Friday, December 28, 2012

First Sunday after Christmas

One of the delights of being a parish priest is watching the growth of children – not only their physical growth and the passing of their developmental milestones but their growth in spirituality and faith.  Two particular things have reminded me of this in recent weeks – the first being the annual City of Canning carols by candlelight, in which, as I watched the kids performing their parts and waiting their turn to go onstage, I was stuck by their attentiveness and reverence for the story they were telling.  And the second was a birthday party – the tenth birthday party for a girl who already is taking her part in the leading of our adult worship, by reading from the Bible with clarity and understanding.  We need of course to allow kids to be kids – not only to care for their physical needs and to make our church a safe place for them, but to respect their need to learn through play and to express their curiosity and delight in ways that are appropriate for them – but we also need to give them space to grow, to express themselves in ways that are increasingly adult and to make the shift from teaching them to learning from them.

This, of course, is the dilemma faced by Jesus' parents in our reading from St Luke's Gospel this morning.  In fact in both the Gospel and the Old Testament readings we focus on two young people – Jesus and Samuel – each of them aged about 12 which in the ancient society was when a boy would be expected to undergo his bar mitzvah and take his place as an adult both within the family and in the religious life of his community.  Samuel, we are told, is still growing – every year his mum made him a new linen ephod – some sort of liturgical garment – and brought it up to him in the Temple presumably because he had grown out of the old one.  The boy is serving faithfully in the Temple – Eli is pleased with him because every year he repeats his blessing on Hannah for the gift of her son, and in the bit of Samuel chapter 2 that our lectionary reading skips over we read the account of the gross misdeeds of Eli's own sons, followed by the contrasting verse: now Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.

Jesus, meanwhile, is being typically – maddeningly, frustratingly and sweetly – adolescent.  Any parent who has ever misplaced a child, lost one however temporarily in a public place or had one run away from home, can relate to the sick feeling in the pit of his mum and dad's stomachs when they realise – halfway home to Nazareth – that their precocious 12 year old isn't with them.  Twelve is a wonderful age.  Developmental psychologists tell us that around 12 the adolescent brain becomes capable of what they call formal operational reasoning, which is a fancy way of saying that where at 9 or 10 your child will be an expert on dinosaurs or sporting teams or the exact make and model of every car that drives past, your 12 or 14 year old has suddenly learned to think and talk about abstract ideas like justice and ethics and algebra and God.  And just as suddenly, with a lifetime of experience and learning yet ahead of them, they become Experts on Everything.  So I can just imagine Jesus on the Temple steps, engaging the rabbis in conversation, astounding them both with his maturity and his immature enthusiasm, both with what he already knows and with his boyish passion to learn and understand, both with his humble desire for instruction and his innocent desire to show off.  And I guess we can all relate to the mixture of relief and anger and pride with which his parents discover him, on trekking back to Jerusalem, still on the steps of the Temple holding forth.

This is the only portrait the Gospels give us of Jesus as a child, and it is a wonderful, beautiful image.  It has verisimilitude, which is to say, it rings true.  Jesus would be like that.

But again what strikes me is the final verse of our Gospel lection – the comment that ends our glimpse of his adolescence: and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years – the Greek translates more literally as wisdom and maturity - and in divine and human favour.

It's about growing up.  The Hebrew word our Bible translates as stature, in Samuel's story, gadel – literally just means growing up.  Both Jesus and Samuel are doing it, growing in stature and in human and divine favour, beginning to define their own identity and distancing themselves in appropriate adolescent fashion from both their parents' expectations and ours.

This, I think, is a useful corrective against the tendency that perhaps all of us, as Christians, sometimes have – of putting Jesus on such a pedestal and of emphasising his divinity so much that we make of him an abnormal human being. A freak of perfection, instead of the world's most fully normal human being. A good way of putting together our reflection on Jesus as the one both human and divine is to reflect that humanity itself is made in the divine image and so has the potential to reflect the divine character.  Jesus, so we believe as Christians, and so the Gospel accounts of his life bear witness, is the only person in the history of our world ever to fulfil the vocation to which we are all called by wearing perfectly the human form divine.  This is why Jesus is called the first fruits, the forerunner of our human race, because Jesus exemplifies our own calling. The light that comes to focus in Jesus is the light that enlightens every person, that potential that is incompletely fulfilled and so often betrayed in our own humanity.  Jesus then becomes, not just a divine object lesson to impress us, but a template for our own humanity and our own growth.  As Jesus grows in wisdom and in maturity and in divine and human favour, so our own developmental path is to grow into Jesus – which means to focus not on what we can make of ourselves as self-made men and women, but on what Christ the incarnation of God in our own flesh and blood can make of us.

We are told that Jesus increases in wisdom and in years (or maturity), and in divine and human favour.  Four areas of growth that are not just a throw-away line to wrap up a cute story, but a guide to maturing in Christian faith, and not just for 12-year olds.

The Greek word the New Testament uses for wisdom, Sophia, alerts us that what is in mind here is much much more than the passing of exams or the learning of Bible verses or even the ability to do cryptic crosswords.  The reflection on Wisdom in the Old and New Testaments is a reflection on the depth dimension of human life and spirituality, growth in discernment and good judgement, the ability to observe closely and learn from the world around you, the lessons of creation and the ways of the smallest and least significant of creatures that reveal the wisdom of the one who made them.  Wisdom in this sense is the strength of character to turn aside from what is seductive and superficially attractive, and yet corrosive of integrity and will, and to persist with humility and patience in the study of God's Word revealed in the scriptures, in life-giving relationships, and in the pursuit of justice.  Wisdom is the refusal to be content with the way things are. Alert to the promptings of God's Holy Spirit in the world; facing the challenges and issues of our day. Using our mental capacities to the full in the issues, needs and questions of our communities and neighbours.  The pursuit of Wisdom is not just something to occupy your adolescence, the Wisdom tradition of the Bible tells us it is the work of the adult years, it is your true life's work which demands attentiveness and purpose.  Deep down, we know if we have grown cold in this – we know if we have stopped growing and started to contract, instead.

Growing in years, in physical and mental stature, growing up – means to become responsible, to assume our place in the world as adults rather than as children.  Do you know, many people never do this?  Many people effectively remain small of stature, demanding rather than giving of themselves, being tended to rather than nurturing of others.  The English word, stature, is about size, but not just physical size.  Size, in this sense, is also an important theological value – largeness of spirit, generosity of outlook is a measure of how much of the world you can embrace in all its diversity and contradiction without losing your own personal centre.  People of stature see things in bigger categories, look beyond their own interests to the interests of others, look beyond parochial or factional interests to the good of the whole.  And the funny thing is this – if we are not growing in stature, then we're shrinking.  Becoming smaller, our worlds and our capacity to care, until they are centred entirely on ourselves.

