Friday, March 29, 2013

Easter Day

So the women came running in with a story that Jesus was risen.

Admittedly, the story must have been a bit garbled.  It's not that they've seen him, they've seen, more to the point, where he isn't.  The stone rolled away – more, I imagine, to allow the women to see the evidence of where Jesus wasn't, than as a means of exit for the Risen One himself who, as the following days will reveal, has become remarkably good at sudden entrances and exits.  They've seen where Jesus isn't – the empty tomb which all four gospels emphasise as the ground zero of resurrection faith.  Something has happened here.

They've seen where Jesus isn't, and they've heard some startling news.  Two messengers in white, Luke wants us to notice, probably because in the law of the land at the time, two witnesses make a case.   

But the apostles, the ones on whom it all depends now, the founding fathers of our faith, won't have a bar of it.  Hysterical nonsense, wishful thinking.

There's a tension, isn't there, between hope and realism?  No doubt, here, the disciples are being realistic.  They've seen the evidence, though like many modern Christians they slept through the agony in the garden and made themselves scarce during the agony on the cross, they know Jesus is as dead as a door-nail.  No point holding onto a dream once it's been punctured.  It was good while it lasted, the heady days of walking and dreaming in Galilee, the mind-twisting tales of widows and shepherds and landowners, the idealistic stories about God's kingdom in which beggars are lifted up and rich folk turned away, the meals with simple folk, the arguments with cunning priests and lawyers, the luminous moments of healing and forgiveness.  But when a dream's gone, you still need to get up the next day and earn a living.  Realists take the world as it is and try to work out how to manage it.

Hope begs to differ.  Hope puts the dream first, and wonders how reality can be changed to make it happen.  Hope leaps at possibilities and puts two and two together to make five.  What if it just could be true?  Hope hangs around even during the shattering hours of Thursday and Friday, and wonders at the ability of divine love to absorb human suffering and cynicism and failure – and to transform it into forgiveness and future possibility.  You needed to have been there.

Realism interrupts again to suggest it might just be a metaphor, a holy paradigm for imagining the possibility of success after failure, for imagining restoration after disgrace – and it's true.  The resurrection of Jesus is a mighty metaphor – but it needs to be a whole lot more than that if it's to have any traction.  Because it's a metaphor etched in the flesh and blood of Jesus' vulnerable humanity, and ours.  As St Paul puts it, if our hope in the resurrection of Christ is just a fancy myth, then we of all people are the most deluded and the most to be pitied. [1] On this point we can agree with Richard Dawkins.

So, why Jesus, in the first place?  Why this human figure, in this time and place, this particular young man who loved to eat and drink, who loved telling stories, who was moved by human suffering and tenderness?  Why didn't God just inspire a few more prophets write a few more books of the Old Testament to tell what God was like, to tell about God's outrageously indiscriminate forgiveness and love?  It's because we are human, because the only real way we have of learning about the really important stuff like compassion and tenderness is by experiencing it in our bodies, in the physicality of the lives we share with one another.  The Hebrew Bible knows this very well, in Hebrew there's no way of separating emotion or spirituality from embodied experience.  We can only really learn what God is like by encountering the one who shows us God's nature in human flesh and blood.

And that's why, if you want to grasp the wild straw of hope that the empty tomb and the two scary men dressed in dazzling white send rushing through you – hope isn't hope if it's just a metaphor.  Too much of who we are is experienced at the level of our bodies, too much of what is really important in our relationships with one another is earthy and physical.  Hope this visceral and this wild needs to be grounded in the physical, in the realm of lived experience.  Or it isn't hope at all.

What's really happening, here?  For a start, this is utterly consistent with the extravagant and slightly ridiculous God of the parables and deeds of Jesus. Again and again we are confronted with a generous, 'over-the-top' God.  A God who doesn't know when to stop, when enough is enough, when things are beyond hope.  A God who hasn't read our textbooks on psychology or medicine or even physics, and insists on breaking the rules.

If the Gospel story has been telling us anything, it's this: Get ready for a God who does the unexpected and the ultra-extravagant thing. Don't try to confine God to our little human notions of what seems like common sense; break out from what seems reasonable. God is unreasonably extravagant, gloriously unpredictable. The holy, saving nonsense of God is mightily at work at Easter!  The more we are prepared to follow Jesus down to the wire in the heartbreak of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the more we get this.

