Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pentecost +20A - Mtt 23.1-12

I think, growing up, I had more than my share of teenage angst – as well as that wonderful blend of idealism and ego-centricity that fortunately most of us manage to grow out of eventually.  I certainly remember being hyper-vigilant for any signs of adult hypocrisy – at the same time absolutely confident that I myself was beyond reproach – and along the way duly took note of various adult sayings that I would certainly never be guilty of.  Top of the list, of course, was the one that self-righteous teenagers the world over love to hate – ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say!’

I can’t recall the exact circumstances when my frightfulness brought out that exasperated response from my parents – and if I could I probably wouldn’t want to tell you about it! – but can still clearly remember the feeling of outraged indignation that apparently I was expected to adhere to some standard of behaviour that my parents couldn’t manage themselves.  Of course, what goes around comes around – years later as the father of twin boys I’m pretty sure I used that one myself – as well as most of the other adult sayings I vowed never to repeat.  I guess being a parent a lot of the time is about the frustration of knowing you need to give your kids some space and freedom to work stuff out for themselves, but at the same time wanting so much for them, wanting them to avoid some of the pitfalls you fell into yourself and knowing the sort of people you want them to grow into.  And I know something about the mix of frustration and love that one phrase contains – ‘don’t model yourself on me, don’t copy what I do wrong, listen instead to what I hope and dream for you’ – because of course the truth is that we can hardly ever manage to live up to our own ideals, deep down we know we don’t practise what we preach.

So we hear an echo of that truth today in Jesus’ tirade against the scribes and Pharisees – ‘they are teachers of the law, so respect their position and listen to them’, Jesus tells his disciples – more or less – ‘just don’t do what they do, because they don’t practise what they preach’.  And them of course he goes into excruciating detail about all of the ways in which the religious professionals of his day contradict in their behaviour what they claim in their teaching.  As a religious professional myself, whenever I hear this reading, I squirm because if it’s true of them, it’s just as true of me.

This isn’t the first time Jesus has picked on the scribes and Pharisees, in fact they are a favourite target, and it seems to me not because they were especially corrupt or wicked or unholy – and not because the Jewish Law didn’t matter any more – in fact Jesus reminds his disciples on more than one occasion of the goodness of the Law, and tells them he is here not to replace but to fulfil the Law – it seems to me that Jesus picks so consistently on the scribes and Pharisees for the simple reason that they are teachers and they are religious professionals which means – like me – that they necessarily reveal the deep contradiction between deeply held ideals and what human beings actually do.  He critiques them, it seems to me, for failing to recognise the humour implicit in their own unique struggle to be both human and holy.

I can never be too hard on the scribes and Pharisees.  Because deep down I find myself asking – if Jesus were to walk into the church this morning, who would he be critiquing?

We Anglicans with our rich liturgical tradition and our understanding that the sacraments connect us to the activity of God in creation itself and so involve all our senses – with our vestments and altar frontals and brass decorations – can identify pretty easily I think with the Pharisees concern for fringes and phylacteries – the little leather boxes strapped to the forehead and the upper arm containing passages from the Torah.  With having the proper title for clergy, getting a bit of respect.  Actually, if you ever want to see something truly disturbing, just watch a bunch of Anglican priests at Synod drooling over the latest vestment catalogue.  Also, it might not have escaped your notice that I do in fact get the best seat in the church.

Of course, the problem is a bit deeper than what we wear or what we are called.  Vestments and titles and showing the Archbishop a bit of respect is all useful and healthy so long as we keep it in perspective.  But Jesus is certainly commenting on the way those things get out of perspective, the way our motivations for doing them become distorted so that they become an end in themselves, and substitutes for what we really should be on about: glorifying God by living as disciples.

If human nature made it hard for the scribes and Pharisees to keep their motives straight, to practice what they preached, we in the 21st century church maybe have it even harder.  We still have the same human nature, and we're embedded in a culture that values appearances, status, wealth, position, individualism, materialism and consumerism. So before we know it our tendency to value our own status and flatter our own egos can make us forget why we're Christians, so the way we do church can slide into being a sort of self-serving club and we start to forget the kind of discipleship Jesus is calling us to. 

