Saturday, March 31, 2012

Palm/Passion Sunday

So it's April Fools Day.  I remember as a boy this day we observed this day with the utmost seriousness.  During the morning it was verbal trickery, spinning a yarn in the hope someone would fall for it and make themselves look ridiculous.  Afternoons were for practical jokes and physical humour like pinning a note to someone's back or sticky taping down the telephone handset.  Teachers of course were the butt of most of our jokes - though I do remember one year when our science teacher got his own back by making us do an experiment that went stinkily wrong.  The best ever in my experience was just after I started work in the Public Service – a very serious environment for a serious young man – when a memo came around from the Deputy Commissioner informing us that the Department was planning to improve its service to the public by being open 24 hours a day.  Would we please nominate our preferred two days of the week to work the graveyard shift …?

All in all a wonderful day of the year for us to remember the holy fool who thumbs his nose at the Temple authorities and the might of the Roman Empire by borrowing a donkey and riding into Jerusalem in a parody of the imperial procession taking place at the exact same time on the other side of the city.  Ironically, the clown's name was Yehoshua – which means, 'he saves'- or 'God saves'.  As he rides into town the crowd – maybe it was a put-up job, maybe it was spontaneous – shout 'hoshiana!'- 'save us!', or 'God help us!'. And a few days later, because this holy fool doesn't seem to be able to do anything much to help at all, they shout 'hang him!'.

To backtrack a bit.  Yes, there were two processions that day, and the important one wasn't Jesus' cheeky bit of street theatre.  It was the beginning of Passover Week in the most dangerous and volatile city of the occupied territories, and the Roman occupation forces were not in the business of taking chances.  The population of the city would be doubled or trebled overnight, with Jewish pilgrims from all over the known world converging on the holy city for the feast of Passover – and not just any Passover but a Great Passover – the one year in seven when the Passover meal would be eaten on the eve of the Sabbath.  Overnight the city would turn into a melting pot of religious and nationalistic fervour and the Temple authorities – the Jewish elite who operated the Temple system as a sort of franchise for the Roman governor – would need all the help they could get to keep a lid on the inevitable trouble.  Remember, this was the city that 30 years later was actually burned to the ground, the Temple destroyed, the population dispersed and over 2,000 young men crucified as the Romans put down a revolt sparked by another would-be messiah with brutal efficiency.  Pontius Pilate – who normally lived in the way more comfortable seaside city of Caesarea Maritimae to the north, made it his personal business to attend the festivities and take up positions with his troops in the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple's Court of the Gentiles.  So that afternoon, the Sunday before the Passover, Pilate rode into Jerusalem on his warhorse from the north, surrounded by his troops carrying the eagle standard, for the express purpose of cowing local and foreign Jews alike and reminding them that – well, they might have their holy festival but in the end, there was no god but Tiberius Caesar Augustus.

Except on the other side of town, riding in from the south-east on a borrowed donkey with a few bewildered looking followers waving palm fronds, and shopkeepers and children running alongside shouting, 'God help us!'- Jesus begs to differ.  Talk about an April Fools Day joke.  No wonder he ends up on a Roman cross, the form of execution reserved for insurrectionists.  But that still lies in the future, that is the business of the holy and horrifying week ahead.  Today I want to talk about Jesus the nobody.  Jesus the inveterate borrower, the holy fool.

Somebody pointed out to me the other day how much of the important objects in Jesus life were borrowed.  'Didn't he own anything?', my friend wondered.  My mind immediately went, as I'm sure yours would have also, to the old wedding jingle – '

Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue
And a silver sixpence in her shoe.

The sixpence is clear enough, certainly.  No bride wants to marry into penury, it's important to have a little something to fall back on and if your new husband doesn't know what's hidden in your shoe, so much the better.  But as for the rest – good for brides, good for disciples also.  It sound a bit like Jesus' description in St Matthew's Gospel of the ideal scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven who he says ' is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old'. [1]  The old and the new connect us to the faithfulness of the past and the optimism and hope of the future.  The blue – apparently brides in England before the 19th century often wore blue to remind them of Mary, the ideal mother who embodies love and fidelity.  The borrowed of course connects us to other people and reminds us that we are called to God in a community of mutual care, never as isolated individuals. 

The Gospel insists the donkey was borrowed, and we even get a glimpse of the slightly cloak and dagger arrangements that Jesus seems to have made along the way.  He gives his disciples a password to use if they are challenged by the donkey's owner.  This street theatre has been set up in advance.  Jesus knows the city is going to be buzzing with a festival atmosphere, with entertainment and outlandish-looking foreigners and hawkers selling food.  The atmosphere is pungent with expectation and camel dung.  And Jesus chooses to enter the city provocatively and publically – sitting on a borrowed donkey.