And Jesus grows in divine and human favour.  I put these together, because so does Jesus, when he is challenged about the most important law of all.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength – and your neighbour as yourself.  But again the key word is to grow.  It is intentional, and it needs to be reflected not just in what we say, what we give lip service to, but in how we live.  To grow in divine favour is to attend to your spiritual growth, to spend time in prayer and meditation; to study, not just skate over the top of the scriptures; to join with the community of faith in reflecting on the Word of God and on the meaning of Christian life.  But they go together because if the love of neighbour without the love of God degenerates in empty activism, then the love of God without the love of neighbour degenerates into an idolatry of self.  To grow in human favour is to grow, not just socially but in the ability to see the world through another's eyes.  To grow in empathy and in the ability to translate good intentions into action.  We grow in the ability to love and serve God, by learning to love and serve others.  Heck, we grow in the ability to even believe in God, to discern the movement of God's Holy Spirit in our lives, by loving and serving others.  There isn't any other way.

A theologian friend remarked to me a while ago that while the incarnation of God in Jesus is about hope, it isn't basically about the hope that God loves us, or the hope that God might forgive us.  That's always been the case, my theologian friend said.  Nothing new there. The only hope in the Incarnation is the hope that in Jesus, we might learn to become human, and that our humanity might become hope.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Advent 4

Any of you who were fortunate enough to watch the performance of our parish children last Sunday evening at the City of Canning Carols by Candlelight – and especially the scene in which Nathan and Kelli (as Joseph and Mary) set out for Bethlehem carrying their donkey – would realise that this is a very fragile story indeed – a story beset with fearful risks and epic journeys undertaken on the whim of an imperial ruler.  Journeys, of course, can be undertaken for all sorts of reasons but this one was under compulsion, Kelli with a pillow stuffed under her robe and Nathan set out on a perilous journey through the badlands and the desert roads that lead down from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in the hill country south-east of Jerusalem because the occupation forces have decided on a head-count, presumably in order to ensure they are getting as much tax as they can possibly squeeze from the peasant population.  What happens in Bethlehem, of course, subverts the imperial rule in ways that even today are still being worked out – but that is another story, and you will have to be here tomorrow night to hear it.

But it's still Advent, the promises of prophets and angels are still coalescing in the cluster of cells taking vague shape within the uterus of a girl of perhaps 14 or so who has just had a mystifying conversation with an angel.  Let's face it, the account of Mary's encounter with the angel Gabriel in Luke's nativity story does rather keep the human details of our Lord's conception shrouded in mystery, whatever it reveals about Mary's equanimity.  Translated into the teenspeak of today, learning from the angel (whom at the least we might think of as an archetype of holy insight and intuition) not only that she is pregnant but that the child she is carrying would be the holy messenger of God, Mary says, 'whatever'.

Two renowned Bible scholars, Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, have recently released a new book called, The First Christmas, in which they point out that Luke and Matthew each begin their Gospels with a sort of prelude, the nativity stories in which they introduce the major themes and theological purposes of their accounts of Jesus' life.  In Luke's gospel, the nativity story gives us notice that he is interested in emphasising the role of women, the poor and marginalised, and the wild card of the Holy Spirit which like a breath of fresh air blows wherever it will.  We do need, of course, to remember that there were no photographers or historians present when Mary had her sassy interview with the scary archangel, and Luke wrote his imaginative account of the conversation perhaps 80 years later, but the gist of it is this: as a girl child in the poorest part of Palestine – and proper Judeans looked down on Galilee not only as a rural backwater but as a suspiciously mixed-race and religiously unorthodox province – Mary was of no account whatsoever. Her only real value – her only real hope of living a secure and happy life – lay in marrying a tekton – the Greek word basically means tradie – maybe a carpenter, or a stone mason, but in any case, even though her betrothed Joseph wasn't a landowner at least he had a means of earning a living.  Becoming pregnant without an adequate or convincing explanation means disgrace, goodbye to any sort of marriage prospects, and a lifetime of hand to mouth scratching out a living.  The ultimate penalty of stoning for adultery was still on the books, though rarely carried out.  Mary, so her inner encounter with the angel of God assures her, has a problem.  But she also understands that the new life even then taking form within her is the initiative and holy purpose of God, the one who would incarnate God's character of shalom.  So, 'whatever', Mary concludes.  'Whatever God wills for me, I'm up for it'.  You see when we look at the story like this, when we focus a bit less on the mystery of the Annunciation or the precise mechanics of how Mary becomes pregnant, and just a bit more on what she does next, we realise that this young woman has courage and fierce resolve.  How much of Jesus' own character, and his vision of human life, does he get from his mum?

'Whatever', says Mary – and she sets off on a journey across country.  What the story doesn't say – significantly, I think – is what her mum and dad thought about it, or what the presumably peeved Joseph made of it (and peeping into Matthew's version of the story doesn't help us at this point).  The ancient Church tradition that Mary had devout and supportive parents named Anna and Joachim is, I suspect, hogwash.  My own feeling is that Mary sets out for the hill country of Judea, alone and pregnant, because she has realised that the one person who can really understand and share what she is going through is her aged and equally improbably pregnant relative Elizabeth.  And probably because being alone and 14 and pregnant back in Nazareth suddenly isn't much of an option.

So this is the first of Mary's epic journeys, and she sets out not at the dictate of a provincial governor, or because she is tagging along behind a parent or probably equally aged fiancé, but because she is filled with questions and uncertainty and new life – and with joy – and because she has to do what women all through history have had to do in such circumstances, which is to attend to relationships, to share her story with an older woman, and to prepare for the miracle of birth.  Mary, in short, is filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the breath of God that swirls around the questions and new possibilities that always accompany our journey into an uncertain future.

Luke has already told us the story of what has been happening for Elizabeth in the meantime, and the readings were set for our daily Eucharist during the week – and it is one of life's little ironies that the official priest Zechariah, to whom the fortunate Elizabeth was married, had lost his voice.  Literally, which as any of you who have the fortune to be married to one would understand, is the very worst thing that can happen to a priest.  We are told Zechariah didn't quite believe the angel's good news – or perhaps being a man with a responsible position and a reputation to think about he focused more on its negative implications than on the holy joy that was its main theme – but at any rate the irony is that when Mary meets Elizabeth on her well-swept front step after perhaps a four or five day journey on foot, Zechariah is out of sight and out of earshot.  This is a day for holy women who understand that God's purposes are known in the small and intimate experiences of missed periods and morning sickness, and the sudden jab of a tiny foot making its demanding presence felt on the inside.

Luke, you see is a feminist – which means that he swims against the tide of his own culture in noticing and celebrating the voices and the all-too-often invisible experiences of women – and as in this liturgical year we read through Luke's Gospel I would invite you to notice how time and time again Luke emphasises women's points of view.  It goes beyond gender politics, however, because what Luke is really saying is this: that God's purposes are more often revealed in the dreams and the experiences of those the world thinks of as insignificant, than in the privileged voices of political or economic or – yes, even priestly – authority.  If you want to know what God thinks is important, look at the fringes of society, listen for the voices in our community that are generally suppressed and ask yourself – what matters most, from the point of view of somebody who doesn't have enough to eat, or any chance of a decent education, or of an average life expectancy? Those are God's real priorities, and they are supposed to be ours, as well.