Because discipleship has nothing to do with standing out, with being self-serving, or putting ourselves first, but the exact opposite – as disciples, we are called not to be served but to serve others. As we hear in today's reading, Jesus consistently reminded his followers that "the greatest among you will be your servant" and "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."

So we're caught between what the gospel calls us to and what our culture upholds, and that's where we often find ourselves in the very same bind the Pharisees were ensnared in. We believe one thing, we hold it in our hearts, yet our behaviour all too often gives lie to that belief.  We come to church – we enjoy connecting with our spirituality, being reminded of what is important, the depth of the liturgy and if we are lucky a few spaces for silent contemplation, perhaps even a bit of intellectual stimulation in the homily, and touching base with people we care about.  And hopefully come away feeling recharged, ready to live as people of faith in a world of ambiguity and opportunity.  But – well, if you’re anything like me – by about Tuesday morning most of that has worn off, and the awareness of living as a disciple gets a bit blunted by the everyday grind.

We today are going to celebrate the baptism of Joshua and Michaela, who will be – maybe just for a second or so – the world’s newest disciples, Jesus’ newest followers.  And for those of us who have ourselves been baptised – whether it’s something we can remember or as for most of us something our parents told us about – it’s an opportunity to reflect on what that our own baptism means.

Because – one of the first things you might notice about baptism is that is intentional.  Joshua and Michaela’s parents have thought and read and discussed what they want for their children, and what they want their children to grow into, and they understand that being human has got some built-in contradictions.  That as human beings made in God’s image we desire deep down to be in connection with God and that to follow the way of love that Jesus shows us leads us into the fullness of our own true identity.  But that we wander off, and we lose our path in the forest of our own dreams and desires, and so in baptism we intentionally ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit to challenge and correct and bring us back.  As parents, they are making today a major promise, which is to nurture and lead their children to trust and follow Jesus, and at the same time they are recognising that the Holy Spirit is the true teacher. 

And the second big thing to notice about our baptism this morning is that the promises of God that we hear – and our own promises that we make in response – are not just that Joshua and Michaela will be recipients and beneficiaries of God’s love and the leading of the Holy Spirit – that they won’t just be hearers of the Word but doers.  That as disciples they will learn that the only way to love and serve God is to love and serve others.  This of course is the only antidote to the contradiction of being human – if being human is the problem, then in being human we also see the solution because in Jesus God shares our humanity.  Which means that in being human with all our mix of self-serving needs and desires we also find that in one another we see the opportunity to love and serve God.  Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew, chapter 25, when he says to us, what we do for the least of those we encounter on the streets or at work or at home we do for him.

The point, I think, is that hear in church you hear about the challenge of being people of faith.  Listen to what I say – make allowances, in your generosity, for what I do.  Then, when you leave this place, learn and put into practice what it means to be a disciple.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pentecost +19A - Mtt 22. 34-46

One of the criticisms you often hear from political commentators is that, as our appetite for instantaneous news increases and our attention span simultaneously gets shorter – politicians and public figures find themselves tailoring their responses more and more to the 24 hour news cycle. So that complex arguments get squashed into 30 seconds video grabs – policy starts to get done on the run and major announcements are made on the kerb-side.  We no longer, it seems, have the time or the inclination to hear and digest and suspend judgement until we have heard all aspects of a debate.  It’s not so good for us – the electorate – because we start to lose the ability to reflect and chew things over – and it’s probably not so good for policy-makers themselves who – one hopes they are still taking the time to consider their positions carefully – at the very least are under enormous pressure to reduce complexity into stark, simple, yea or nay pronouncements.

So today, Jesus is in just this position.  Teacher –in 30 seconds or less – what’s the Law about?  What’s the most important bit?  Not that there’s anything wrong with the question I guess - when you think that according to the rabbis the Law consisted of 613 dos and 365 don’ts it’s not such a bad idea to have an executive summary.  What’s the heart of the matter – what’s the bit I’ve actually got to remember!  It was actually a favourite word-game or competition between itinerant teachers in the ancient world – remember this was way before ‘Australia’s got Talent’ or whatever the latest dreary identikit reality TV competition is.  It was a world where people did have time and inclination to listen to rhetoric and hear the nuances of argument, and one of the favourite challenges was to see how the lived tradition of the Torah with its wealth of history and understanding of the people’s identity in relation to God could be succinctly expressed. 

