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?


Saturday, November 05, 2011

All Saints

The Church’s year is drawing to a close.  As usual, we get there by a different timetable to the secular world – the liturgical year that begins on the first Sunday of Advent, sweeps through the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany before settling us down into the quiet Lenten weeks of productive spiritual self-maintenance and the heart of the Christian year in the great three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day.  From there it sometimes seems to be all downhill as we make our ways through the weeks leading up to Pentecost and the long season of so-called Ordinary Sundays.  I think it’s not by accident though, that these last few weeks of the Church’s year in which we turn our mind to the end of all things and in particular our own true end, stand pretty much diametrically opposite the drama of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the great circle of the Christian year.

We might even call them the Other Great Three Days of the Christian year – this last week’s celebration of life and death that began with the secular feast of Hallowe’en on the last day of October, followed by the feast of All Saints on the first of November and All Souls on the 2nd.  Each of them in their own way are intended to put things in perspective by reminding us of the thinness of the veil that separates life from death and we ourselves from those who have gone before us. 

Hallowe’en of course is an excuse for a bit of fun, looked down on by many of us as a recent import from our cultural cousins in the United States but actually a much older and richer tradition from the Celtic peoples of Ireland and Britain.  You might imagine in earlier times a genuine scary thrill from cavorting with ghoulies and ghosties that even though you know are only your next door neighbours dressed in bedsheets nevertheless send a shiver up and down your spine because you just know that tonight of all nights the unseen spiritual realities are all around you and the boundary between this world and the next is gossamer thin.  It’s a bit like the wild celebrations of Mardis Gras – literally Fat Tuesday – before we get down to the serious business of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

By contrast, All Souls is the day for quiet reflection, for remembering those whom we have loved who are now growing into perfect communion with God.  All Souls is a day for remembering departed loved ones and for honouring the One who loved them into life and completes them in death.  On this day, it seems to me, we affirm that the business of prayer works both ways – that the visible Church on earth is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses with whom our prayers are joined.  We remember in prayer those whom we have loved, and we are reminded that in passing from our sight into what we can only understand as a deeper and more substantial communion of prayer – that those whom we have loved may sustain us, just as we do them in our own prayers.

All Saints is a day for both gratitude and inspiration.  We are reminded that we are all called to be saints in the making. We don't need to be canonized to be faithful to God or to make a difference in God's scheme of things. We can be faithful to God, aligned with God's own vision of creation and human life - and we affirm that we continue to grow in grace beyond the grave. At their best, the stories of the oddball collection of saints that litter the Christian year serve to remind us that we don’t have to be incandescent with holiness or even particularly mad to be a saint – we just have to be prepared to follow Jesus’ way of love and forgiveness in our own small corner of the world – to give our assent to the Holy Spirit working through us and transforming us as it makes a difference to those around us.  In fact – it seems to me a good working definition of what it means to be a saint is to agree to a sort of partnership with the Holy Spirit that takes seriously Jesus’ commandment to love and serve others, but at the same time realistically acknowledges that the strength and vision for that can only really come from God.

Well, in this hyperactive age all this needs to be compressed into our worship this morning, on the Sunday which falls into what we call the octave of the feasts of All Souls and All Saints.  And I just want to point to a couple of things that our readings this morning suggest about the life beyond this, that these antipodean feasts of our own mortality and immortality might be encouraging us to reflect on.  Who better, of course, to give us a glimpse of the life of heaven than John of Patmos (almost certainly a different John to the writer of John’s Gospel), writing perhaps early in the second century to Christian communities facing persecution and struggling to remain faithful in a materialist and secular world much like our own.  And John – whose strange and wonderful vision seems to obscure as much as it enlightens – points out in today’s reading three wonderful certainties about the hereafter which – even though we affirm it as our own true destiny we must remain largely ignorant.

And the first certainty is this.  That it’s crowded, and that it’s surprisingly inclusive.  John tries to pick a big number by squaring the number of tribes of Israel and then adding three zeroes – 144,000 representing the people of the covenant that God made with Moses – and then casually mentions – oh, an uncountable multitude of extras from every tribe and nation and language and culture, and one today might add, religion – all the people you’d least expect, including us.  Actually – I’m not sure if it’s some sort of technical heresy so don’t tell the Archbishop – but I have to admit to being a secret universalist about heaven, whatever that is.  I don’t actually think death ends the human adventure or God’s journey for any of us, I don’t actually believe there’s an entrance exam.  And I don’t think we wake up the next morning fully perfected and illumined, but that God continues to heal and transform creation, and that we ourselves continue to grow toward God’s original intention for us.  I don’t know any of this.  But I believe that the God who created every one of us in love, continues to entice and love each one of us towards our own true selves.  For some of us, the journey maybe takes longer and is more tortuous than for others.  Who knows?  But John of Patmos points us toward a vision of the next life that unites us with all whom we have loved, with friends and with former enemies as well.

But inclusivity is not the only surprise in John’s vision.  There’s also a bit of a surprise about how we are going to occupy our time up there.  You know how in the popular imagination, in films and so on, it’s like a never-ending holiday on your own personal cloud?  Not so for John – he imagines a very busy place indeed in which the primary activity is worship.  Well at first it maybe looks like a perpetual church service, and even if the singing is in tune you might secretly be thinking that doesn’t sound like a very exciting way to spend eternity.  But the Greek scholars remind us that the word John uses (proskuneo) that our Bible translates as worship means more literally to do homage and to serve - and so just as easily includes the notion of ‘work’ – the sort of stuff you do to earn your daily bread.  So the sort of worship that happens in heaven is not just the sort that begins and ends in church but the sort of active worship that extends into those streets, as the saints of heaven also serve one another as God in Christ has served them.  The connection between loving God and loving and serving others that Jesus emphasises as characteristic of God’s kingdom does not just apply in the here and now, it seems, but in all times and all places of our existence.

And the last observation I want to make about the vision of John of Patmos – of which we are also reminded by our reading from the beatitudes of St Matthew’s Gospel – is that the reality of the life beyond this is the transformation of healing and forgiveness.  I am often saddened by the burden of shame and unforgiveness that so many holy women and men carry right to the end of their lives, and I wish I could simply say in words that can be heard in the heart - that God’s knowledge of us never condemns but always heals and restores.  That – as St Paul more eloquently puts it – nothing in heaven or on earth can ever separate us from the love of God that we see enacted in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  And so John of Patmos in his vision of the next life imagines a scene in which tears are dried and the water of forgiveness refreshes and restores, where all the injustices of this world are finally made right, the lowly lifted up and the mighty humbled—the prophetic vision of Mary of Nazareth - and where God's vision of a community of justice and peace and equality is finally made present.

As modern Christians, we rightfully I think emphasise the this-worldly aspect of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom – the kingdom ushered in by service and compassion and justice.  This is right, because it makes the connection between God’s love for creation and how we live, what the priorities of our lives reveal.  Today however we proclaim eternity, the promise of restoration and wholeness and peace, as the true context of all love and service and justice.  We know what is important, because we know where we are headed.