Yes, Mary in her song of joy announces the overturning of inequality, the reversal of fortunes where those who are downtrodden are lifted up and those who are rich and powerful get a taste of the daily experience of the two-thirds world.  We know, of course, because we are pragmatic realists, we 21st century types, that it is an announcement whose realisation is somewhat delayed.  You know the old song? The things that you're li'ble to read in the Bible … Mary's song is the subversive promise of the Incarnation, the claim that God's inbreaking into human history changes everything, sweeps injustice aside and ushers in a new deal where women and men and children can live in shalom – can live in dignity and peace and sufficiency.  But it aint happened yet.  This type of prophecy needs to be heard afresh by every generation, need us to hear it as the demands of God for our won time, and for us to believe in it as the promise of God, and for us to put it into practice in our own lives and relationships and to work for it in our world, knowing that it is the inevitable goal to which God draws all creation.

Mary is a prophet, and like all prophets we know she will suffer for her clear vision of what God intends for human life.  In the meantime she and Elizabeth sustain one another with their common experience of the miracle of pregnancy which of all human experiences perhaps reveals most clearly the wonder of God with us.  I like to think that during the following three months – which means Mary stayed up until the time of Elizabeth's delivery – as the two women went about their daily business of cooking and cleaning and making preparations for the birth – comparing notes about the changes in their bodies and perhaps their hopes and dreams for their unborn children – I like to think that the still-silent Zechariah joined in with good grace, listening and learning from the timeless silent wisdom of women and unborn children.

I wonder what his sermons were like, after that?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Reflection at City of Canning Çarols by Candlelight', 16 Dec 2012

Do you remember the 2003 British movie, 'Love, Actually'? Hugh Grant as the dishy bachelor Prime Minister, Bill Nighy as the aging rock star desperate to rekindle a dying career with a Christmas hit.  People falling in love, falling out of love, trying to remember why they fell in love in the first place, lonely people just looking for friendship, ordinary people reliving all the different variations of what drives all of us - the need to find the meaning of our own lives in the love that connects us to other people.  

What makes the movie extraordinary, of course, is that it is set against the stress and hurry and empty kitsch of Christmas.  Nobody feels particularly ho-ho-ho, somehow or other the fake bonhomie and the pressure of the festive season reminds everybody of how much in their own lives is empty and meaningless until - at the end of the movie in one way or another all the main characters end up at Heathrow, that massive clearing house of comings and goings and meetings and farewells, and it is there, in the middle of the throng of distracted stressed-out humanity, that each of the characters discovers what it is that makes them alive.  Love - and the spirit of Christmas - creeps in unexpectedly.

We have of course just told the story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, but what strikes me about it is that it isn't really an otherworldly story, for all its angels and guiding stars – the original satellite navigation system, I guess! It's very much a
this-worldly story about what is most important, about God's love for us that we experience in human love.  Jesus is very big on love - before his death when he wants to give his disciples a final word of encouragement he says - love one another.  When a political opponent questions him about the most important religious law he says – love your neighbour - and then in answer to the question 'well, but who is my neighbour? he tells the story of the Good Samaritan - the despised illegal immigrant who shows what practical love is all about.  And just in case we haven't got the point yet he tells us - love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.

An impractical, other-worldly prophet?  Well, maybe, but let's face it - as a species we are pretty good at ideology and war and hatred, we're pretty good at competition and greed and me-first – and how well does that work out for us?  Let's face it, after 2,000 years of all that, Jesus' simple message of love doesn't look so impractical after all.

Despite the tinsel and stress, the simple message of Christmas, I find, has a habit of breaking through.  Year after year.  The smile of a small child - the beam of delight on the face of an aged parent.  Or the young Muslim woman I saw the other day, in jeans and a hijab with reindeer ears perched on top.  When she saw me in my priest's getup she waved and giggled - and we shared a Christmas moment.  I hope
Christmas for you this year brings many such moments - the connections in which love breaks through and we remember what it's all about.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Advent 2

What is it, I wonder, about ears?  Like generations of little boys before me, and no doubt generations to follow, I grew up wondering why mine in particular needed so much attention at bath-time.  Hands and faces, I could understand.  I was under no illusions as to how dirty I was in that department after a hard afternoon's playing with Robbie Gamble.  Even feet.  But why ears?  One of my most memorable childhood experiences is having my ears cauliflowered with a wet washer as part of the whole routine of getting ready for church on a Sunday morning.  Short back and sides, Brylcream and red ears.  Very attractive.

Even back then, of course, the link between inner and outer cleanliness was well-known.  "Clean hands, pure heart", was one of my Dad's favourite expressions.  I could understand that readily enough.  The dirtier my hands were the more likely it was I'd been up to something I shouldn't have been.  In our house we had a vigorous approach towards purity of heart, mostly involving scouring the hands and fingernails of small boys with a scrubbing brush.

Dad, no doubt, would have approved of the prophet Malachi.  The name means 'messenger', the same Hebrew word we translate as 'angel'.  Last week, our readings from the Bible swung off the charts into the distant future and the consummation of all things in Christ at the end of history.  This week we head backwards, three or four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and the time-frame gets shorter.  The one is coming, God's angel informs us, for whom you need to be squeaky clean. 

I sometimes wonder whether we might not have overdone the Christmas message of peace and goodwill.  Whether or not we might be doing ourselves and others a disservice by so emphasizing the sweetness of the baby lying in the manger, the general agreeableness of wise men and shepherds and animals standing around in adoration, and the underlying message that despite the mess we've made of the world so far God loves human beings so much he just can't live without us.  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented how odd he found it that Christians every year celebrate Christmas with a sort of sentimental nostalgia, as though the idea of God coming into the world was just nice – and that we no longer seem to experience the shiver of fear that we should.  Bonhoeffer thought we had become so accustomed to appropriating just the most pleasant and comforting aspects of the story that we forget how truly terrifying it is to have God burst into our world and lay claim to us.  That God's coming into the world is dangerous because – as Bonhoeffer put it – "God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in the world and also in us.  Only by judging us, can God cleanse and sanctify us.  That's what it means for God to come to us with grace and love".

It's actually easy enough to acknowledge this, I think, on a global scale – on the scale of international affairs and big political issues.  It's easy enough to acknowledge how much of our collective life is unredeemed and in need of challenge and transformation.  Just last week's big stories – a devastating typhoon that caused massive destruction and loss of life in the Philippines but was hardly reported on the mainstream news because, well, let's face it, they were poor people in a third world country – the second round of climate change talks between governments in Doha that looks like wrapping up without any sort of agreement at all on one of the most urgent crises of our time because wealthy countries can't stomach the thought that they might have to pay compensation to Pacific islanders whose countries are slipping beneath the ocean?  On the level of global issues it's not actually so hard for us to recognise that what leads to peace in our world is not competition and self-serving policies but compassion and generosity.

Advent is a time when, as Christians, we need particularly to speak of peace, and we need to be clear about the reasons for its absence.  But we also need to distinguish between true and false notions of peace.  In our haste to get to the nativity scene we find familiar and comforting, to take our place around the manger contemplating the sweetness and innocence of God with us – we ignore at our peril the uncomfortable Advent texts that speak to us of 'refining fire', 'fuller's soap' and 'rough places made smooth'.