The point is obvious.  God alone is the rightful ruler of God's people, not Caesar.  Not America.  Not the Queen of England or the Prime Minister of Australia and not even Twiggy Forest or Gina Reinhart.  And the people catch the mood, they get the point as they see the rabbi – famous and perhaps a little infamous in his own right – lurching and hee-hawing into town, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!' – 'God help us!'

The donkey wasn't the only thing that Jesus borrowed, of course. He was a lifelong borrower - born in a borrowed place and laid in a borrowed manger.  As he travelled, he had no place of his own to spend the night.   He rode into the city on a borrowed donkey.  He ate his final meal in a borrowed room.  He was crucified on a borrowed cross, wearing a borrowed crown that the April Fools Day jokers stuck on his head.  And when he died, somebody placed his body in a borrowed tomb. 

He wasn't an owner, but a borrower.  His life was lived in radical dependence not only on God, but on others.  Tellingly, he commands his disciples to travel just as light – 'When you go out to proclaim the good news, take no money, no knapsack, no extra tunic, no extra shoes, not even a walking stick'. [2] Take only a word of peace, borrow the bed given to you, and proclaim that God's kingdom has come very close.   At its core, the Good News of God doesn't need many props. What it does need is the kind of people who believe it simply as they can.

The early church reflected on the one who they came to understand revealed God's true character.  Our Lord was a borrower.  He didn't grasp or grab what belonged to him, but shared what was given to him freely. As St Paul writes, apparently quoting the words of an ancient hymn, 'He didn't count equality with God as something to be grasped.' [3] He didn't hold onto heavenly glory or throw his weight around. He never forced himself on anybody. Instead, he offered and accepted hospitality.  He emptied himself.  He gave himself completely away for the benefit of others.

It's easy to see how this wandering rabbi who accepts the hospitality of friends and strangers, who eats with holy people and prostitutes, who laughs and weeps and tells stories and heals – and who rides a borrowed donkey into town to the half-serious acclamation of an over-excited crowd – it's easy to see how Jesus is challenging the might of Rome and the power of the Temple authorities.  Harder, perhaps, for us to admit how much he challenges us, in our culture so bent on consumption and looking out for number one.

Who are the blessed ones? Jesus says they are the people who don't have very much: the poor in spirit, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, those who are meek, those who are hungry for food and thirsty for righteousness. These are the blessed ones, says Jesus. Blessed are those who keep a light grip on all that they have, for they know that everything in life depends on the generosity of God. They are the people who have everything.

As he rides into town, acting out the world's first and best April Fools Day joke, Jesus returns everything he has ever borrowed, empties himself for what is to come.  Dare we follow, this week, and see how it all turns out?


[1] Mtt 13.52

[2] Lk 9.3

[3] Phil 2.6

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lent 5

I always thought I'd like to write a book.  Not just any book, my book would be a literary masterpiece, the plot would be fiendishly clever, the characters would spring to life, every sentence a work of art, every word a brilliant gem.  This was one of my recurring fantasies as a teenager and a young man.  Nothing else seemed quite as worth doing as being a world-famous author.  Except, I told myself, it's important not to start too soon.  You need to have something to say.  Finish that degree, knock about a bit, get some experience of life.  All the while your great Australian novel is taking shape in your head.  And so I got older and settled down, got a job … I discussed my ambitions with a friend who had, as it turned out, the same idea.  There's plenty of time, she told me.  Wait till you're financially secure, writing novels isn't going to make you rich.  Wait till the kids are grown up.  I went back to university again – that novel kept nagging at me.  Too many essays to write, I reminded myself.  Not enough hours in the day.  I need to read more widely first.  I was ordained priest – priests don't write novels!  Way too busy.  What if the archbishop didn't like it?  Maybe when I'm retired …

It's called procrastination of course.  And lots of the time it comes from a sense of inadequacy.  Fear that if we actually committed ourselves, and did it, and started right now ...  Fear that our dreams are bigger than our abilities.  Fear that lots of the things I take for granted in my life might have to change if I were to really do right now the thing I always said I'd do one day.  Fear I'd have to put my money where my mouth is …

Today for Jesus is the moment of decision.  If we follow the timeline of the synoptic gospels, Mark and Matthew and Luke, then Jesus has been gradually working his way towards Jerusalem and now, in today's reading from John, he's actually there.  Next week we go backwards again to the story of Jesus' entry into the city which already was packed with locals as well as foreigners – Jews, by which John means locals, residents of Jerusalem and Judea and the provinces, country hicks from the villages of Galilee – and Greeks, by which John means Greek-speaking Jews from everywhere else in the known world, the cosmopolitan residents of Alexandria or Cypress or beyond.  It's a party atmosphere, a confused expectant mass of people and Jesus own followers are caught up in the general mood as well as their own particular sense of dis-ease and apprehension.  Jesus has been dropping hints and talking in a way that can only have struck them as morbid and incomprehensible.  They know that Jerusalem and this Passover are important to Jesus, but they don't know why.