This is the heart of the Easter message. Unpredictable and prodigious and over the top.  Gloriously impossible, and so what?  Now is Christ raised from death, the first fruits of the harvest of the dead.

It's OK not to be too sure about how all this works.  It's OK to notice, in fact, vital to notice, as St Paul does, that the resurrection body must be wildly different from the sort of bodies we have here and now, that resurrection isn't just the resuscitation of Jesus' wounded and broken body but transformation into an entirely new kind of life – in fact the evidence for resurrection is not really the empty tomb or even the shadowy and not-very realistic gospel accounts of the post-Easter appearances – the real evidence for the resurrection is the transfiguration of Jesus' stunned and traumatised followers, the visceral experience of transformation by those who even today dare to report that they have encountered the risen Christ.

So, what does it mean?  It's the triumph of hope over realism.  The assertion that right here and now, God's logic and God's way of doing things has broken into human history.  The logic of hope that says God intends God's creation not for death, but for life.  The already but still-waiting-for-it triumph of self-giving love over despair, the issuing of a blank cheque that just needs us to countersign it, to cash it in and bring it into the here and now.  See what I'm saying?  Resurrection is the announcement that love and life and hope are more powerful than selfishness and death and cynicism – on the basis that you and I live it into concrete reality.

So, what does it really mean?  You hardly need me to tell you, you can look around and see for yourself the bad news of realism in the world we live in.  Does it actually look to you as though death and despair are on the way out?  The dreary bad news we've got so used to living with that we almost accept it – global conflict spurred by religious fundamentalism and competition for resources – the misery of a global refugee population measured in the tens of millions - the AIDS pandemic that threatens the future of an entire continent – global warming, loss of arable lands and shrinking water resources that threaten the poorest of the world's poor – loss of biodiversity and mass extinctions – where's the good news?   

The good news is that we're resurrection people.  The good news is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ teaches us to face the future with hope, that God can and does reach into the deepest well of despair to draw out of it new life, new directions, new and transformed ways of living.  That doesn't absolve us from responsibility or from the practice of forgiveness and peace in our own lives.  It doesn't make it easy.  But it does mean that we can place the future in God's hands, that we can live in the expectation of being surprised, it means that we can and we must take our part in healing and caring for our community and our environment – as God's people we need to take seriously our responsibility for caring for God's creation.  Imagine a future in which God's creation knows the shalom imagined by the prophet Isaiah! [2]  As resurrection people we need to take seriously the failures of the Church in addressing evils such as child sexual abuse, and creatively work towards a future in which our life together will nurture and protect the most vulnerable.  As resurrection people we can acknowledge and grieve the brokenness and limitations of our own relationships – acknowledge the destructive patterns of hurt and blame that we sometimes feel powerless to break out of – and commit ourselves to taking seriously the power of forgiveness and compassion and love to really work a difference in our lives.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is stunning.  It changes everything.  I don't know why we don't talk about it all the time – in fact, let's!  Because it's a down payment – God is saying to each one of us – this is how much I love you – this is what I intend for you.  God doesn't do resurrection as a party trick – it's not rabbit-out-of-the-hat stuff just to impress us or just to prove that Jesus really was who he said he was – it's a down payment – it's the first instalment of what God intends for every one of us.

Let's live as though we believe it.

[1] 1 Cor 15.13

[2] Isa 11.6ff

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Good Friday

One of the points of detail that sets St John's gospel apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke, is the question of the timing of Jesus' death.  In the time-line of the three so-called Synoptic gospels Jesus dies on the Day of the Passover, the day that Jews remember how God miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and that means the final meal that Jesus ate with his disciples the evening before was the Passover meal.  That makes a certain sense, theologically. 

In St John's version of the story, that we read this morning, the timing is a bit different.  Jesus is crucified the day before the Passover, still on Friday but the Day of Preparation – so in John's timeline Jesus dies on the cross at about the same time as the priests in the temple would have been slaughtering the lambs in preparation for the Passover meal, and the Passover observance itself would have begun that evening around the same time that Jesus' body is being laid in the garden tomb.  St John's timing also makes sense, theologically, because it reminds us that for us Christians the Passover event has become our Lord's Passover from death to life, the long Passover night that begins with the eclipse of the sun when Jesus' spirit departs, and concludes with the dawn of Easter morning.