The peace of the Incarnation is not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but the much more challenging notion of shalom – that wonderful Hebrew word that speaks of fullness of life and wholeness and flourishing for those to whom it is denied.  The peace of the Incarnation is the challenge for us to practice shalom towards those who are excluded, towards men and women and children fleeing conflicts in which we ourselves have been engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, to put aside our cruel and punitive treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers and instead have a go at hospitality and mercy.  The challenge for us to work with Aboriginal people as equal partners to reduce the credibility gaps of life expectancy, housing, health and education.  The challenge for us to recognise that effective action on climate change of course means accepting the cost and the restriction on our own consumption and lifestyles.  God's peace is abrasive, necessarily so, like the gritty grey cakes of Tru-Sol soap Mum used to use on my hands and knees - fuller's soap, the soap used by the drycleaners of the ancient world was a harsh chemical peel that burned away the sweat and grime of living in the real world.  Refiner's fire removes impurities in precious metals by searing temperatures that simply strip away anything that's less chemically stable than gold or silver.  These aren't comfortable images.  God's drawing near to us confronts us with the certainty that, before we will be fit to withstand the holiness of God, all that is unholy and vindictive and cynical in us needs to be destroyed.

As I said, it's easy enough to acknowledge this on the global scale of international affairs and politics, and the public life of our own nation that's largely conducted at some rarified level over our heads.  It gets more personal and more difficult, however, when we start to ask ourselves what in our own life  has become ossified and self-serving, how much in our own life is rusted on or encrusted with comfortable habit.  And we can probably all make ourselves feel a little uncomfortable by thinking about the moral short-cuts we take and the ways we insulate ourselves in order not to notice the needs of others, in order to justify giving a little less than we should of ourselves, of our time and our money, or our tendency to notice more what other people should be doing for us, than what we should be doing for others.  We're surely all aware that the true practice of religion is not measured by how diligently we say our prayers or read the Bible or attend church, but by how diligently we pay attention to and how much we go out of our way to respond to the needs of others.  It's not even so difficult for us to recognise, I think, how much of our own personal life, our priorities and our relationships with those around us is called into question by the harsh words of the prophet who announces God's coming into the world.  Get out the Tru-Sol, it's time for some serious self-examination. Advent is a good time to start a diary, to write lists of what we know all too well has got to be softened and dissolved so that our lives can be translucent with God's radiance.

I actually think the very hardest exercise in repentance that the prophet Malachi challenges us with is to think what needs to be burned away or destroyed in our life together as a church.  Church, after all, is where we come to worship, to renew our contact with God and with our brothers and sisters in faith.  The ways in which we live together as a people of faith, most especially the ways in which we live as a parish, grow out of our deepest understanding of what our lives mean – and it's hardest of all, I think, to ask ourselves what needs to be broken, what needs to be burned away or scrubbed to within an inch of its life in our own parish.  Are there ways in which our parish life has grown to be an insiders' club?  Are visitors made to feel welcome, as though we are interested in their lives, or do they feel as though they have intruded on a private family gathering?  Are we more concerned with tradition, with the right hymns and the right Anglican liturgy and less concerned with how we reach out to the community in which we live?  Are we more concerned with what church does for us, with how church affirms our own values, and less concerned with how we do church together in a way that is a blessing to others?  Why do we come here?  For ourselves, or for others?

Advent challenges us at this most basic and most intrusive level.  If, by the second week of Advent, you're not feeling this, it's possible you're not paying attention.  Are we awake yet?  Are we ready?  Only 16 sleeps to go!  Quick!  What's most important?

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Advent 1

Jeremiah, according to the timeless song released by Three Dog Night in 1971, was a bullfrog.  Nobody, the song tells us, could understand a word he said, but he always served a mighty fine wine.  After years of supposing these lyrics were some sort of deep commentary on the prophet's personality or flinty integrity, I found out the other day that the band, in early 1971, was on the point of breaking up, and decided that they needed to come out with a rip-roaring silly song to rekindle the fire.  Which it certainly did.

Jeremiah, of course, did spend some time – a couple of chapters after the bit we read this morning – incarcerated in a cistern, a sort of muddy underground water storage pit, so I guess he would have sounded like a bullfrog indeed, squawking up from there – and it is also true that nobody ever understood a word he said.  Jeremiah was also a priest, which hardly any of the major prophets were – only Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  During my priestly training we reflected regularly on different models of priestly ministry, but Jeremiah was never one of the examples chosen.  I've often thought, since then, that he should have been.  In our modern English idiom a Jeremiah is taken to mean a person who is relentlessly negative, a prophet of doom – but that, I think, is simply an example that proves the truth of the song.  Nobody ever understood poor Jeremiah, because he insisted on doing his job.  When the Babylonian army attacked Jerusalem with overwhelming force the king and the army and the newspapers of the day came out fighting – 'we'll soon see them off the premises!'  'No, you won't', says Jeremiah.  When the king negotiated an alliance with the Pharaoh of Egypt, who flew to the rescue with thousands of chariots, everybody thought it'd be over by Christmas. 'No, it won't', said Jeremiah.  When the Babylonian army destroyed the Egyptians and tightened their ring of iron around the capital, all Jerusalem thought it was the end of the world. 'No, it isn't', said Jeremiah – and to prove his confidence he went out and bought a ridiculously over-priced piece of land and deposited the title deeds in a safe place.  'You'll be planting crops again here before you know it'.  When the Babylonians swept into town and put most of the population to the sword and rounded up the rest and shackled them in chains to drag them into exile in Israel, everyone from the king down realised that God had finally abandoned them, God had brought down judgement on them for their past wrongs.  'No', said Jeremiah – and this is where we come in today, on the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Church year – 'No', says Jeremiah, 'all of the promises God ever made to you are coming true'.   Jeremiah has spent most of the book that bears his name up to this point criticising the kings of Israel and the people for their faithlessness, for their lack of justice and compassion, and has been promising God's judgement in frightening and explicit detail.  Now that it has arrived – 'No', says Jeremiah.  'God has not abandoned you'.

And of course, since it is the first week of Advent, the passage we read promises that mercy and restoration will come through a future descendent of David – we are only partly right to read this as a reference to Jesus, because it is also a reference to the historical reality in which Jeremiah lived, and what he is saying is this – if it is the faithlessness of Israel's kings who have turned away from justice and righteousness that has led to this humiliating defeat, then restoration will come through a future descendent of David – a king who will rule with integrity and compassion and justice.  Even when the people turn away from God, and reap the bitterness and misery they have sown in failure to show mercy to the vulnerable and the poor, and failure to live with righteousness according to their covenant with God – even then, the promise of restoration and mercy is heard.  And Jeremiah – as the people are being led into slavery in chains – encourages them and tells them to seek the good of the city to which they are going, to work hard, to marry and have children and to believe in the future.

Jeremiah isn't negative, but he is counter-cultural.  He tells the people what they don't want to hear, he challenges them to think wider than they want to, he gives them a dose of reality when they'd rather live in fantasy-land, and he encourages them to see new possibilities when they'd rather curl up and wallow in depression.  No wonder they don't like him.  No wonder he ends up in the cistern, squawking like a bullfrog.

