prophets didn’t sit easily with the Temple system and the priestly class, for the simple reason that religion and priests were what they all too often had to tell the truth about.  The religion of Israel didn’t know what to do with prophets, just as we in our world of the 21st century don’t quite know what to do with people who insist on telling the truth about things the rest of us have decided to put our heads firmly in the sand about.  Basically, prophets were and still are a pain in the proverbial - but the genius of the religion of Israel is that the role of the prophet was ordained by God, and deep down everybody knew that the costly truth of a prophet was a word of God.

Well the book of the prophet Isaiah is actually the work of at least two prophets, maybe even a whole prophetic school or tradition, because it spans the history of several centuries – and one very clear shift happens around the end of chapter 39.  Before this, the so-called ‘First Isaiah’ had been warning the people of Jerusalem about 8 centuries before Christ, just what is going to happen if they persist in playing the dangerous game of international politics instead of being faithful to the covenant relationship with God.  Then into chapter 40, right where we begin reading this morning, we abruptly jump forward two hundred years – the Assyrian Empire has come and gone, the Babylonian Empire has risen and the people of Judah carted off into the sort of captivity that First Isaiah had been warning about – the long exile that actually turned into a creative and life-giving experience for God’s people because it led to some overdue soul-searching, some new thinking about God and new thinking about what it means to be faithful in a shifting and changing world.  Historically, between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah, which begins in chapter 40, comes the Book of Lamentations, that long poem of self-accusation and grief with just one single glimmer of hope, right in the middle where the poet pauses and recollects: 'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness…' (3:21-24).  It was a military defeat in which the whole culture and religion of a people was all but extinguished, a defeat which – actually our modern world knows this sort of tragedy all too well, even if most of us in our safe country haven’t experienced it for themselves.  The people must have wondered where God had gone. The bottom had fallen out of their world.  They felt cut off from God, rejected by God and painfully aware that the apparent absence of God was connected to their own faithlessness.

And our passage this morning speaks of this, and it reminds the people that they were and still are bound to God by a covenant.  In verse six of today’s reading, the word ‘constancy’ in Hebrew is hesed – the word that is often translated as loving-kindness or covenant faithfulness, and the point is this – that while God is ever persistent, faithful, and dependable, the people’s response has been inconsistent, fleeting, and undependable. The prophet points out that yes, we do have our moments of faithfulness, yes, in moments of vulnerability we do turn toward God and live out of the centre of our relationship with God – but our faithfulness is like the flower of the field, beautiful for a brief moment but fading and dying as soon as trouble and distraction come upon us. Prophets, you see, are realists.  And the prophet reassures us that God's love is the opposite of that: we sin, but we can count on God's faithfulness anyway.

And the prophet makes an announcement in God’s voice – the season of suffering and exile and self-recrimination is over.  The consequences of faithlessness don’t last forever and in God’s scheme of things there is always renewal and restoration.  Yes, this is partly just about catching the tide of history, recognising how our own self-centredness and failure to reach out in compassion has made the times when nothing made sense and God seemed to be far away that much worse and more meaningless, recognising too how times of reconnection and fresh hope offer opportunities for the renewal of our spirituality and relationships.  But the prophet speaks of a way being made clear of obstacles – maybe the promise is that from now on there will be no more hardship or struggle – or maybe more realistically the idea is that even out there in the desert, which is to say in the struggle of real life, that the people who have remembered their covenant connection with God will no longer be lost or overwhelmed.  It is a good word for us in Advent – in a year when like all years we are in danger of losing our centre, overwhelmed by everything that the newspapers tell us is wrong with our world, overwhelmed by the need to decide what we should even believe about the big issues of our world, overwhelmed by the everyday struggles of our personal and family lives – the word of Second Isaiah tells us to lift our heads, to clear some space, a path between here and there so that God can come into our lives again.  In Advent, we hear the reminder to attune our hearts and minds to the ways that God enters our lives and the life of the world, the holiness in the everyday reality of our lives as well as the momentous affairs of the world we inhabit.  Especially the momentous affairs – especially the big picture – because Advent calls us out of self-preoccupation and into collective reflection, recognition of the collective hope we have for a world of justice and shalom. 