That most pregnant pause of all, as Jesus' lifeless body lies in the tomb, his shocked disciples in hiding, appalled at the enormity of their own betrayal – the night they thought they'd never see, then the longest day that isn't really a day at all, and another night, turning over in their minds the hard questions – what did it all mean?  What was the point?

One of the most hideous methods of execution ever invented, crucifixion was specifically designed by the Romans – who else? - to prolong the victim's death while inflicting the greatest possible amount of pain.  Since this was a form of execution reserved for enemies of the state, for resistance fighters and terrorists – for anyone, that is, who opposed the Roman occupation – the idea was to quash the very thought of rebellion by ensuring that anyone unlucky enough even to witness such an event would be appalled and terrified.  The Roman philosopher, Seneca, writes that without exception, criminals being nailed to the cross would writhe in agony, scream incoherently and curse in the foulest language. And yet, the Gospels record in Jesus' seven last utterances on the cross the epitome of love and the essence of Jesus' life and teaching.

As Jesus' executioners nail his hands and feet to the cross, he prays.  As his body is being torn apart by the first shock of the nails – archaeological evidence confirms the opinion of medical experts that for the weight of the body to be supported the nails would need to be driven not through the fleshy parts of the hands and feet but through the bones of the wrists and ankles – in this moment of incomprehensible pain some part of Jesus' being cannot be distracted from the intimate relation from the one he has always known as Father.  The first word that escapes his lips is not a curse – God! - but an echo of the prayer he taught his disciples to pray – Father, forgive them because they don't know what they are doing.  In the whole of the Bible, I don't think there is another example of such forgiving love.  I wonder who Jesus is including in his prayer?  Those crucifying him, those whose own humanity has been so degraded and diminished by their brutalising acts, certainly.  And his disciples who fled in terror, who would right now be levelling at themselves such loathing and self-recrimination?  Perhaps them, too.  And those standing at the foot of the cross, those numb with helpless grief?  Maybe them, as well.  But, what about us? Do we really know the moral dimensions of our own actions?  Aren't we also, all too often, oblivious to the pain we dish out?  What ancient memory of turning aside from human suffering or need do you find in yourself, what submerged shame within you echoes at these words of Jesus: Forgive them Father, they don't know what they are doing?

Jesus is crucified between two brigands, the Greek word, lestoi, suggests they might be resistance fighters or terrorists, men who have lived violently and who surely expected to die violently.  Like gang members everywhere they are ambivalent in the face of Jesus' totally impractical refusal to hate.  Today, you will be with me in paradise.  You, with all your burden of compromise, your ideals sold out, the hard realities you have lived and the questionable acts you have committed, the self-serving deals you have made, your hard-bitten refusal to believe in fairytale promises of God's kingdom.  You will be with me in paradise, today.

Jesus dies as he has lived, in context, in a tangle of relationships like ours, the ones that define us as sons and daughters, friends, neighbours, competitors, customers, employees, employers.  Theologians call it the scandal of particularity, the obstinate fact of Jesus' physical existence at a particular time and a particular place, maybe with red hair and cracked heels, maybe loving Mary Magdalene, maybe with an infectious laugh and just a bit too fond of red wine.  Or, maybe not.  But, certainly, with a mother, with brothers, with friends.  Mother, look – your son.  Look, man – your mother.  Jesus comes to us in the context of who we are, right in the heart of our own community, and gives us the gift of one another.  Who is it for you?  Who is it that you will look at today, and see Jesus?

