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?'