Funny thing about exile is that even the gruesomeness of defeat and the humiliation of being led away captive can get forgotten.  Over the years and decades Babylon, that great and splendid city of the ancient world, had become home.  Babylon after all wasn’t just a military super-power, but a culture - more sophisticated, more attractive and wealthy and learned and just as morally nuanced as anything the exiles had ever known.  Yet Second Isaiah’s call to renew the vows of covenant faithfulness is a call to leave all that, to go home the hard way, through the desert with only the promise that God will be there with them, that mountains will be made to seem like footpaths.  Yes, the world is under new management, yes, the exiles are free to begin living in new relationship with God and with one another – but it might not have sounded like uniquely good news to families with jobs and comfy homes and mortgages in the leafy suburbs of Babylon.  Going home means leaving everything we have substituted for home along the way.

You see like a good court jester, a prophet doesn’t only look forwards but also backwards, reminding the people of their past filled, not with meaningless turns and accidental choices but with the fruits of faithful obedience – not with self-serving achievements but with life-giving miracles.  And the hard way home is the promise of shalom – the promise not of never having to struggle or sacrifice, but of the right ordering of relationships, the mutual recognition of needs and sharing of resources instead of competitiveness, the honouring of promises of faithfulness and the practise of compassion.  Shalom is always communal, an alternative history and a reliable promise that the ways of materialism and militarism don’t get the last word.

Advent asks us to consider – to what are we captive?  From what are we being offered freedom? And the reading gives us two ways to unpack the message in our own world.  For captives, for all who suffer and are oppressed – for the poor - the word of Isaiah is the hope of freedom, the promise that you are not insignificant to God, that you are beloved and that God is with you and will lead you into freedom.  It’s an intoxicating word, a word that sometimes seems elusive, that mostly depends on the turning of history and the recognition of God’s priorities being enacted by men and women of good will.  We look around us – especially during Advent – for God’s purposes being made actual in the hard places of our world.  But the second way – the word for captives who have become comfortable, for captives who have learned to settle for the false promises of this world and have forgotten their costly calling to grace – for most of us, most of the time.  Captives to consumerism, captives to the privilege of living in a wealthy country where we take security and safety and social services like welfare and health-care and education and housing so much for granted we forget how privileged we are – the word for us?  Is to wake up, to prepare to be de-centred, to be led away from self-preoccupation and into compassion, away from the worship of goods and self, and into the worship of God and the love of neighbour.

What are you captive to? Advent is the call to freedom – the call home by the hard road made easy.




Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent 1

I saw a little book or religious cartoons the other day – in fact it was Frank and Ernest’s ‘Short History of the World’ – and somebody asks Methuselah what it’s like living to 900 and he says not bad really, except for the déjà vu.

Is it just me, or does anybody else have this nagging feeling we’ve been here before?  So it’s a big day today.  Carousel is open all day, the tinsel is out in force, armies of Santas are waking up and going to work.  Advertising agencies are moving into overdrive as they work out how to re-sell the age-old Christmas message that too much of a good thing is never enough.  Just in case the full spirit of bonhomie hasn’t yet dawned on you, Australia Post will be reminding you soon that the overseas mail has closed before you’re remotely ready, and you’ve probably double-booked yourself for one or other of the interminable round of break-up functions.

Yes, it’s the season to be jolly, and just to be different, the Church says bah humbug.  It’s the season for thinking about the world falling apart.  For me, there always seems to be a wonderful disconnect between the secular calendar and the Church’s calendar at this time of year, a wonderful parallel universe kind of splitting off. No, the Church isn’t being a stick-in-the-mud – we are every bit as caught up in the mood of expectation as Target and Myer are – but maybe what we are expecting is just a bit more nuanced, just a bit harder to pin down.  Welcome to Advent.

Have you ever wondered why the short season of Advent begins – not with backward-looking predictions about the birth of Jesus – which is to say the memory of the ancient world’s expectation of God’s breaking in to human history – but a look forwards?  With slightly scary hints of cosmic mutations and vague over-the-top promises of the future fulfilment of all things – ambiguous promises of the once and future reign of Christ?  Advent’s watchwords are waiting and preparation – but what are we actually waiting for?  What are we preparing for?  Something that happened 2,000 years ago?  Or something here and now? something that might just affect our own lives and change the world we live in?  Advent is subversive, not a time of misty-eyed nostalgia but a time of declaring that God’s historic incursion into human affairs through Jesus Christ is not the end of the story but the beginning.  Not just the fulfilment of the promise, but the down-payment on a future hope of God bringing ultimate promises to fruition.  And so I want to suggest three things about Advent by way of orienting us to its claim on us this year.