From the first, Jesus has understood that who he is, comes out of his relationship with the one he calls his Father.  From the very first, Jesus has known his Father's love as a constant fact of life, surrounding him like the air that he breathes.  He has lived his whole life in obedience to the call of this love, and it has led him from the obscurity of a Galilean village through times of popularity, excitement and the unreal expectations of others, into the dangerous waters of intrigue, the political and religious factionalism of Jerusalem, to midnight arrest and torture and agonising death.  How do you keep trusting God when everything that was fresh and green and full of life turns into dust?  This is a real question for us, isn't it?  When the promises evaporate and God himself is absent?  Jesus cries out to the God who isn't there, the God who has always been faithful not only in his own life but in the history of God's people, in the words of the psalm, My God – why have you abandoned me?  A cry of dereliction to the God in whom Jesus still trusts, still hopes.  When has your need for God been so extreme that you can only rage at the God who isn't there?  And how has God answered you in the silence that follows?

Jesus is human.  We forget that, sometimes, when we emphasise so much Jesus' oneness with God.  What you go through, Jesus also goes through.  The suffering of men and women and children in the AIDS holocaust of Africa, the fearful shelling of Gaza, the shock of car bomb victims in Kabul or Baghdad, this suffering is God's suffering.  I thirst.  Human beings who lose a lot of blood go mad with thirst.  Survivors of the madness of trench warfare in World War I recalled the most piteous sound was the crying of dying men in no-man's land, calling out for water.  In his suffering, Jesus is united with the most basic needs, and the most pitiful condition of human beings anywhere.  United with our suffering, and with the suffering of the world.  What human suffering do you hold up to God today, what human suffering do you name today as the suffering of our Lord?

The Passover victim has been sacrificed, the impossible conjunction of love and suffering, of divine goodness and human darkness has been accomplished.  It is finished.  We presume too much if we attempt an explanation of how Jesus' death reconciles us to one another and to God.  Today is not a good day for explanations, not a good day for assuring one another tritely that Jesus' death is part of God's plan – but a day for hearing the echoes of these last words of Jesus in our own lives.  The Day of Preparation has been completed and the Passover of our Lord has begun.  Jesus has announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God. In his dying, as in his living, he has revealed the love and grace of God.  What is accomplished on the cross is our salvation.  What is begun in us by God's grace, on the other hand, is not yet finished – but by what Jesus has finished on the cross might we ourselves have the hope of living into who we most truly are?

Nothing remains but to commend his life into the care of the one whom he has always known as faithful.  We sometimes make the mistake, I think, of focusing too much on the suffering of Jesus and not contemplating sufficiently what it means that the one whom we call the very Word of God, the one without whom – as St John's Gospel puts it – not one thing was made that was made – the one in whom, in other words, we see the ground of all created being – is put to death through human violence.  Medieval theologians, meditating on the death of love and life itself, concluded that as Jesus spirit slips away from him the whole of creation pauses.  Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  Jesus relinquishes his life trusting in God's loving purposes.  His death is real – not divine let's-pretend – creation unravels, the sun itself is extinguished, and we wait, even though we have read this story before, and we know what happens next.  What dies in us, when God's Word falls silent – or what has already died in us, that such a thing is possible?  What reconciliation is needed, what Word can undo our own complicity and moral compromise, our lack of forgiveness and trickiness and cynicism, the ways in which we foreclose on the future and deal in death? – what Word can restore us to life?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Palm Sunday

Today, believe it or not, is one of the two feast days of the medieval Church devoted to donkeys. You might already know this because I've preached before about some of the weirder liturgical festivals of the medieval Church.  But the first one is the official Feast of Asses, on or about January 1st, which has for its hero the donkey that the Holy Family escaped to Egypt on.  And as I've mentioned before, the Feast of Asses was the beginning of a whole season of mayhem and merriment in the Church, with donkeys being ridden up the aisle of the church and children dressed up as bishops while the real bishops scowled in the back pews somewhere or other – a season of misrule that lasted right up to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  When of course we have to get down to the serious business of Lent.  But the other celebration of all things donkey is today, Palm Sunday, when we notice that this funny, humble little animal has got a cross on its back.  In a real sense it's these two donkeys, silent beasts of burden, that frame Jesus' earthly life.

For some reason, we think of donkeys as funny.  If you call somebody an ass, not only does it mean they are not particularly bright, but they are also comic – maybe tragically comic.  And certainly Jesus looks a bit comic – comic and vulnerable, maybe even tragic – riding into town this morning on a borrowed donkey.  Back in the 1970s when I first got a bit involved in student politics I discovered the importance of street theatre and clowning as effective ways of making a point – engaging people's attention, even giving them a laugh at the same time as slipping in a bit of biting political satire.  As you might have heard me comment before, I think this is what Jesus is doing in his procession into Jerusalem on the first day of his final week, riding into town like a clown on a donkey – the humble, peaceful beast of burden used by peasants – in parody of the military procession happening on the other side of the city as the Roman governor Pilate rides into Jerusalem on a war-horse at the head of a column of infantry.