But he does the work of a priest, which is to articulate the promises of God, and to do so in a way that leads the people from fantasy to reality, that reminds the people that the promises of God have got something to do with their own faithfulness and integrity and their own commitment to hope.

Advent is about hope, of course.  But we get it way wrong if we think that Advent is about hoping that Jesus will be born in a stable on Christmas morning.  No point in hoping for that, because it has already happened.  Yes, Advent points us to the hope for the world that is embodied and given flesh and blood reality in the miracle of Bethlehem, but Advent is also about present hope, and the incongruent juxtaposition of that hope against the reality of everything in our world, and everything in our own lives, that is hopeless and broken and unredeemed.  Advent is a dose of reality, and I'm sorry if you – like me – feel it comes exactly at the wrong time, when we are all frantically trying to get our Chrissy cards out and buying gifts and stocking up on tinsel and plum pud and trying to manoeuvre an oversized chunk of pine tree into our lounge rooms.

Advent points us to the hard lump of reality about ourselves that we wish we could keep pretending wasn't there – the indigestible truth about ourselves that we'd rather not own up to – and it says, that's where hope is at work in you.  That's where God's Holy Spirit is at work, that's where grace is, if only you knew it.  The irresolvable contradiction, the bit of you that hurts the most, that's where God is at work in you to transform you into light and grace and truth.  It just doesn't happen, however, unless we are prepared to work with it.  Believe it, the time is coming when the promises of God will come true in you, take on flesh and blood in your life – the time is coming when through the broken cracks of your life will shine joy and love and beauty.  Believe it, and live into it.

We also read today from St Paul's first letter to the church in Thessalonika – on the first day of the new year – how counter-cultural is that? the Church celebrates New Year's Day according to God's calendar! – we read from the very oldest document in the New Testament, way older than any of the Gospels, written maybe 20 years after Jesus crucifixion.  Paul has travelled to Thessalonika – maybe as early as 49AD and preached there to a group of day-labourers – the poorest of the poor – and from this unlikely beginning a new church has come into being.  Concerned to know how they are getting along, he sends Timothy to encourage them, and Timothy has reported back that despite discouragement and persecution – early Christians were an object of scorn for following the gospel in its insistence on social equality and inclusion for the poor and the vulnerable – the Thessalonian church was growing in faith and strength of purpose.  And St Paul says – 'thank God for that!'.  And he reminds them that Jesus is coming soon – this was the expectation in the first couple of decades of the church, that Jesus would return very soon – and prays that they should increase in love, and then he says to them, 'be blameless'.

Excuse me?  That's a bit of a back-hander isn't it, in this letter full of encouragement and compliments?  Be blameless – own up to the unredeemed bits, the not so wonderful bits of your life as a congregation – and do something about them?  Ah, it seems St Paul also knows what the work of a pastor should be about.  Point to what's encouraging and good about the life of the Christian community – point to the reality that there is still work to be done.  A bob each way, like Jeremiah.

We no longer know, of course, what wasn't yet blameless about the church in Thessalonika, what Paul needed to give them a nudge to face up to.  But the work of Advent is honesty, and becoming holy, which is not, actually, just a long-faced form of piety and carol-singing.  The work of Advent is the painful scrutiny of what is unredeemed about ourselves, our world and our church.

It occurs to me sometimes that we let ourselves off the hook, when we digress at this point to talk about the big issues of our world.  Our world is, as it always is, torn by war and the intolerable suffering of the innocent.  During Advent, we confess the failure of our generation to change that.  Our own nation veers unsteadily between wanting the rest of the world to think that we are good sports, that we believe in a fair go, and the enacting of brutal and punitive measures to drive the desperate and vulnerable from our shores – policies in fact that reveal our own deep insecurity and uncertainty about what, if anything, we stand for.  During Advent, we need to confess our own part in the national character and the policies enacted on our behalf.  But we let ourselves off the hook if we fail to also examine the realities of our own lives, and our life together as a church.

As the priest of this parish, I thank God for you, and I find great joy in my ministry among you.  What gives me joy is the evidence of my eyes and ears that the gospel of self-giving love is indeed being lived out here. That children are encouraged – being both heard and seen – and delighted in, that they are being nurtured and protected.  That the elderly among us are respected and cared for, that their experience is valued and their voices are heard.  That differences of culture and language and colour enrich, rather than diminish our community, that the fabric of our Christian community is daily strengthened by new relationships, by lives shared and by tasks undertaken gladly together.  I wrote this sermon yesterday in the office while listening to the happy buzz and clatter of the Op Shop – by now you know I believe it is in low-key and unglamorous activities like this that we proclaim the gospel and show hospitality to the community around us.

I hope it is an obvious reality that this work of community, of mutual love and care, is the work of the whole community.  As the priest, I get to notice it, and to delight in it, but this work is the priesthood of the whole community.  And we fail in it sometimes.  We are not blameless.  Too often, still, people quietly leave our congregation after having failed to find friendship and support here.  Sometimes they tell me off about it.  This saddens me.  It is not in our worship but in our hospitality and friendship that we proclaim whether or not we actually believe the Gospel.  The welcome and friendship shown to strangers is not an optional extra but the core business of a Christian community.  In showing hospitality to strangers and outsiders we proclaim the God who shows hospitality to us.  It is strangers and outsiders, in fact, who show the truth about us – as Jesus would point out to us, it's easy to be friendly to people you are already friends with – even Gentiles do that.

Paul gives thanks for the tiny working class church in Thessalonika, and he encourages them to grow in love, to find new ways of loving beyond the boundaries they are already used to, to grow in holiness.  Be blameless.  The bit you have to grow into yet is the bit where the Holy Spirit is hardest at work in you.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Reign of Christ

In Peter Adams quirky and memorable book, "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", the hero Arthur Dent accidentally finds himself on an alien space ship right at the moment when a Vogon constructor fleet has arrived to vaporise the Earth to make room for an intergalactic hyperspace freeway.  The few people who manage to look up and protest as the large ugly spaceships block out their view of the Sun are informed dryly - an instant before their demise - that the plans have been posted for at least 12 standard galactic months on the hypernet of the Galactic Council in Alpha Centauri, so they had had plenty of time to lodge an appeal if they didn't like it. Meanwhile, finding himself breathless and bewildered in the hold of the alien space ship Arthur encounters another stowaway, who apologises for zapping Arthur aboard by mistake and introduces himself as an intergalactic hitchhiker.

Halfway through the book, Arthur Dent is invited to dinner party. This dinner party is no ordinary one, because it is to take place in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Hypostatically suspended at the very point in time and space when the universe finally sputters out and dies, diners are able to feast on the culinary delights of the expired empire of their choice, while they watch the dying embers of the final star implode. It's a meal, curiously enough, which many diners choose to come back for time and again-with the advantage of course that you only have to pay the first time because they keep serving the same meal over and over – but the unavoidable confusion that you keep encountering your earlier selves coming and going.

So, at the end of the church year, on the Sunday oddly named "Christ the King"-as though the Greek word, Christos, didn't already mean King-our readings focus our minds yet again on the end of all things, and on judgement. 