The first thing maybe sounds obvious.  That Advent is about waiting for Jesus.  The Jesus whose long-ago birth we wait to celebrate in due course, and the Jesus who tells us in no uncertain language to expect to encounter him again.  I often think it’s a pity that Mark and Luke in particular include these cryptic and vaguely suggestive passages in a style often favoured by ancient writers when they wanted to say, or at least suggest, more than they knew they could get away with.  This passage from Mark doesn’t orient us toward the impending destruction of the world, no matter what some Christian interpreters would have us believe.  However, he is pointing toward events that at the time of writing around 64AD while Roman troops in Judea put down the latest messianic uprising with ruthless brutality were still some years in the future.  Many Jews, including many Christians, would have been waiting for God to act, to intervene to protect his people.  Others probably believed the world really was ending.  The destruction of the Temple in 70AD was in some ways just the logical conclusion of the process by which the might of Rome crushed not only hopes of political independence but much of the apparatus of the Jewish religion as well.  It was the end of Temple worship and the sacrificial system, and historically provided the impetus for two major streams of religious reform.  One was the rabbinical system, the other was the emergence of Christianity as a separate religion.

But Jesus description of the terror of this time of war are deliberately separated from, not joined to, his promise to return.  ‘After these things’, he says.  And the point I think is that – despite our temptations to believe otherwise – wars and the rumours of wars are not the means by which God’s intentions come to fruition.  God’s priorities are not revealed in the most frightful things that human beings do to one another, but in the difficult struggle for peace and the costly exercise of mercy and compassion.  God never exercises power the way the leaders of the world do, and thank heaven for that – not in Jesus earthly ministry shaped by humble, self-giving love – and not in any future re-run. 

This is important, because if for Mark’s generation the war was a false sign of the conclusion of all things, then our own world has got its own plethora false signs.  Geo-political worries, global terrorism, the stranglehold by which the interests of global capital keep whole populations in poverty, resource limitations, climate change – big worries, but not signs that God is about to blow the whistle and end the game. 

It’s not about looking at the worst human beings can do, and hoping that God will pop through the sky and sort us out.  I think that this view of the second coming is fundamentally mistaken, and it’s mistaken because it doesn’t take the first coming seriously.  And it doesn’t take seriously Jesus explicit promise to be with us always.  I think the second coming is when we finally learn to recognise what the Spirit if Christ is doing in our world right underneath our noses, when we finally learn to recognise where God’s purposes and God’s priorities for forgiveness and compassion are being made concrete, where the priority of self-interest is being exchanged for the priority of self-giving love.  Sometimes that is in Christian communities, sometimes we really do tell the truth when we assure ourselves that we are Christ’s body in the world.  Other times we see the Spirit of Christ active in the world in places and among people we least expect.  Always when we recognise it, the challenge is for us to begin to imitate the way of Jesus ourselves, to exchange the logic of ‘what do I want and what do I need?’ for the logic of ‘what does this person need from me, so that she can be whole?’, and ‘how does this person challenge my compassion?’

Which brings me to my second point, which is that Advent is dangerous.  There should be health warnings on our liturgy sheet this morning, in fact come to think of it I might do that next year.  It’s dangerous because it’s challenging, and when you persist with challenging activities you shouldn’t be surprised when there’s a backlash.  No, you probably won’t be thrown in jail for practising Advent.  The backlash is more likely to come from – you.

Because Advent implies the insistence that all is not right with the world.  Our readings this morning kind of make that point, don’t they?  Does anyone need to be convinced of this – that all is not right with our world?  And insisting on hope, insisting that we need to live in hope for God’s purposes and priorities to be revealed – pretty much implies we think that the old systems, the business as usual priorities, aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.  So, the claims of Advent are meant to rattle and disconcert the powers of this world, meant to challenge all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power.

Except – don’t get too comfortable.  Because this really is one of those situations where the one finger pointing elsewhere means four more pointing back at you.  And at me.  If all isn’t right with the world, how complacent can we be that all is right with us?  Do we stand accused by our own material comfort and security in a world where the comfort of the few implies the poverty of the many?  Does Advent indict us of not caring enough about justice, because deep down we know we ourselves are the beneficiaries of this world’s inequity?  Does Advent indict us of not allowing our own spirituality to wound and change us at the deepest level?  How might the world be different, just if we loved as much as we say we should? Yes, Advent is dangerous.