And Jesus says, 'Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out'.  According to the sequence of John's gospel, Palm Sunday has already happened - the die is cast and the authorities are making their plans to put Jesus to death.  But he is saying a bit more than that.  Not just, oh heck, too late to change my mind.  No more procrastinating.  Not just that the hour of crucifixion is virtually upon him but he is making a claim that is way bigger: 'Now is the judgment of this world!'

It's quite a statement. I wonder how we might live, what choices we'd make, if we actually decided to live by this claim?  What would it mean to say that the 'one day' of the prophets was - NOW? What would it mean if the 'ruler of this world' will be driven out - NOW?

Well, for the first thing, it depends on whether we can actually take Jesus seriously.  His disciples still didn't, obviously.  Do we think it's just a metaphor, just a figure of speech?  Can we actually believe this – given that 2,000 or so years later the world is still patently run by the same sort of rulers, the lives of ordinary men and women still just as subject to the structural evils of war and inequality and poverty?  If he is serious, what does he mean?  If we can believe it, and take it seriously, what changes for us?

Well for one thing, if the ruler of the world is driven out – NOW – then it calls into question just where we have been putting our allegiance.  It questions the claim of every would-be ruler of the world before or since that moment.  And it calls into question our own claims to be living justly.  It means that the claims to power of the Barack Obamas and the Robert Mugabes alike are false – that the shabby self-serving morality of worldly power in all its forms has been seen through, that in fact the only power that presidents and dictators and iron ore magnates have to determine our lives – and the lives of millions – is the power of ignorance and complicity.  And it means that when we act in ways that exploit our power over others, when we manipulate or bully, then we ourselves usurp the power that doesn't belong to us.  Jesus' claim doesn't mean – sadly – that power is no longer assumed and misused – but it means that all human power is made relative and is out-trumped by the power of self-giving love.  The only fly in the ointment – the only catch – is that we have to believe him, and to act on it.  That we ourselves have to become the agents of that love in practise in our world.  Before you protest that you're not personally in a position to do much about Robert Mugabe – and neither am I – the point is that we do get to choose what we give power to in our own lives, and our relationships and in the corner of the world that we inhabit.  Jesus' claim challenges us – if we believe him, if we don't just think he is talking big for the sake of it – to question our own priorities and to put aside the false rulers of our own lives.  The obsession with self-serving and false priorities – the chase after money or consumer goods or status, for example, or the obsession with appearing respectable – the way of competition that our society teaches us from an early age and which we follow at the expense of practising vulnerability and compassion.  Like all of Jesus' big claims, this one works if we watch carefully the one making the claim – if we observe how he lives and follow suit. 

Because if the time really is NOW – and if we are prepared to believe it and act on it, then all the old priorities are actually gone.  All the false gods and false priorities – and let's not kid ourselves, we all have them – are gone, the moment we actually believe what Jesus just said.  The only power our false gods have over us is the power of a fantasy that you no longer believe in.  Actually, that is pretty much what we mean when as Christians we assert that Jesus is Lord.  It means simply that nothing else has the power to dominate your life or to prevent you from living in a way that is consistent with what you say you believe.  Which means also that when Jesus says, 'NOW is the judgement of this world', that isn't a scary or vaguely threatening possibility but simply (a) a statement of fact, and (b) good news.  Because the judgement of this world is quite simply the end of everything that separates us from one another and from God, the answer to our prayer that God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven – so long as we – you and I – are actually prepared to take it seriously, to believe Jesus' claim and put it into practise.

So, what are we waiting for?  Are we waiting to get a bit older, or a bit wiser?  Do we not feel quite ready yet, or do we need somebody's permission?  What keeps us procrastinating as Christians?  What stops us from living boldly, from living justice and forgiveness and compassion, and what stops us from naming injustice and inequality and oppression when we see it happening around us?  What stops us from demanding fairness and tolerance and understanding when we are confronted by selfishness and bigotry and ignorance?  Is it that we don't – not deep down – actually take Jesus seriously when he tells us that these things no longer have a claim to power?  The two sides of our response – the putting into practise of Jesus' way of forgiveness and love in our private lives – and the passionate advocacy of justice in whatever public sphere we inhabit – are intertwined.  We can't – unfortunately – even use our own imperfection in our private lives as an excuse to keep silent in our public sphere – because let's face it, whenever we oppose injustice it is our own lives that need to be the first to be re-examined.