But as the hearers of the story, we know even before the question is asked that it’s not sincere.  Jesus is being put on the spot.  This is a question being asked by people who are hoping Jesus is going to give the wrong answer so they can publicly discredit him for holding unorthodox opinions and leading people astray.

“Oh, Teacher,” – they butter him up with a little compliment first. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”

Well they must have been horribly disappointed with Jesus’ answer. You could not imagine a more thoroughly orthodox and uncontroversial answer.  At least two of Jesus’ contemporaries, orthodox teachers of the Torah, come up with summaries that are essentially the same.  “This is the greatest and most important commandment’, he says.  ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second most important commandment is like it, Love your neighbour as you love yourself.

Every Jew listening would know that Jesus had given the right answer. Because every Jewish kid can recite those two commandments since kindergarten.  Deuteronomy 6:5, known as the “Shema” from its first word in Hebrew, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Every religious Jew repeats these words every day. And the second bit – “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”?  Straight from Leviticus, chapter 19.  It’s not only Jesus who comes up with this answer - all down through history the rabbis have agreed that these two verses together are a near perfect summary of the whole law of Israel. It was probably the most non-controversial thing Jesus said in his entire life.  This is Jesus at his most Jewish.  And we know from the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke chapter 27, who Jesus thinks our neighbour might be.  That’s nothing new either.  That also comes straight from the same chapter of the Pentateuch, the Books of the Law, Leviticus 19.  The alien who lives among you, the poor and the dispossessed – those are your neighbours. 

That’s what makes Jesus so dangerous, not because he’s coming out with something brand new but because he’s coming out with something absolutely straightforward, absolutely familiar – something the Pharisees know all too well - the real question is not how important you think the commandment to love God might be compared to the commandment to love the people around us, or which one comes first and which one second - but how you actually live it.  For example, how do you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind?” 

Loving the idea of God is one thing.  Finding security and purpose in the thought of a loving Creator who has a particular purpose and a soft spot just for me – I love that.  Loving talking about God isn’t too hard either, for anybody like the Pharisees – or me – who finds a particular pleasure in theological argument.  But how do you love God – particularly a God who insists on having all your love, all your attention, all your energy and your time?  This God who insists on being indivisible, take it or leave it, no room left over for anything else – how can you love that God?

You do it, says Jesus, by loving your neighbour.  That person who you bump into by accident, who maybe looks and sounds different to you, who maybe has a different language and a different religion to you.  The person you can neither understand nor ignore.  The person who is made in God’s image.  Right from the start, loving God means loving other people, and even loving those people who most challenge your ability to love. It means radically rethinking who we are, and how we live, and how we relate to others, and what we value and devote our heart, mind and energies to.  Loving the indivisible, take it or leave it, all or nothing God means loving your neighbour.  You love and serve God – who you can’t see – by loving the grumpy, the difficult, the exasperating – who you can see.

And that’s just within your own family! 

How do you love people like that?  Even harder – how do you love people you aren’t related to?  I find it easy enough to love some people – in theory – for example when I read about issues like poverty and racism and injustice in all its forms – but loving the idea of justice and equality isn’t really the same thing as loving people, is it?  And how do you love people who seem to be part of the problem – those who commit acts of violence, those whose greed and power causes others to suffer?  Aren’t they our neighbours also?  How do you love them?

Here’s the oneness thing, the indivisibility thing, again.  Because Jesus, the orthodox rabbi schooled in the wisdom of the Law, refuses to separate these two great commandments.  The way you love your neighbour, who exasperates and challenges you but inconveniently is also made in God’s image, is by loving and responding in faith to the God who creates you.  By following the commandments, by studying the scriptures, by learning how to pray, by being attentive to the everyday movement of the Spirit within you.  By paying attention to God’s self-revelation in Jesus himself, by measuring your own life against the model of Jesus’ own life, and by looking to Jesus’ relationship with God as the foundation and the example for your own. 