If this morning when you heard the readings from Daniel and Revelation you were shocked awake with a sharp intake of breath and a slight skip of the heartbeat – it means you got the point! The writers are talking about nothing less than the end of history, and the judgment of the nations. And this morning I particularly want to think about that word 'end,' and to suggest what sort of end is in mind and what it means, because I think this points to what we need to be on about on Christ the King Sunday, the gateway to the four-week journey of Advent.

'End' means the passing away of what is. It means a transition so fundamental that nothing is ever the same again.  I don't think that what the biblical writers mean by 'the end' is the same thing at all as what Arthur Dent is witnessing as he chews his way through an eight-legged Betelgeusan spider antelope.  I doubt that ancient writers would even have been able to imagine such a thing as the Big Crunch, or however it is that the universe is supposed to expire in 14 billion years or so.  But 'the end' in the Biblical sense means that as mortal human beings we are finally forced to face up to our limitations and contradictions, and our attachments to worldly empires of inequality and oppression that are finally shown to be fleeting and illusionary. 'The end' – in the sense that Biblical writers mean it – comes when we can no longer deny or dodge the consequences of our own bad choices – or of the structural evils of the time in which we live, and we must let go and step into an uncertain and frankly scary future in which all our chickens have come home to roost. This is frightening for us -- and the more we cling to the illusions that everything is under control, the more frightening 'the end' will be.

To give an example.  At the end of this year – on 31 December, to be precise, unless the President of the United States can arrive at some sort of compromise with a hostile Congress – the United States will drop off the edge of a so-called 'fiscal cliff' – and with it most of the advanced economies of the developed world.  The 'fiscal cliff' doesn't mean the stars will all go out and the Earth will freeze over – but it does mean that much of what you and I take for granted in our lives would disappear.  The 'fiscal cliff' is a series of legislative time bombs put in place the last time President and Congress couldn't agree, to automatically slash the limits of public borrowing and spending, middle-class welfare and so on by about four trillion dollars, effectively forcing the Government and people to live within their means instead of continuing the economic fiction that allows the printing of new money by borrowing against the expectation of future prosperity and growth.  A cynic might suggest that if the President and Congress don't hold hands and jump off the cliff this time, if they do find a way of agreeing to keep borrowing from future generations, then the cliff is just going to keep getting taller, but there you have it.  When and if modern advanced economies are forced to stop pretending that growth can be infinite even though the planet isn't, then that will mark the end of a centuries-long experiment and trigger a sustained period of economic contraction and belt-tightening that might make some of us, perhaps, wish the world really had ended.  Interestingly the Earth itself – the living systems of water and air and soil that our health and well-being really depend on – the Earth itself would get a reprieve.  But I digress.

So when we understand 'the end' in this way, Pilate's response to Jesus in this morning's Gospel reading makes sense.  He doesn't send Jesus off to be crucified because he doesn't know what he means when Jesus says 'my kingdom is not of this world', but because he understands all too well.  He knows Jesus is not talking about some airy-fairy spiritual realm or afterlife, but that the kingdom that is 'not of this world' is the reign that calls the legitimacy of this age into question.

The reign of God that Jesus is claiming, isn't just a revolution aimed at toppling Caesar's power while leaving everything else pretty much as it is – but a fundamental challenge to the very idea of power that structures the world so that some people have and others don't.  The kingdom Jesus announces is 'not of this world' – not because it is concerned with some other world – but because it is about the end of this world as it is structured by the sort of worldly power that Caesar embodies.

We need to be very clear that it isn't about the end of creation.  God sees the cosmos that God has created – in the Book of Genesis – and pronounces it very good.  In Hebrew it is a double – tov tov – very good.  A bit later in Genesis God assures humankind – Noah and his family – that the destruction of creation is not on the agenda, that 'as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease'. [1]  But it means – Jesus' announcement of the reign of God – the end of the world as it has been structured by human dreams of economic and military power since the beginning of history.

For us – you and me – this is both a scary and a joyful prospect.  Scary, because we are all very well off, and have benefitted greatly in our lives from the very sort of inequality and oppression that Jesus is announcing the end of.  You might not feel particularly wealthy, especially if you are living on a pension or a fixed income, if you are paying exorbitant rent, or if you are faced with bills you can't quite see how you are going to pay – but the reality is this: if you have a home to live in, if you ate today, and expect to eat tomorrow, if you have access to clean water and electricity and medical care and education and transport – then you are part of the wealthiest 10% of the world's population.  And we – the 10% - have benefitted from centuries of economic and military power that have structured the world so that some countries benefit from other countries poverty.  The economic power of the First World keeps most of the world's population poor, so Jesus' announcement of the end of the world as we know it is a challenge for us – individually, as a parish church, and as a community – to reassess our relationships and our use of resources we take for granted, to understand that the poverty of the two-thirds world affects and concerns us, and to start to change how we live.

There is a connection between justice and ecology.  The same imbalance between the wealth of some and the poverty of others leads to the over-exploitation of the Earth's natural systems and the series of environmental crises that – for all the efforts of the deniers – are staring us in the face.  The end that is the implication of Jesus' claim that it is God who is in charge, not Caesar or Gina Rinehart or Clive Palmer, challenges directly our own choices and lifestyles.

Yet it is also a joy, especially if we can actually believe in the claim that Jesus is making.  Two thousand years have passed, of course, and Caesar appears still pretty firmly in control.  Jesus does have this annoying habit of claiming the reality of things that don't yet seem to be the case, and challenging us to believe in them and to live as though it were true.  To believe and to live into the reality that God is in charge, that the reign of God were here and now.  To live in such a way that the cries of the poor and the groaning of the planet's living systems are heard, and so far as is in our power, to make a difference.  I think that's what discipleship is about.  I've heard it suggested – by cynics – that to be a Christian is to believe three impossible things before breakfast, but I beg to differ.  Discipleship is the choice to believe and to live into the possible dream, in fact the inevitability, of the reign of God.  It is to be a prisoner and an agent of hope.

Today we make a fundamental move in the direction of this hope, and this reality, because in baptising Phoebe-Rose we make a statement that Jesus is right, that the reign of God is both a present reality and a future hope.  The birth of a child is a fundamental experience of hope, and of trust in the future – it is no accident that at Christmas we celebrate God's coming into our world as a baby.  By bringing her for baptism, Phoebe's parents are saying they understand that the promises of God come true in us, as we recognise and choose to live into them.  And Phoebe's baptism today is a concrete expression of that trust, and the faith that she will live into the reality of the end of the world.  Joyfully, and with strength.



[1] Gen 8.22 NRSV

Saturday, November 10, 2012

24th Sunday after Pentecost (Remembrance Day)

I opened the paper the other day – and on the front page was a picture of a very pretty girl wearing a brightly embroidered jacket.  She was also wearing what looked like a bright pink turban.  She had just won some international catwalk competition, and of course the reason she was on the front page of The Australian newspaper was that she was an Aussie girl.  And on being interviewed she had said with that disarming Aussie frankness – 'well I wouldn't really wear it down the street.  It's actually just playing dress-ups'.  And then she said – 'but the real reason I love this outfit is that my grandma sewed it for me'.  And I thought of the grandma, sewing on all the little loops and baubles for her bright model grand-daughter, and I thought – 'that's love'.