But when you think about it, the image of Jesus procession into Jerusalem as satire, or political clowning, makes a lot of sense.  Because he consistently used paradox and apparent contradiction to wake people up.  Much of what he said and did during his life seems pretty foolish by regular standards.  He told some crazy stories and said some pretty outlandish things.  Stories like the farmer who deliberately goes out and plants a field of noxious weeds - and he tells us God's kingdom is like that.  Outlandish claims like unless you hear the good news with the credulity of a child then you're going to miss the point, like the claim that the poor are lifted up and the rich miss out, or that if you want to be first in God's eyes then you have to live as the servant of everyone else.  Upside down stuff, foolish stuff, and he acted in ways that anybody could tell you were a recipe for disaster in the real world.  Like allowing a woman with a shady reputation to give him an extravagant foot-rub at a respectable party.  Like hanging around not with righteous folk, not with people who had any influence, but with nobodies and social pariahs, with lepers and prostitutes.  Upside down stuff that comes from loving indiscriminately, from not being strategic, from following your heart when everybody around you is following their head.  And he tells us God's kingdom is like that.  It never was going to end well.

And so on this other Feast of Asses we read a strange story of Jesus on his hobby-horse, sitting on the foal of a donkey with both his feet scraping the ground, riding into Jerusalem like a king while his disciples dance and cheer and roll out the red carpet for him.  Except, I bet it never would have made the next morning's edition of the Jerusalem Post, not the way Luke tells it, anyhow.  Matthew tells it differently, it's in Matthew's gospel that the whole city is buzzing with excitement because Jesus is coming to town, and it's in Matthew's version that we get the Hosannas and the palm branches.  None of that in Luke's version of the story.  Luke, I think, fits better with the notion of a solitary fool on a donkey riding up the nave of a cathedral.

Course, I can't say which gospel account is closer to how it actually happened – both Luke and Matthew are writing their gospels years after the event and both of them have got their reasons for putting a different spin on it – but this year it's Luke's turn to tell the story and I think there's something to be said for following it through the way he tells it, and seeing where it leads us.

No palms.  That tells us something significant.  Because waving palm branches is what you do for a triumphant military leader, that's what the people did do for Judas Maccabeus, the great Jewish resistance fighter a hundred years before Jesus when he led a brilliant campaign and threw the Greeks out of Jerusalem.  A hundred years later, the people could have used another Judas Maccabeus, a warrior Messiah, but they didn't get one in Jesus, that's for sure.  So, no palms.

No crowds either.  In Matthew the whole city is ablaze with excitement.  In Luke, it's just the disciples yelling and prancing about.  Luke says it's a multitude of disciples but, well, there's the inner circle, the 12, and a few others like blind Bartimaeus who finds he can see again and follows Jesus, there are some women like the three Marys, maybe Zacchaeus now that he's given away all his money and probably lost his job as well, and let's say a few dozen more who've realised that in Jesus they've come across something life-changing - but that's about it.  Maybe a multitude like we get at St Michaels on a good Sunday, but not the whole city ablaze with excitement, no crowds and nobody else there at all except the disciples and a few grumpy Pharisees telling them to shut up.

And Jesus is riding a donkey.  Just a little one, according to Luke, and it's not even his.  A borrowed one.  We're really meant, I think, to notice the donkey, Jesus seems to be riding into the city like a conquering warlord or a king except that he hasn't got the right vehicle.  No warhorse, just a hobby-horse.

No cheerleaders, no crowds of expectant locals, just a ragtag bunch of ex-lepers, ex-fishermen and prostitutes and fools.  Course there were a few normal folk – a few academics, one or two Pharisees like timid Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who thought that Jesus had got it just about right, but most of the ones who knew that Jesus' take on the love of God was not just right but mind-blowingly life-changing – most of them were the poor and the marginalised and the sinful men and women Jesus had bumped into along the way.  King of the ragamuffins on a donkey, a humble beast of burden, borrowed for the day.