And my third and final point about Advent is that it is busy.  Way busier than it looks, don’t be fooled by the Church’s practise of silence and the deep purple of this season’s vestments.  Waiting and watching for Jesus in our midst is not about passivity or patient inactivity, but about perceptiveness and learning to process reality in a new way.  What is in mind in this passage from Mark’s Gospel is the sort of waiting that already knows full well the one whose coming is expected, the sort of waiting that involves opening ourselves up to the possibility that the one who is coming might be revealed – in us.  The sort of waiting, in other words, that implies a willingness to be transformed, and an active cooperation with the infinitesimal processes of the Spirit at work in us. 

For our Christian sisters and brothers in the Northern hemisphere, Advent comes at the time of the longest darkness, the entry into the cold of winter, and the lighting of candles easily symbolises the persistence of hope.  In our Aussie climate we have different signs, no less powerful and persistent – the flowering of the jacaranda tells us the time for change is now.  The one we are waiting for is all around us if we can just learn to see.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Reign of Christ

What a few weeks we’ve had! Or more to the point, what a fantastic few weeks Julia Gillard has had!  This can’t be bad for her approval ratings, and goodness only knows she needs all the help she can get.  A visit from the Queen, no less, who at 85 is not only a polished and politically savvy performer but continues to win hearts wherever she goes.  A successful and feel-good CHOGM hosted in Perth, then Gillard was off to the APEC leaders’ summit in Honolulu and back home in time to host a visit by the world’s most powerful ruler of all, the president of the United States.  A parade of heads of state with all the trappings and our own Prime Minister looking a little bit regal herself, business leaders looking smug and self-satisfied and the rest of us mightily impressed.  What does it all mean?

Of course, this parade of political leaders great and small might also leave us with a sense of disconnect, not to mention a few unanswered questions.  With all this power and wealth and privilege on display, the minders and limousines and cordoned off areas forbidden to ordinary citizens much less the homeless shuffled out of sight for a few days – what do they actually stand for, these leaders of the nations?  What are their true priorities?  There’s a contradiction between the pomp and self-importance of their parade through our city streets, and the realities of the world we live in – political oppression and unaccounted for war crimes in Commonwealth countries such as Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, famine in North Africa, the now-defeatable scourge of AIDS still unnecessarily claiming 10 million lives a year, and along with climate change threatening predominantly the world’s poor, a new round of global financial shocks that threaten the basic stability even of developed nations.  How well do our rulers think they are doing? 

In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel – a prophetic work so uncompromising and challenging that according to the ancient rabbis it should never be read by people under 40 years of age – the oracle of judgement comes down on the whole dynastic line of Israel’s kings, the successors of the idealised David.  Now, kings in the Old Testament are routinely likened to shepherds for obvious reasons – in the ancient world the role of a shepherd was to lead and protect the flock and predators, to provide shelter and food, to be vigilant and to put his or her own life on the line if necessary.  Our own 21st century view of sheep as commodities, even if we do have a soft spot for cute fluffy lambs before we turn them into lamb chops – doesn’t quite capture the ancient sense of mutual belonging and responsibility that bound together subsistence farmers with the small herds that provided families with milk and wool and eventually meat.  And yet, Ezekiel says, the shepherds have abrogated their responsibilities – the poor leadership of Israel has led directly to the suffering of exile.  The shepherds have been self-serving, looking out for their own privilege and taking what they wanted from the flocks but not providing shelter or sustenance or protection and so the sheep were vulnerable to the ‘wild animals’ – by which Ezekiel means the successive invasions from Assyria and Babylon.  As always, we need to read the judgement before we turn to the promise.