We worship youth, don't we, in our society?  When you turn on the TV at night you don't see many mature-aged people, we are entertained by attractive young people, the advertising is for young people with plenty of disposable income, we see images of young people with power and opportunity, we idolise fit young sporting heroes – for the elderly, even in our supposedly enlightened society, options shrink along with retirement incomes, you can't buy sensible clothes and shoes anymore and it gets harder and harder to get the lid off a jar.  Or maybe that's just me.  In any case, with age comes a degree of social invisibility. 

Today we hear two stories about widows – not necessarily particularly old, by today's standards, but remember this is a society where the average lifespan was about 45 years.  But women past childbearing age, not only socially invisible but without means of support.  In the Bible, widows and orphans are held up time and again as examples of society's most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor who challenge our compassion – and in the ancient world, as the Book of Leviticus tells us, there were some flimsy mechanisms for ensuring that these vulnerable members of the community were able to gather just enough to keep from starving.  But let's start with the Gospel.

Jesus is teaching in the Temple – and given the timeline of the first three Gospels this would have been on the Tuesday or the Wednesday of the last week of Jesus' life.  He has been having some heated conversations with his old sparring partners, the Sadducees, but the ordinary people, Mark tells us in the verse just before we started reading today, have been listening to him with delight.  One of the Temple scribes has just asked Jesus for his opinion as to which of the laws of Moses is the most important, and Jesus says – in the words we repeat every Sunday in church – that the greatest law is the law of love.  To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength – and to love your neighbour as yourself.  The scribe agrees with him – 'you are not far', Jesus tells him, 'from the kingdom of God'.  It is starting to sound like a mutual admiration society.

But now, two verses later, Jesus comes out with this – 'watch out for the scribes!' Watch out for this lot who like to walk around in long robes and get called Reverend So-and-So and always grab the best seat in church.  Why is Jesus turning on the scribes, two verses after he has just agreed with one of them about the greatest law, the law of love?  Because, says Jesus – they devour widows' houses, they deprive the poor and vulnerable of even the little that they have.  It's got nothing to do with the wearing of long robes – I hope! – and everything to do with the incident that St Mark tells us about next. 

You know, the widow in this story often gets held up as an example of generosity and an example for us to follow – but I don't think that is so much what Jesus is noticing as the fact that in paying the Temple tax – and given that the Temple authorities controlled the means whereby people could be regarded as socially acceptable she didn't have much choice – this woman is being left destitute.  So essentially Jesus is accusing the reverends of hypocrisy.  It's one thing to talk fine words about love, but when you rip away the meagre resources of the most vulnerable members of society you are not practising what you preach.  Jesus is accusing the scribes of loving power more than people.

The story of Ruth, on the other hand, is a love story in more ways than one.  Both Ruth and Naomi are widows, though Ruth, Naomi's daughter-in-law, is still a young woman and – in her own country – would probably have been claimed as a wife by one or other of the males in her extended family.  Naomi, on the other hand, as an older woman living in a foreign country is in a desperate situation.  But Ruth the Aramite – a native of a country, incidentally, that Judah has had repeated brief and bloody wars with – Ruth refuses to leave her mother-in-law and so follows as a widow and a refugee into a strange and not particularly welcoming country, where her prospects are decidedly bleak.  (Are we starting to recognise this sort of scenario?)  It's a partnership, however, that works.  Ruth is young enough to withstand the gruelling business of gleaning – exercising the right of the widow to gather the stalks and heads of grain that the harvesters leave behind on the field of Naomi's relative, Boaz.  So Naomi coaches her daughter-in-law on how the rules of the game are played, and Boaz is dutifully and predictably besotted, as well as impressed by the young woman's faithfulness to her mother-in-law.  We don't need to ask too many questions about exactly what happens on the threshing room floor – but the point is that the faithful love of Ruth for her ageing and vulnerable mother-in-law – and the generosity of Boaz who rather stretches a legal point to accept his duty to Ruth as a ga-al, or closest living male relative who would have the duty to redeem her – results not only in the sound of wedding bells but a baby who becomes the ancestor of the great king David and Jesus of Nazareth.

Ruth and Naomi and Boaz choose generosity and the sharing of resources and the recognition of the obligations of kinship over tribalism and competitiveness – in other words they choose to love even though the consequences of loving don't immediately look like a good choice, economically at least.  They live the practical love of neighbour that the scribes give lip service to, and that is the whole point.  As disciples we are commanded by Jesus to love – not theoretically and safely, but practically and in ways that take us out of our comfort zones.  We need to take on board Jesus' pointed criticism of the scribes – do we bang on about love but fail to actually put it into practice?  If so, then less talk and more action would be good.

We are reading these stories, of course, on Remembrance Day, which used to be called Armistice Day because it commemorates the moment on which the First World War ended, at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.  It is the only national day of commemoration I can think of that celebrates – not the date of some battle, whether a victory or a loss – but the moment in which war ended because enough people on both sides of the conflict were tired of loss and grief and hatred and bloodshed, and realised the only option left to them was peace.  With the benefit of hindsight it was an ambiguous moment, an armistice and terms of peace that were so vindictive that the continuation of conflict and the outbreak of a second and more appalling war two decades later was almost assured.  An armistice that gave hopeful birth to the League of Nations and the dream of peace, but ultimately failed because the hope of peace was not accompanied by forgiveness and practical expressions of commitment to a shared future.  And so the 20th century, in which most of us have grown up and spent most of our lives, turned out to be the bloodiest and most appalling century in the history of the world - with, it is estimated, more victims than all of the other centuries of recorded history put together.

Peace, like love, takes more than words.  It takes the works of peace – the generous welcome of refugees like Ruth, of men and women and children fleeing from conflicts in which our own military forces have taken sides and have inflicted suffering, for a start, rather than the endless bickering and ungracious competition between both sides of politics to impose policies that deliberately increase suffering and turn away those who in desperation seek our hospitality.  Peace – in the Hebrew, shalom – the seeking for the wholeness and flourishing of former enemies – requires us to see that our best interests lie not in keeping what we've got for ourselves, but in extending a hand to the vulnerable and dispossessed.  How tragic it is that wealthy nations like ours continue to weep crocodile tears over the costs of war, but fail over and over in the basic generosity and common humanity required to build peace.

Today, also, we welcome Josh into the Church in baptism.  This, incidentally, is the most important thing we as a congregation are doing this morning.  Because the works of love and peace don't happen in the abstract, but in the particular.  The way that we, as the people of God, become a community of shalom is not by talking about it, but by practising welcome and hospitality.  Today we welcome Josh – whose name, incidentally, comes from the same Hebrew root as the name, Jesus – yHoshua, 'he saves' – into the family of God and the household of the Church.  We pray that Josh may live up to his name, and that his family and godparents may surround him with the practical examples of Christian living.  And we pray also that we, as the community of God, might live up to our own name - so that, in whatever circumstances he finds himself in his life, Josh may know that he always has a home and a welcome among us.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

All Saints

You don't hear much about St Lazarus.  In fact, up until this week, when I checked, I wasn't even sure Lazarus was an official saint, but he is – the Orthodox makes a rather bigger deal of St Lazarus than the Western Church, and celebrate his feast the day before Palm Sunday, which they call Lazarus Saturday.  Inconveniently enough, the forty days fast of Lent – which our Orthodox brothers and sisters take very seriously indeed, end the day before Lazarus Saturday, which is also designated a fast day – as a concession, in Russia at least, on Lazarus Saturday one is permitted to eat caviar.