But Luke adds an extra detail, and it's this.  The disciples are yelling, 'blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord' – that's the standard greeting for a Passover pilgrim except that they call him a king – and then an echo of the song of the heavenly host that greets Jesus' birth - 'peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!' – no crowds shouting hallelujah, just the disciples leaping and shouting, in Luke's version - and in the very next verse the mood changes because Jesus weeps over the city that actually hasn't greeted him at all, that actually hasn't heard a word he's said, and as events over the next few days will prove, has rejected outright his radical message of God's indiscriminate forgiveness and love.  'If only', this is more or less what Jesus says here, 'if only you could have recognised what peace is really about'.

Do you know what the name of the city means?  Jerusalem – the 'salem' bit is a Canaanite word, a variation of shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, and it means a bit more than our English word, it means wholeness and wellness and right relationship. The Hebrew word shalom means living together in harmony, which is why Jewish people use it even today as a greeting.  The point is, here, that Jesus has come to the city of peace with a message of peace, a message of compassionate love that turns the structures of inequality and privilege on their heads, and he says, 'that's what God's like', and the city says back: 'no way – shut up or you'll be in big trouble'. 

You ride into town in a jester's suit, sitting on a hobby-horse and telling folks, turn yourselves upside down and inside out.  Love the silliest and the least, do good to those who hate you, give away whatever it is you think makes you special, it's when you've got nothing at all that you can count yourself lucky because then you're in the right frame of mind to rely on God.  The Feast of the Asses.  No wonder nobody listened, and he ended up less than a week later, nailed to a Roman cross.

But, what about us?  What are we going to do with this fool who looks like a cheap imitation king on a donkey?  Because, make no bones about it, when Jesus rides into town on his hobby-horse there's a challenge for the locals.  Do you get it?  Have you got the point and if you have, are you game enough to actually live like this?  You see - let's not kid ourselves - there's a cost in living and loving as wastefully and indiscriminately as Jesus does.  There's a promise, too, and it's the promise of life that's fuller and more generous and more authentic, the promise of life that's so bursting at the seams it can't be stopped even by death itself – but we're not there yet.  We haven't got to that part of the story yet.  We're still talking about the cost of living and loving authentically.

So, what about us?  Are we game to follow this fool for a single week?  It's going to be a long week, a rollercoaster week - but a week, I promise you, that if you pay attention, is going to change your life.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Mothering Sunday (Lent 4)

Two days ago – Friday – was International Women's Day.  It is a day when the work and the hope and dreams of women are celebrated, when acknowledgement is made of the gains that have been made in our society toward equality between men and women, when we celebrate the leadership and the achievements of women and honour those who have worked to remove discrimination against women in the workplace – when we acknowledge the ways in which, still, the experience and contribution of women is undervalued and life opportunities are restricted by gender.  Even in our own lucky country, for example indigenous women, in particular, face reduced opportunities in education and employment, and suffer levels of domestic violence of which we as a nation should be ashamed.  But I was particularly interested, last week, in two commentaries – one an article by an Australian woman who pointed out that Western feminists have largely passed over in silence the hardships faced by Muslim girls and women, for whom equal rights should include the right to go to school without being attacked, or the right to vote or to speak out against injustice or to be politically active - or just to earn a living and raise a family -without being beaten up or raped by thugs who want to deny women these basic human rights.  Feminism in the West, this writer argued, has become more interested in boutique issues faced by women in countries where equality, for the most part, is largely assured.  The other commentary that caught my attention last week was an interview with two Afghan women, workers for peace in one of the most dangerous places on earth.  They spoke of the reality, in this country where women have little direct power, authority or influence, that many households in rural areas are headed by women, that women's ingenuity overcomes lack of education and the difficulties they face when they try to find work outside the home, that women are becoming skilled in micro-business as well as in local politics, and are increasingly becoming powerful advocates for peace.  They spoke from first-hand experience of violence against women who dare to speak publically – and insisted that the best chance for peace in their country is the solidarity and the leadership – of women.