In these last days of Lent, Jesus calls us to follow him.  He reminds us that the way of the cross is not a spectator sport, and that there is a cost.  There is a cost – of course – in the challenge to put to death everything in us that is inconsistent with Jesus' way of self-giving love.  But he also reminds us that there is nothing to fear.  Because in letting go of ignorance and self-obsession and injustice – our own – then – if we also believe in the gospel claim of resurrection – we open ourselves to really live.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mothering Sunday

Gerard Hughes, who wrote the wonderful book, God of Surprises, paints a picture of a character he calls Good Old Uncle George.  To look at, this gentleman bears a passing resemblance to Santa Claus, and indeed Uncle George encourages you to ask for presents, although you soon realise you never get quite what you wanted.  One day, while you are still young and impressionable, your parents take you to visit Good Old Uncle George.  Mum and Dad tell you that they love Uncle George very very much, though you can't help noticing they seem somewhat nervous in his company.  After a bit of polite chit-chat, Uncle George asks you if you'd like him to show you around his house, and there's something about his voice that suggests to you that you had better say 'yes'.  And so he takes you downstairs to the basement.  The deeper you get, the hotter it gets, and you begin to hear some dreadful screams.  Good Old Uncle George explains that he loves you very much, and he insists that you visit him once a week.  As he says that, he opens the door to the basement, in which reluctant men, women and children are being thrown into pools of molten brimstone by maniacally-laughing demons.  'And this is exactly what will happen to you if you don't behave yourself, or if you don't visit me every week', Uncle George tells you with a genial smile. 

Gerard Hughes is making a very important point, which is that our mental image of God makes a huge difference.  If deep down we think God looks and acts a bit like Uncle George – as Hughes suggests many Christians have been brought up to do – if we think of God, in other words, as an unstable lunatic who pretends he dotes on you but secretly is just waiting for you to put a foot wrong - then we also start acting in ways that are capricious, judgemental and contradictory.  If your image of God is that of a stern judge who sees everything you do and doesn't like it very much, then that makes it harder for you to love and forgive yourself, and you gradually learn to project feelings of inadequacy and guilt onto the people around you.

But Gerard Hughes's cartoon image of God is compounded even further when Jesus comes on to the scene.  Because in much of the traditional theology of the church, God – aka Good Old Uncle George – has been grumpy for the last 6,000 years or so, in fact ever since Adam and Eve liked the look of that forbidden fruit.  So grumpy, in fact, that God's just about ready to give the whole thing up and go and make another galaxy when Jesus comes along and says, 'come on Dad, isn't it about time to let bygones be bygones'?  But God is determined that somebody somewhere is going to have to pay.  So Jesus makes a tricky deal – 'well, what say I go down there and become one of them, and then you can take it out on me?  And we all know how that turns out.

You'll have guessed I don't buy any of this.  I don't buy the idea of God as Uncle George, and I don't buy the idea that Jesus had to suffer and die because God couldn't let us get away with being less than perfect.  There are better ways of understanding what it means for God to take on human form in Jesus of Nazareth that emphasise not how disappointed God is in us, but how desperately God loves and needs us, how tenderly God cares for us.  And when we start to see it this way around, we find we also need a human metaphor, an image of God that's a bit closer to the mark than Good Old Uncle George is.

And so we look around us for a way of describing a God whose love and care for creation is so unconditional that – far from God acting towards us in ways that are capricious and vengeful, God always stays in love with us even when we ourselves act in ways that are violent and self-centred.  And so it seems natural to imagine God as a loving parent who perseveres with us despite our temper tantrums, whose discipline is always intended to strengthen us and help us grow in character, in resilience and in love.  When it comes down to it, we humans can only think in human terms, and when we want to imagine a God who loves us as least as much as any human being could ever love us, then for most of us it's natural to think of God as a parent.