And so from the verse we came in, Ezekiel announces God’s resolve that things now are going to be different.  God alone is going to be the shepherd, to show the care that human leaders have failed to provide.  God alone, in other words, will be the king, fully and lovingly concerned for the vulnerable flock that is Israel. Because of God’s new decision, Israel will have a new future that is no longer defined by its corrupt political class.  Not only that, this new king will destroy ‘the fat and the strong’, which is to say the protection of the weak means the destruction of the oppressive power of failed leaders.  The images are reassuring and solid – justice, God says, is not justice unless it protects those who are powerless and challenges the privileges of the mighty.  And then in the second chunk of today’s reading God says – I will do all that – but I will do it through a human emissary, a proper shepherd, a ruler who acts in my name – one worthy of being known as a successor of David who will not be king – only God is king – but a prince, which is to say the promised Davidic ruler will shepherd the people by exercising the priorities and purposes of God.  For Ezekiel this is first and foremost an uncompromising political judgement and condemnation of the current leadership, and the assertion that God’s purposes have real-world implications.  The time is coming when God’s priorities for justice and mercy will be made present.

Well, it’s not hard to see why the early Christian communities saw in this Davidic prophecy an anticipation of Jesus.  Jesus the good shepherd would seek the lost sheep and lead and care for the flock. He would provide for the needs of the flock with “abundant life”.  And so the metaphor of the shepherd still rings true for the church.  In Jesus we see the hallmark of restorative and empowering leadership - a king whose kingship is revealed not through not through the trappings of worldly power but through humility and service.

But the passage from Ezekiel invites us to reflect not just on the ministry and self-sacrificial love of Jesus, but on the failure of true leadership that we see in our own world.  Because the crises of the world we live in are crises of moral leadership.  Political process even in modern democracies like our own have become subservient to the interests of big business.  Witness the concerted opposition by big business to the mining resource rent tax which brought down the Rudd government, the ease with which huge mining interests can brush aside the concerns of farmers in the current debate over the process known as ‘fracking’ – the extraction of coal seam gas by drilling down and setting off underground explosions to shatter shale rock and release trapped gases - which in the process contaminates groundwater with poisonous and carcinogenic substances.  More and more, public policy is conducted under pressure from wealthy and powerful vested interests, the ‘fat and strong’ who protect their own interests to the neglect of the vulnerable and powerless.

There is no doubt that the greed of powerful multinational financial corporations coupled with inadequate regulatory structures that failed to protect the vulnerable gave us the global financial crisis Mark I and probably Mark II as well.  The current furore about the carbon tax funded by powerful business interests is about protecting the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful, while shifting that burden of climate change off to future generations, or off to those with fewer resources.  And so the critique of Ezekiel still applies, it still rings true in the world we live in.  But Ezekiel announces, in God’s own words, that it will not always be so, and gives us a vision and a yardstick of what leadership – not just in some vaguely promised heaven but on this earth and in our own time, should look like – a leadership focused on the protection of the weak and the limitation of the strong, the restoration of the common good so that the whole community – rich and poor and weak and strong can live together in shalom.  This is a reminder of what might be in this world that God has made, and a signpost to a future that can become possible only by imagining it and believing it and living it into reality.

As Christians on the Feast of the Reign of Christ we focus on the servant leadership of Jesus and we recognise that the kingship of the risen Christ is a different sort of leadership than any worldly model.  It is the kingship of humility and self-giving love, in short the shepherd kingship envisaged by Ezekiel.  And yet – the danger for us is that we retreat into a sort of other-worldly or next-worldly day-dream and fail to engage with the sharp criticism that the kingship of Christ implies for worldly structures of power.  We can nostalgically sing ‘The King of Love my Shepherd Is’ – without recognising that it is we ourselves who are called to be the body of Christ, which surely means that it is us – the Church, the parish, Christian men and women – who are called to imagine and believe in and work towards relationships that challenge this world’s fascination with power.

Like ordinary people everywhere we can shake our heads because what can we do about it?  We vote, and we try to remember the needs of others – especially at this time of year.  We’re expected now to change the world?

Actually, yes.  Did you not know?  The Church is God’s history-long device for changing the world.  By modelling a different kind of power, which is the power of relationship, the power of self-giving love.  We actually do this more effectively than we think, and we do it when we are confident that this is what we are called to do, confident in the power of the Gospel and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  We also fail at it routinely, and all the time we find our own life starting to imitate the top-down structures of the world we live in, which is why we need to keep coming back here and opening ourselves to the source of love that we touch in the meal that joins us to one another and to the crucified and risen Christ.  This is not just a feel-good weekly ritual, it is a recharge.  It challenges the way we live, and it reminds us of the template by which we are to live.