Today, of course, is Mothering Sunday – the day in the calendar of the English Church that got started from the fairly questionable practice, in the 18th century, of giving domestic servants a single Sunday off, once a year, to visit their families.  They visited their mums – they went to church back home in their own villages – for many it was an opportunity to attend the cathedral church.  And the practice grew of giving flowers and simnel cakes to mothers, of celebrating motherhood – and in the Church, listening to sermons expounding the example of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, as a model of pious and self-sacrificing love.  It's always struck me, that if we want to continue this tradition in the modern world, then we can do so in one of two ways.  The saccharine and sentimental way, we can idealise motherhood and tread some well-worn ground in commending the virtues of family life, remembering our mothers or remembering that we are mothers, to the accompaniment of a warm inner glow – or as well as giving simple thanks for the love and self-sacrifice of mothers, we can remember that Mothering Sunday is historically grounded in inequality and the denial of opportunity to women.  We can think seriously about the motherhood of God.  We can acknowledge the suffering of women today, in our own world.  And we can ask how our readings for Mothering Sunday point to a feminine perspective on justice and peace and spirituality.

You just know which way I'm going to go, don't you?

The Exodus reading, the birth of Moses, a love story set in a time of terror, so wonderfully interwoven with contradictions – is quite simply a story that tells us that God's love is like the love of women.  You know, the ancient world was powerfully patriarchal.  Women were little better than goods and chattels, most of the time, and the Hebrew Bible reflects this.  It's history told from a male perspective – which doesn't of course mean that women didn't have a hand in it, but their stories are not often or clearly told.  Except here.  The story starts with racism and xenophobia, and the fear of the Egyptian ruling class that the immigrant Jewish underclass are growing, becoming too powerful.  We can read this, of course, against the chilling backdrop of anti-Semitism in the century of our own birth.  So Pharaoh introduces the final solution, infanticide, the murder of all new-born Jewish male babies.  But the genocidal solution unravels because of the subversive, creative, and even humorous intervention of women.

We don't come in right from the start, more's the pity.  The first two heroines are the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah – the first name means a woman of Israel, the second means brilliant, or shining.  Clever Israeli women, in other words.  They let the boys live, then tell Pharaoh the Hebrew women are too vigorous and give birth quickly, out in the fields, before the midwives even arrive.  So Pharaoh says OK, then you have to throw the baby boys into the Nile – he wants to see results, proof of death.  And this time he is again subverted, thwarted by three women, one his own daughter.  You know the story, you just heard it – technically, the baby's mother complies, Moses is in fact cast adrift into the Nile.

But the point is this – the women's interests should have been opposed, they are supposed to be enemies, but they are all on the side of life.  Actually, this story is the opposite of the one about Solomon, who adjudicated between two sisters who disputed which one was the mother.  The one who isn't the mother, is the one who chooses death.  Here the Egyptian and Hebrew women all choose compromise, and life.  Through the subterfuge of the little girl, Moses' sister, the baby's real mother becomes his wet-nurse and then the daughter of Pharaoh adopts him.  Notice God isn't mentioned in this story?  Because the priorities and the purposes of God are revealed in the small, powerful acts of love, the flexible intelligence and the solidarity of women who discern better than the great and powerful what is important and what isn't.  And so Moses, the great leader of the people of Israel, grows up with an Egyptian royal name, Moshe, which might sound like but is not related to the Hebrew word, masha, to draw – an Egyptian royal name for a prince of Egypt drawn from the waters of the Nile, who later will draw the people of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea into freedom and life.

And so to the Gospel, to the reading from St Luke for the fourth Sunday in Lent, the story of two brothers, one faithful, the other faithless – and a father who loves foolishly.  It's a shame we know the story of the Prodigal Son so well, because when we hear it read yet again we tend to tune out.  'Yes, I know this story'.   But it's jam-packed, we can reflect at length on the two sons who each, in their own way, represent us.  The faithless one whose repentance, coming as it does after every other practical alternative has been exhausted, appears just a bit opportunistic.  How often do we only get around to saying sorry when we are forced to it?  The 'good' brother who harbours resentment, the passive-aggressive one.  The patron saint of all who have spent their lives doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, who can't love because they don't feel appreciated.  But today we are not thinking about either of these.  When I studied this passage at university, during my theology degree, one of the women in the class posed a question: 'Where's the mother in this story?', she asked. And straight away I realised what it was about the story of the forgiving father that had always nagged at me.