There are, however, two major problems.  And the first is that the Bible comes to us from a world that was rigidly, almost without exception, dominated by men.  We do find some strong female characters in the Old Testament, think of Rebecca or Ruth or Bathsheba – but mostly the contribution of women in Old Testament stories is to have children, and then fade into the background.  Which is not to say that's how they behaved in real life!  But in the culture of the ancient Near East, where women were regarded in the same way as possessions, God was virtually always imagined as masculine, as a Father with the masculine quality of strength, as a protector rather than a nurturer.  And because the masculine bias of the Bible has been carried through, almost into our own time, with a masculine bias in Western culture, when we talk about God in church much of the language also emphasises the power and transcendence of God, and for many Christians it seems natural to continue the tradition of talking about God as a 'he'.  Jesus himself used the Aramaic word for 'Daddy', 'Abba', to talk to and about God, and that can be a strong and tender way for us to think about God, especially if our experience of our own fathers has been loving and protective. 

Except that if we only think of God as a father, then we miss the whole world of meaning that might open up if we allow ourselves also to think of God as a mother.  In recent years, Bible scholars have found many of the rare and tender passages in both the Old and New Testaments that speak about God in feminine terms, like in Hosea, chapter 11, where God assures Israel that she is like one who lifts an infant up to her cheek for a kiss, like one who nurses a baby - or in Isaiah chapter 42, where God protests that she experiences the pain of Judah's exile like a woman gasping in the pangs of labour.  And in the New Testament Jesus also uses feminine images to describe God's compassion, comparing God to a woman who searches her house from top to bottom, looking for a lost coin, or speaking words of comfort to the doomed city of Jerusalem, who he longed to shelter like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing.  When we want to express our understanding of God's presence within creation, and the intimacy of our relationship with God, then imagining God as a mother is natural and helpful.

Real mothers, of course, come in all colours and shapes and sizes.  Mothers can be sassy and strong, like Marge Simpson who in a recent survey was one of the fictional characters most associated with motherhood.  Not only does she have blue hair, but episode after episode her love and determination keep her fractious brood together and reminds them of what is important.   Another instantly recognisable mother, even for atheists, ironically enough, is Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, who models for us humility and vulnerable love.  And we each, today, think especially of our own mothers, still with us or long departed, who taught us how to love and forgive.  God, we are saying, is a whole lot like that.

But then there's the second problem, which is that none of our human relationships are perfect.  Whether we think of God as a mother, or as a father, we remember that our earliest relationships that form us as human beings and teach us how to be independent and how to love – can also be fraught with pain and regret.  For many Christians, the idea of God as a father – or God as a mother – can't help but be associated with the pain of loss, or the anger and bewilderment of betrayal.  I sometimes wonder how helpful it is to tell a person that God is like a father, if for that person Dad was never home, or worse, if Dad took out his own feelings of inadequacy in acts of domestic violence.  Or how helpful it is to tell a person that God is like a mother, if that person is unable to have children of her own, or if he is carrying around a load of pain because his birth mother couldn't care for him.  On Mothering Sunday we need to recognise the ways in which God's love is like that of a mother, but we also need to remember, to forgive or to ask forgiveness in our hearts for all the ways in which our own experience of motherhood has been a source of pain or regret.  And we need to remember the pain of mothers and children separated by circumstances such as forced adoptions or the removal of children because of government policies.

Ultimately, we can't claim God as a mother – or as a father – without recognising that God's relationship with us gathers up both the positives and the negatives of our human experience.  To call God our Mother is to make motherhood holy, to gather up both the joy of intimacy as well as the bitterness of alienation into the place where healing is possible; it is to make a profoundly theological claim that at the same time deepens our understanding of God's tenderness and involvement in our lives, and recognises our human relationships as the arena of God's love and forgiveness.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

3rd Sunday in Lent

I remember when I was a little boy, one of the ways my mates and I would jockey for position and status on the playground at Wilson Park Primary School was to boast.  Not about ourselves, but about our dads.  It was all physical, stuff like 'my dad's bigger than your dad'.  Does anybody else remember doing stuff like this?  I mean, why should it have mattered so much?  'My dad can bash your dad up – any day of the week.'  'Oh yeah? Well, my dad could bash your dad up with one hand tied behind his back!'  What bothered me deep down was, I wasn't at all sure that mine could.  I'd seen the great big calloused hands of some of those coal miner dads.  'Well, my dad could bash up your dad with one finger'.  'My dad could bash up your dad in his sleep'.

Playgrounds are merciless places, aren't they?  You need to invoke supernatural protection just to survive, let alone to stay on top.  If you need status in a hurry, you inflate the claims of the strongest thing you're associated with.  'Well my footy team could bash your footy team any day of the week!'

There's only one trouble with this sort of logic, isn't there?  It's actually really hard to keep winning this way – there's always someone stronger comes along, someone with more status, more power.  You're only on top five minutes before you get the tap on the shoulder.