How well are we doing? Does our life together as a parish grow out of the model of Jesus’ self-giving love? Do we give priority to building up those who are marginalised, to welcoming those who are excluded, to loving and serving one another and those in our community who need our care?  How well are we doing in our families and in our neighbourhoods to model Jesus’ alternative logic of relational power?

If you are like me, the report card would probably read, ‘still trying’.  But like Julia Gillard, we get a bit of a lift by associating with the model of power we want to imitate.  Some of it rubs off, we find ourselves trying to live into the model that we most associate with, the king whose claim on our lives we publically acknowledge and whose ways we try to emulate.  We do live with the reality of conflicting loyalties – the rule of self-giving love competes daily with the rule of consumerism and self-indulgence.  To embrace one we are forced to renounce the other.  Which version of power do we want to be known for?  That’s the king to look for photo opportunities with.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pentecost +22 - Talents!

We’ve seen a bit of disgraceful behaviour on the corporate scene lately.  The News Ltd phone-tapping scandal for example, or in Australia a Qantas executive voting himself a $2million pay rise while locking out employees and disrupting the travel plans of the rest of us to avoid a reasonable pay claim.  In fact it’s hard not to have sympathy for the Occupy movement – Occupy Wall Street with its spin-offs like Occupy Melbourne, Occupy Perth. They are protesting against the corporate greed that gave us the first global financial crisis and may be tipping us over into the next round of financial and economic insecurity that is causing real pain in Europe, the United States, and threatening the rest of the world.  Increasingly, the connection is being made by even main-stream economists between global financial woes and the basket of ecological issues that we face besides the much argued-about global warming – issues coming to a head like peak oil (the fact that the world’s readily available oil reserves are over half gone), energy insecurity, rising food consumption coupled with the actual reduction in arable land as the world’s population hit the almost unimaginable 7 billion mark sometime last month.  The basic problem is that with its fantasy of unlimited growth – on a finite planet with finite reserves and a population doubling every 40 years – the modern economic system has gone just about as far as it can in borrowing from future generations to fund the unsustainable lifestyles of today.  The fact that the retirement savings of working people everywhere keep going south is just the tip of the iceberg.

This, I think, has got everything to do with the Gospel reading for today.  Which, if I may, I’ll just summarise in case you missed the main points.  ‘It’s as though’, Jesus tells us – it’s as though a wealthy man –not just a well-to-do successful business owner, we’re talking Rupert Murdoch or James Packer – had to go on an overseas trip so he leaves his local managers – really, he owns them, so we might as well call them slaves – to make him even more money in his absence.  I looked up the value of a talent the other day – in this story a talent isn’t a skill or a God-given gift, it is a serious amount of money, anything up to six million dollars in today’s terms.  So he gives one of his lackeys $30 million, another one $15 million and the junior employee he gives $3 million and tells them to do their best.  If you’ve ever seen the TV show, ‘The Apprentice’, with Donald Trump, then you get the basic idea.

Well, the first lackey is as cunning and ruthless as his master, so he doubles his money by wheeling and dealing.  In the ancient world, poor people – which is to say about 95% of the population – the people Jesus is telling this story to - knew very well that the only way for the rich to get richer was by somehow screwing a bit more out of them.  So he increases the rents, buys from the peasants even cheaper and sells their produce on at a rip-off margin ... in today’s language he probably leveraged options on a falling share market – and he doubles his money.  Someone else, somewhere else, loses.  It’s the same logic we use today, the fantasy of unlimited economic growth that nobody ever has to foot the bill for.

The second lackey doesn’t have quite as much to start with but he is also shrewd and so he doubles his stake as well.  But the third lackey hasn’t got the stomach for this.  He gets what is going on, he gets that his master is ruthless and expects to make money out of other people, and he doesn’t want to play this game.  He is prudent, so he does what the peasant population of the ancient world did all the time, and he buries it.  He keeps his master’s money safe.  He doesn’t rip anybody off, he doesn’t double his money.

So the rich man comes back, and like all seriously rich people he wants more, and he expects others to make it for him.  The first two lackeys have made him heaps of dough, so he gives them good positions in his organisation.  Now they are wealthy and important wage slaves.  The third lackey – well he isn’t a lackey any longer, in fact as soon as he refused to act like a lackey he was effectively back at being a peasant, and that’s where he now finds himself.