That’s why it’s so dangerous coming to church!  Did you know that?  Church is a construction zone, a hard-hat area, there should be signs: ‘Danger!  Children and men and women at work!’  We don’t actually come here to get our prejudices confirmed!  We don’t come here for a private warm fuzzy or to hear the hymns and prayers that take us right back to the security of our childhood. 

Church isn’t a cocoon of personal spirituality, in fact, exactly the opposite.  Come here to get your prejudices challenged.  Come here to be disturbed, to be broken open, to hear uncomfortable truths and to learn the art of give and take with God’s other people who just might see the world, and God, a whole lot differently to you.  Come here, in short, not to stay the same but, by creatively allowing God’s love to percolate and bubble away inside you, to be fundamentally changed.  Into somebody who loves people.

In John’s gospel Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, just as he and the Father are one.  Jesus and his Father are made one in love, and he prays that we – his disciples – may also become one by loving each other as he has loved us.  As Jesus puts it, “so that they may live in us, and we in them”.  Again, it’s the oneness thing – the indivisibility of God.  The more we love one another, the more we participate in God’s own life – the more we move into the circle of what gives us life.  The more we love God, the more we grow in love for one another, and for all who Jesus tells us are our neighbours.

The 30 second media grab that says it all.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

18th Sunday after Pentecost (Mtt 22..15-33)

Years ago, when I was living I Brisbane, every now and then I used to be up early on a Sunday morning and switch on the TV.  It might have been something to do with having twin babies and it being my turn to get up.  And so I’d switch on and see the televangelists.  Smooth talkers!  Have you ever noticed they all seem to have these luxuriant heads of hair?  And that’s just the men!  But they’d talk, and they’d tell you how you were really empty inside but that Jesus could fill you up – one of the most memorable ones was Oral Roberts, maybe it was just being up at 5.00 o’clock on a Sunday morning but often he seemed to make a lot of sense.  But inevitably the talk would get around to how you needed to give some money, and they’d tell you that as soon as you started really giving, you’d start to get more prosperous yourself – that God wants Christians to be successful and well off, so the more you give the more you’re going to get.

It’s not Christianity, is it?  Because underneath the veneer of fine words it’s an appeal to greed and self-interest.  Invest some money with us and I promise – God promises – that you’ll get a whole heap more.  It’s a lifestyle TV show brand of Christianity that’s a long way removed from the homeless preacher from Galillee who so often offends the rich and powerful.

So today we’re talking about money.  One of the words you’d hear fairly often if you went say to the Assemblies of God or the Baptist church is tithing.  It means giving one tenth of your income, which, if you take the time to work it out, is actually a pretty big whack.  In many Christian circles that’s the expected thing – and it takes a serious level of commitment, because there’s a priority to giving so that it’s not just what happens at the end of the week when you see what you’ve got left over after everything else.  Tithing is Biblical, and it helps us to put first in practise what we say comes first in our lives.  But at the same time, it’s easy to see it can create some difficulties – for example, if you’re on a pension then a tenth of your income probably makes a bigger hole than if you’ve got a high paid job.  Which of course is exactly what Jesus is getting at in the story about the widow’s gift of two small copper coins.  Giving is relative, and only God can see the true cost and the true value of a person’s gift.  Well, God can, and deep down we ourselves also know the true value of what we give.

In our gospel reading today, we see the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus on the question of paying taxes.  Now, this is the last week of Jesus’ life, and he has arrived in Jerusalem and is spending most of his time teaching in the temple, and the chief priests and Pharisees are getting crankier and crankier at him.  So this question is intended to trap him – if he agrees with the zealots and revolutionaries that it’s OK not to pay taxes to the Romans, that’s going to get him into trouble with Herod, and if he says it is OK, then he’s not going to be very popular with the common folk who hate the Romans.  So it’s a trick question, but it’s one that’s still relevant whenever we find ourselves living in a situation where there is official injustice - is it right or wrong to engage in civil disobedience?  But as he does so often, Jesus gets out of the trap with a very clever one-liner: give the government what belongs to the government - and give God what belongs to God.