So is this what St Paul is doing in his letter to the Church in Corinth?  'God's brainier than you even when he isn't even thinking, even God's foolishness is wiser than your most lucid moments'?  Think of a number, big as you like, then multiply it by ten.  Sorry, you lose, God's even wiser, stronger, bigger than that?  Or, is St Paul saying something a bit more subtle?

You see, like my mates and me on the playground at Wilson Park, the Church that St Paul founded in Corinth were a competitive lot, divided along the lines of wealth and social class and claims of spiritual "advancement".  If you ever wanted a model of a dysfunctional parish family, this is it!  It wasn't just the members of the fledgling church community though, in the ancient world it seems the whole of Corinth had a bit of a reputation.  A cosmopolitan little city, perched in a picturesque location on a peninsular between two oceans, Corinth was a centre of wealth and worldly sophistication – for some.   One mosaic picture that has come down to us from that time shows a young couple proudly showing off their greatest status symbol – a writing tablet and stylus – much like yuppies these days might pose for a photo holding their iPad.  Corinth had a reputation for flashy ostentation and an even more troubling reputation for the way in which its wealthy citizens abused those who were less wealthy.  Paul's ongoing problems with his argumentative congregation in Corinth seem to confirm this unflattering picture. 

In many ways, though, we are really fortunate the Corinthian Church was so embarrassing, because it forced St Paul into confronting one of the biggest pitfalls for Christians in any century – the credibility gap that exists between the values of the world we live in and the kingdom values that Jesus offers us.  The credibility gap between the politics and power-games that characterise the actual relationships between factions and individuals in the Church, and the standard of self-giving love that should be the benchmark of our life together.   Personally, I can't read Paul's letters to the Corinthian Christians without cringing a bit, because it's like looking into a mirror and seeing our own Church.  You know I'm not talking about St Michaels Cannington here, I'm talking about the wider Church of which we're a part – but we need to examine our own life as a parish community also, because that's the basis – the way in which individuals work and pray and grow together in love in a parish family is the foundation on which the whole Church of God is built.  Are we completely focussed on our own individual issues and our own status, or do we have a shared vision of God's kingdom here in Cannington?

And in his letter to the Corinthians St Paul confronts head-on the things that divide them, using a favourite ancient debating method, pushing the argument to its absurd conclusion, pulling apart the opposite extremes until we are forced to see what lies in the middle.  The basic issue, as it probably always is, is status, power, who gets to call the shots?  Elsewhere, St Paul takes on the issue of money, the tendency for people everywhere to act as though having more money entitles you to more influence – but here the basic issue is wisdom.  Wisdom versus foolishness.

Now wisdom is actually a buzz word for the Corinthians, and in fact for the whole of the ancient Greek-speaking world.  The word itself, wisdom or in Greek, Sophia, comes from the intellectual fashion of the time, the philosophy of the Stoics and the Platonists.  Wisdom was what connected the human world to the divine world, wisdom was what enabled human beings to see the true meaning of things.  And wisdom was primarily revealed in the skill of rhetoric, the skill of the debater.  Now on one level this is just like saying the Corinthians were really impressed by cleverness, and the cleverest among them thought they should be running the show – on another level the issue of wisdom for the Corinthians is like us being really impressed by a Microsoft systems engineer or a financial expert from Westpac.  Wisdom was the cutting edge intellectual technology of the day, and the Corinthians were really impressed by it.  They were impressed by technique, and they were impressed by those who claimed to have special or hidden knowledge.  Paul's basic point is that believing the right doctrine about God is not the same thing as being in the right relationship with God, which is a relationship of trust and dependence.  For churches today who insist on members signing up to a series of ideas and beliefs about God, about the right way to read the Bible or the right belief about the end times, or who insist on talking in tongues as evidence of spiritual maturity, or for churches like ours that tear themselves apart with arguments between conservative and liberal theologians, this is really important.  This preoccupation with human knowing, Paul claims, twists Christian living out of shape.  God himself cuts the ground from under our feet, and he does it with the foolishness, and the absurd weakness, of the cross.

You see, the cross is embarrassing.  Our Bible translation calls it a 'stumbling block' to Jews who expected the one anointed by God to be gloriously successful, and the Greek word that this translates is skandalon.  It's a scandal.  The very idea that the twisted and ugly shape of a human being tortured to death could represent human salvation.  The Corinthian Christians know what Paul is talking about.  This wouldn't have been the easiest part of the Christian faith to sell to the sophisticated metropolitan inhabitants of their world!  To them it's just foolishness.  It's God choosing to come to us not in strength but in weakness, not the sort of divine weakness that's still strong enough to bash us up with one finger, but the sort of divine weakness that is vulnerable enough to suffer when we reject it, the sort of divine weakness that allows itself to get pushed aside and crucified.  Over and over.  God's power is not the sort of power that human beings preoccupied with status and competition readily understand –God's power which is made perfect in human weakness and vulnerability is relational power - the power to transform human lives by love broken and poured out for all.  God's wisdom is the wisdom of understanding that only by risking ourselves to one another in vulnerability and trust can we be healed and whole.