Have I got the story about right? Yes, I embellished it a bit – but this is basically the story Jesus told?

Preachers the world over struggle with this story.  Built into our assumptions when we read it are, firstly, that Jesus is telling us this is how God’s system works, or should work, and the second big assumption that has kept preachers up late the night before is that the boss in this story is meant to be God, or maybe even Jesus himself.  But I’ve read the story closely, and Jesus doesn’t say God’s kingdom is like this, he says ‘for it is as if’.  Or, ‘this is how things are in this world’.

Like all of Jesus’ parables, we can get different things out of this one by looking at it from different angles, and one angle is to ignore the fact that it is about money and focus instead on the modern English meaning of the world ‘talent’.  Which makes it a warning story about using your natural abilities, or the skills that you have, instead of letting them lie dormant.  If you’re a good organiser, then be a good organiser for God’s kingdom – don’t sit there hoping nobody will notice you – tell the Rector you want to be on Church Council.  If you are a secret pianist, then you need to use your musical ability to make our worship joyful and uplifting, inside of keeping it to yourself – there aren’t any secret pianists here, are there?  If so, we can use you.  If you know how to use a vacuum cleaner or a lawn mower or you can make an amazing vanilla slice – we can certainly use those talents in our parish.  And there’s also a serious point to this, because – well, nobody is going to cast you out into the outer darkness if you don’t volunteer, but when we don’t use our abilities and God-given gifts to build others up, then we ourselves are also curiously unfulfilled.  If we ourselves want to grow, if we want to be happy, then we need to focus on what we can do for and with others.  On this reading of the story, the harsh boss is ... yourself, really.  Being the sort of person who holds stuff back has got a cost.

Well, it’s not what the story says, but it’s a good lesson to draw from it.  There’s another lesson that traditionally we can draw from this story and it goes like this.  That the talent represents what Jesus has entrusted to us.  Yes, he has gone away, and yes, as Christians we have the hope that all things eventually will be fulfilled, both in our own lives and in the life of the world, and we know deep down that we are accountable for what we do with the treasure we are holding.  But what is the treasure?  What have we got that is so fantastic that it is worth millions? It’s the Gospel itself, isn’t it?  And we can keep it to ourselves, we can be private Christians, our spirituality can be self-serving and we can enjoy the community of faith like it is a private club – but if we do, then we stop growing, and we are not living like Jesus told us to live.  Or we can trust God enough to take a few risks, to live – both individually and as a parish – in a way that others can see our faith in action, and we can learn to multiply our faith in service to others and in spreading the good news of God’s love.  See, that’s an even better lesson, and as soon as we say it we know it rings true.  Yes, let’s learn to live like that.

Except neither of these interpretations are really true to the story, or to the God that Jesus consistently points to in his own ministry and his own actions.  We don’t have the sort of God who commends wheeling and dealing and sharp practices, and even more fundamentally, we don’t have the sort of God who is just waiting for us to be not good enough and then punishes us.  God isn’t like that, but Christians often live as though God is like that because we learn to project our own insecurities, and our own fear of punishment, onto God.  The God of Jesus is the God who sets us free from all that.

And the way I think the story demands to be read? We get it wrong, I think, whenever we assume Jesus isn’t into politics.  This story demands rather a lot of us.  And the key is to look at what happens next in Matthew’s Gospel, which is the story of the end of all things, and the giving of accounts to which of course today’s story is pointing us.  This happens straight from the next verse, and the Son of Man divides us up into sheep and goats – those who are fit to enter the kingdom of heaven and those who have opted out.  And what is the criterion?  What are we judged on?  Certainly not on how much money we have made, not even on how regularly we come to church or how well we know the Bible or whether we believe the right things about Jesus – but only on how merciful and compassionate we have been.  We are judged on whether or not we have noticed and responded to the needs of others.  If we have given food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, comfort to those in prison or in hospital.  Have we given dignity and hope, have we raised up those whom our society pushes down.  That’s it, really, and Jesus says if you do these things – if you learn to stand on the side of those who have nobody on their side – then you do it for me.  So, in today’s Gospel story, which of the three lackeys does that?  Which one allows herself or himself to be pushed aside out of solidarity with those who are always on the outside?  Which one behaves like Jesus himself, who, though he was rich, became poor for us?

In a world which, as Jesus says, is like this – how then, should we live?