I was delighted to discover a few traditions about St Lazarus, who according to the Orthodox Church was buried for the second and final time on Cyprus, where he became the first bishop of what is now Larnaca.  One tradition that intrigued me was that for the 30 years between his first and second funerals, St Lazarus never smiled – haunted by the memory of all the unredeemed souls he had seen during his four-day stay in Hades.  Either that, or the fate of being brought back from the dead only to wind up a bishop, I imagine.  At any rate, the church of St Lazarus was built in Larnaca in 892 AD, and during renovations in 1972 a marble sarcophagus was found under the altar with human remains presumably proving that this time the saint stayed put.

 Essentially, though, Lazarus' role both in the Gospel and in the tale of his second life on the other side of the tomb is pretty passive.  We know that he was loved – by his sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany, and also by Jesus – and that perhaps is the most important thing about him.  In fact over recent years there has even been speculation that Lazarus might have been the 'beloved disciple' of the Fourth Gospel – the disciple who is never named, and never even mentioned until after the episode we read this morning.  Interestingly it is the 'beloved disciple' who alone believes in the resurrection when he sees the discarded linen wraps in Jesus' tombs – Lazarus, of course, would have known what they meant.

But in a sense, I think, Lazarus is a sort of 'Everyman' figure.  'Everyman' and 'Everywoman'.  Nothing special about him, except that he is loved.  And one word stands out for me, in today's Gospel reading.  Stands out even more, if you read this in the formal 16th century language of the King James version.  'But Lord, he stinketh'.  After four days lying in the tomb, he stinketh.  There is no life in him.

And that makes Lazarus even more of an Everyman, because it is in St Lazarus that we see what Jesus does for us, as well.  If you'll excuse the metaphor - we are all dead and lifeless. Trussed up like corpses, confined in the grave clothes which the false priorities of the world wrap around us. Swaddled in our own contradictions and slaves to our own self-interest, we are all stiff and lifeless and frankly we have all begun to smell a little bit iffy.

Until – Jesus calls us out of the tomb. Until he orders everything that binds us and holds us down, to be stripped off of us and tossed aside. Until he breathes his holy breath into us again and makes us a new creation, free to love and live the way God intended us to.

The Body of Christ, the community of the baptized, and the Communion of Saints – which is to say the Church visible and the Church invisible - we are all Lazarus. We stinketh, until Jesus calls us out, frees us, and gives us life. In fact this is what binds us together, saints living and dead: we have all been called out of the tomb and set free.  Not because we are special, but because we are loved.

So St Lazarus – the saint who is special just for being loved – is a helpful saint for our own reflections on the feast of All Saints – the feast of the Church that celebrates the ordinary lives of men and women who have lived and loved and passed from living memory.

I want this morning to make two further observations or helpful hints about being a saint that St John of Patmos drops in our reading from Revelation.  And the first is this: St John in his vision of heaven reports hearing the voice of God 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."

Because the fact is that what makes us saints – hagios, or holy ones – is not our own behaviour which most of the time is fairly ordinary.  What makes us holy is God's continuing incarnate presence among us, sharing our own DNA, our own flesh and blood physical existence.  What makes us holy is - to translate a phrase from the fourth Gospel literally - that God pitches a tent among us.  John of Patmos's vision of heaven is not a vision of the end of time, or of the hereafter, but a vision of all time rolled into a single instant, the whole of eternity in which God becomes incarnate, takes on flesh in the act of creation.   What is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth is not just God's one-off attempt to communicate with us and then go back up to heaven for a well-earned rest - but God's universe-long strategy for loving and caring for creation – God's life is woven into the fabric of creation, our lives in all their ordinariness and all their physicality are made holy because the world we live in is God's body and God's home.  And so, as God's people we live in a world of accident and impermanence, struggling with the paradox of our own moral compromise, our hearts capable of both love and deceit in approximately equal measure – but at the same time filled with the beauty of God's own life.  As St Paul puts it, we have the unspeakable treasure of God-with-us in the nondescript clay jars of our everyday lives.  And just every now and then – particularly when the clay jars of our lives get cracked, the beauty of God shines through.  And that's what makes us holy.  That's how we grow to perfection, not in our own goodness, but in our weakness filled with God's holiness.

And in the second half of today's reading from Revelation, God's voice thunders out of heaven, "behold, I am making all things new".  It's a promise, but it's also a process.  French Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that creation out of nothing as a massive whizz-bang event after which God takes the rest of eternity off is not only unbelievable but basically unlike what we know about God in Jesus.  Teilhard worked out the idea of what he called creative transformation – the Spirit of God, he thought, providing the creative juice to make stuff that is already in existence get together in new ways, to bring new possibilities out of tired matter – much more exciting and also more credible to reflect that God is creating all the time, that God is creating the future ahead of us and inviting us into it, that God is creating us moment by moment so that our future is not determined by the limitations of our past, but opening up into the newness and the creative energy of the Spirit.  Or, as God puts it in Revelation: "Behold, I am making all things new".  I remember being at a Diocesan conference some years ago when tempers frayed a bit over some proposal, when all concerned were visibly trying their hardest to remember that we were supposed to be listening together for the voice of the Holy Spirit, not raising our own – and the speaker paused for a few seconds and muttered, "well, perhaps God's still working on us".  Saints get cranky, saints have muddleheaded ideas, sometimes they're intolerant and unattractive and just plain exasperating.  Sometimes, mercifully, they're none of those things.  But above all, saints are loved and lived-in human beings glimpsed mid-transformation, unfinished, a work in progress.  To be a saint means being open to the future, because it's the future, not the past, into which God's creative energy is leading you and making you complete.  To be a saint means being open to change, constantly looking for evidence of what God's Holy Spirit is doing around you, curious to see what God's going to get up to next, because the Trinitarian promise is that transformation and newness are built in to the life of God – and if you want to be a saint that's what you've signed up for.  To be a saint means practicing living life from the inside out – noticing that the latest and the most exciting place God has become incarnate is in you, daring yourself to let God's life transform the shallowness and the selfishness of your own.

Seems to me that Lazarus, having been unbound and given a good bath and something to eat would have been curious.  Whether or not he ever smiled again – and I prefer to think he would not only have smiled but also laughed, frequently – he must have wondered, why him?  What is the meaning of this new life into which he has awoken? What is it for?  Near-death experiences make us think deeply about life, resolve to relish every moment and to use it for something worthwhile.  Saints like you and me and Lazarus – transformed from stinkers into sweet-smelling lovers of life – wake up into a brand new day and toss off the bed sheets and have a coffee and ask in wonder – 'now what surprises has God got in store for me today?'