So what does this mean for us, this Lent?  Like the Corinthians, we live in a world that isn't cruciform – the structures and values of our world are shaped not by the cross but by the desire for status and privilege, by competition for position and resources.  Our relationships are unconsciously fashioned by the need to protect our own interests.  We find the wisdom of God and the power of God confronting because we recognise in it the challenge to give up some of our assumptions about our own wisdom, our own claims to have our lives and our religion worked out.  We find it confronting because we recognise correctly that self-sacrificing love means giving up on being defensive, giving up on being right.  The cross means putting all our eggs in one basket, taking the risk of trusting God and one another with the future.

Rather a lot to give up for Lent.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Lent 2

Quite regularly – in fact several times a week – I get an email that runs something along these lines: the writer of the email has got their hands on a large sum of money – at minimum, $5 million, usually $20 to $50 million – usually by way of an inheritance from a saintly father which the heir – usually an attractive young woman – is in danger of losing because of an unscrupulous uncle.  Of all the people in the world I have been chosen to help spirit the money out of the country because of my kind heart – and for my trouble I stand to receive half the proceeds and probably the undying affection of the orphaned daughter.  Sound familiar?

Now I guess there are enough people who actually fall for this to make it worth the scammers' while – apparently if you get sucked in by the promise of ill-gotten millions you soon get asked for your credit card or bank details to pay the transfer fees – really, what's a few hundred dollars when there's millions at stake? And then when you've parted with some of your own hard-earned cash you realise you've been had. 

Most of us don't believe it for a moment because – it's crazy for a start – it's over the top – and because – well – we've heard it once too often.  It's lost its power to compel our belief.  On the other hand – some people do fall for it, to their detriment some people believe it and act on it – because – well, wouldn't it be wonderful if? What couldn't I do with $20 million or so? One very wise person once said to me, 'the best way to be believed is to tell people what they want to hear'.  But even then, our credulity only stretches so far.

Well, we've just looked in on the story of Abraham and Sarah, the founding mother and father of Israel, and indeed of our own Christian faith as well as the faith of Islam.  The parents of the three great world faiths that represent about two thirds of all people now living so, indeed, the spiritual ancestors of a multitude unthinkable in the context of the nomadic peoples of the ancient Near East.  And the bit we just read comes in at an important point of the story, the improbable-sounding promise to the 99 year old Abraham and his 90 year old wife of descendants more numerous than the stars – a rather vital problem standing in the way of God's promise that has been repeated over and over since it was first announced to Abraham back in chapter 15 is that this couple are ancient.  As the writer discreetly words it Sarah has long since ceased 'being in the way of women' – and for her own part Sarah wonders how capable her husband might be at his great age.

Abraham – or Abram as he then was – the difference seems to be that God changes his name from 'great father' to 'father of multitudes' – Abram is nothing if not pragmatic from the start.  The first time God suggests getting ready for the patter of little feet Abram helpfully suggests he could adopt one of his young slaves, Eliazar of Damascus.  That's a practical way we could work it out, surely?  You see Abram wants to trust God's outlandish promises that form God's side of the covenant, or treaty.  Abram offers God his loyalty in exactly the same way an ancient warlord offers to serve a powerful king as a vassal – promises and dire threats underlie the mysterious night-time ritual in chapter 15.  No, says God.  Eliazar the slave won't be your heir, your heir will be your own son.  And he leads Abram outside and shows him the stars and says, 'that's how numerous your descendants will be!', and God commands Abram to take some animals – the precious goods of a nomad herder – and cut their bodies in two – one pile for Abram and one for God – and as God repeats his promises a flaming torch passes between the divided carcasses.  Bible scholars tell us this is exactly the sort of ritual that was used at the time to bind a covenant between rival nations.  God and Abram are bound to each other by promises that are absolute and unbreakable – and Abram seriously wants to work with God on this.