It’s an answer that gets Jesus out of trouble – for the time being – but it’s an answer that maybe causes headaches for the rest of us because it’s ambiguous.  On the surface it looks straightforward enough – it looks like Jesus is dividing reality up into compartments – this is where you’ve got your loyalty to God, everywhere else you’ve got your other loyalties -  and just so long as God gets his share.  Put your money into the collection plate on Sunday and then you can do what you want with the rest.  It’s one of the sayings that gets called on from time to time to tell the church to butt out – for example when politicians tell archbishops off for putting in their two cents worth about the issues of the day – ‘you just stick to your praying, leave the business of running the country to us’.

But Jesus is not giving us a straight answer here!  He’s refusing to do our thinking for us – because it all depends on what Jesus means when he says, ‘just give to God what belongs to God’.  Jesus’ answer is a challenge to the Herodians who owed their positions of authority to their loyalty to the occupation government – because it calls into question our loyalty to systems of domination and political power.  What if Caesar is Hitler, or Robert Mugabe?  What if Caesar is waging an unjust war in your name or incarcerating vulnerable mean, women and children behind razor wire because being tough on asylum seekers wins votes? What is the coin that properly belongs to Caesar then? Maybe the coin that men and women of faith and conscience need to pay is the coin of fearless engagement in political life, the coin of open and honest critique.  At the same time, the Pharisees go away shaking their heads because Jesus answer challenges them and their radical religiousity where it hurts - what have you got that doesn’t belong to God?  What are you giving to God – and what are you refusing to give?

Jesus is certainly not telling us we shouldn’t pay our taxes – he and his disciples paid theirs – but he is pointing out that you just can’t divide the world into God’s bit and the rest that belongs to the boss, to the government, or to the family or the football club.  Or to yourself.  It all belongs to God.  Jesus is demanding is a bit more than a tithe, when it comes down to it.  According to Jesus, God expects the whole lot.

I think the very ambiguity of Jesus’ answer means he is suggesting that we need to work out for ourselves how we balance the competing priorities and demands, knowing that absolutely everything we do – spending time with our family, contributing to our community, paying our taxes, as well as the offerings we bring to church – that all these activities are variations on how we see God and serve God in our day to day lives - and so there’s no hard and fast formula like a tenth – but Jesus is demanding something a lot harder which is continual self-examination and willingness to put God first in our lives.  Is what we give to God really the first-fruits of our lives, does our gift to God of money and time cost us something, or is it just what’s left over at the end of the week, the loose change from the dressing table?

The coin that Jesus asked for and inspected was a denarius, a coin issued by the Roman occupation government with an image of the Emperor Tiberius.  On it would have been the inscription, ‘’Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus’.  It was an emblem of the official Roman religion, and of course was deeply offensive to Jewish religion and nationalism.  We have the image of the Queen on our own coins, and it’s much the same deal.  This is the image of temporal power and authority.  It says, our lives are shaped by this power and our relationship to this sort of authority.  But as Christians we know a deeper reality, which is that we ourselves and all of created reality reveal the image of God our Creator.  We struggle to live with the belief that God’s image is upon everything and everyone. We struggle to see that we are made in that image while we struggle with the compromises and competing claims of our everyday lives. It was easy for the Herodians and Pharisees to see Caesar’s image, and let’s face it, we see that image clearly enough ourselves. It takes more reflection to discern God’s image reflected in ourselves and in one another. I think that our human senses have a built-in filter which makes us reluctant to repay God what belongs to God, because we see that image less clearly, and because when we do see it we recognise that it calls into question the priorities that we live by.

On one level, Oral Roberts wasn’t wrong.  The more you give to God, the more you get back.  The more you give of yourself – the more your gifts of money and time make a noticeable hole in your weekly budget – the more your participation in the life of the church demands of you – the more you grow in faith and the more you recognise the economy of God that reorders and transforms our lives together in the Church.  The more of yourself that you invest, the more clearly you discern the image of God in yourself and in those around you. 

What you spend yourself on, the real priority of your life, is the image that you grow into.  So we just need to ask ourselves – whose image do we want that to be?