Then in chapter 16, Sarai – not getting any younger and getting tired of the long and apparently futile wait – suggests another way to make God's promises come true.  This time it is her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, who Sarai decides can serve as a surrogate mother and give the family the child that God has promised but doesn't seem to be delivering.  The result is disaster.  Hagar gives birth to a son – to Ishmael – and predictably enough begins to look down on her childless mistress.  The furious Sarai – forgetting perhaps that she had got what she actually wanted – demands that Hagar be thrown out into the desert with her son to die of thirst.  Abram – also forgetting that he had decided Ishmael was the son of God's promise – callously goes along with the plan.  'Your slave girl is in your power', he tells his wife.  'Do to her as you please'.  Not a very flattering picture of the great father and mother of our faith.  Fortunately God has other ideas and other plans for Ishmael and Hagar.

And in chapter 17, where we come in today, God is still promising.  Abram falls on his face in a way that a vassal warlord would do before his king.  Certainly the covenant with God has brought him great power, but maybe he is past believing in the promise of an heir.  Neither of Abram's own attempts to make God's promises come true have worked out, and seriously at almost a hundred years old, for God to keep promising what is clearly impossible sounds like a hollow mockery.  But God is still going on at great length, changing Abram's name to reinforce the promise of whole nations-full of descendants.  Sarai's name is also changed, maybe to imply that all of this is about to happen soon.  But in the last verse of our reading Abraham again falls on his face – this time for a different reason because it all seems just too comic.  Abraham this time falls over laughing and muttering to himself about how ridiculous it all is.  The Hebrew word for this is the key – Abraham yitzhaks to himself, and God says, in the very next verse, 'oh yeah?  Well you're going to have a son whether you believe it or not, so you might as well call him that.  Call him Yitzhak ­– Isaac – call him 'laughter'.  Which means of course that God gets the joke!

As the writer of Genesis puts in in the next chapter – and as the angel echoes to Mary of Nazareth hundreds of years later – 'nothing is impossible with God'.

But what has this got to do with us – and in Lent?  Is it just a test of our ability to actually believe this comic and impossible story at a literal level?  Or does it say something about our own willingness to believe in and to work for God's promises - to us?

For a start it reminds us that our own attempts to work out our own course – our attempts to second-guess God's intentions for us – all too often lead to dead ends and various kinds of disaster.  We get it wrong about as often as we get it right.  And it reminds us – that when we do put our plans ahead of God's there is generally a human cost.  Without God's help the children of our best-laid plans get pushed out into the desert.  When we think we know best, all too often we end up cynical and distrustful and locked into patterns of opposition.  Without God's help, our life as Christians and our life as a parish can become self-serving and inward-looking.

What the story doesn't recommend, however, is a life of faith that is passive and inactive.  As people of faith – as children of the promise – Abraham's future unfolds through us and beyond.  We inherit God's promise to Abraham of a future that extends through us to generations unborn, we inherit Jesus' promise that wherever we faithfully live and proclaim the gospel that he will be there with us and that men and women will be drawn to hear and experience the good news.  We believe the over the top, impossible-sounding promise that the Church is the first instalment on the new creation.  And we are called to work faithfully toward that, with integrity and creativity and imagination.  We are called to reflect on God's promises and God's intention for us as a Church and a parish, to dream dreams and make plans and commit ourselves to the hard work of building the community of God's people.  To imagine what God's promises might look like in the 21st century and how we can best utilise the resources we have been given to make of this place, for example, something life-giving and filled with activity and laughter to which men and women and children will be drawn and where they will see the word of God put into practice.

I don't think the point of the story is that Abram and Sarai shouldn't have tried to imagine and put God's promises into action.  Like them, we make some memorable mistakes.  Like them, some of our mistakes lead to dissension and conflict and have a human cost.  The whole point, it seems to me, is that when we hear God's extravagant, impossible promises, is absolutely not to play it safe and do nothing – but to believe actively in the promises because we trust the One who is promising.  Active faith risks something – it risks exposing our own shortcomings, our faults and foibles – we do risk finding ourselves, from time to time, serving not God's ends but our own.  Active faith goes hand in hand with repentance, the necessary practise of reflection and acknowledging the truth about ourselves and correcting our course.  Active faith – the faith of Abram and Sarai – means to actively discern – to think and pray and reflect together on what we think we hear about what God is promising and where God is leading.  And to actively work for the fulfilment of God's promises, trusting not in our own rightness but in the rightness of the One who promises to guide us.

The point, then, is that as individual Christians we need to test our hearing of God's promises against the wisdom of community and the wisdom of the past.  Does what we hear God calling us to lead to life for those around us, are the promises we think we hear congruent with how God has acted in the past? As we reflect together, for example, on the challenges and opportunities that the development of our parish property seems to offer, we listen for echoes of the way in which God guided our mothers and fathers in faith, for the unfolding of God's loving guidance in new circumstances.  And remember the gift of laughter!