Where's the mother?  The one who says to the returning ratbag son, 'darling, shoosh', who gives him a hug and a kiss, the one who says 'have you brought your dirty laundry? Here, have a bath, put these clean clothes on and I'll cook your favourite dinner'.  In the patriarchal thought-world of the New Testament, the story had to be told with a father as the main character, but he's acting like mum, isn't he?  This is a feminine image of God, it is a maternal image.

Maybe I'm being a bit flippant, but I'm not peddling in stereotypes.  I'm certainly not suggesting that the domestic sphere only belongs to women, and I'm not denigrating dads who kiss their grown sons and worry about clean clothes and dinner.  But here's the point.  That the domestic sphere, the sphere of life where we have hot baths and share roast dinners, the sphere of life that is about kisses and cuddles and grazed knees and saying sorry – that is where practical reconciliation happens, and that is where we learn about justice and spirituality.  Historically, the public sphere of business and competition and war was the male domain, the domestic sphere of hearth and table was the female world.  Ideas were male, bodies were female.  And the so-called female domain was second-rate, the physical and the sensual, the domestic – in the history of Western civilisation this has generally been regarded as suspect and seductive, and to be female was regarded, more or less, as a sin waiting to happen.  If you think I'm exaggerating – not much.  This, thankfully, is receding in the postmodern world of the 21st century, the old dualism of mind versus body, male versus female, is being overtaken by a more holistic view of life, and that is a good thing.  And we have become ready to read in stories like the story of the forgiving parent, that God is like that.  That God's forgiving love is revealed and experienced in the small and the domestic and in the everyday physicalities of life.  If women's work is relationships and laundry and making sure everyone gets fed – then that's what God is like.

Where's the mother? The mother is where practical concern out-trumps ideology and injured pride, where love and putting dinner on the table and getting the kids to school has got the power to defeat the politics of hatred.  As a Chinese proverb says, 'women hold up half the sky'.  And just as well.


Saturday, March 02, 2013

Lent 3

In this election year – both State and Federal – spare a thought for the unfortunate souls who win.  You might be thinking – well, winning is what it's about, your political party wins and you're in power, you get to implement your agenda, enjoy the perks of office, how bad can that be? – except – have you ever looked at the before and after shots?  The fresh-faced pollies beaming as they make their victory speeches compared with the prematurely aged, sober-faced realists they'll become after a term or two in power when they're summarily voted out, bucketed by an ungrateful electorate, their years in office a daily reminder of the impossibility of pleasing any of the people all of the time, let alone all of the people any of the time. No matter how many elections you win, it's ultimately a journey to defeat and disillusionment.  So it seems.

Maybe if you go into politics you need a friend who counsels you right at the start: 'Just remember it's going to end badly.  Hold onto your integrity, be faithful to your ideals, work your 80-hour weeks.  But remember you're going to get dumped.  Half the people hate you already, the other half have got expectations of you that you can never live up to.  Remember that and it won't feel as bad when they turn on you'.

Jesus is on a journey – a journey that you and I know – and he himself has got a pretty good idea - is going to end with his death.  It is a journey that has attracted opposition right from the start, with Herod the Great – the father of Herod Antipas who appears in today's Gospel reading – massacring scores, or hundreds of baby boys in and around Bethlehem in response just to the rumour of the opposition that a rival might bring.  Already in Luke's Gospel, chapter four, when Jesus has returned to his own hometown, his message that God's love and desire for human liberation is perhaps wider than their own cultural and religious concerns has got him driven out of town and almost killed. [1]  Or in chapter seven, when messengers bring Jesus the news of John's arrest and imprisonment, he reacts by reminding them of John's strength of purpose, and his uncompromising habit of telling the truth.  'Well, what did you expect?', he asks them, 'a weak, vacillating man? a reed waving in the wind?' [2]  You might not think that the political parallel really does Jesus justice – many Christians seem to think that Jesus was na├»ve or innocent of the dirty world of politics but that just shows they haven't read the Gospels closely enough.  Jesus is well aware that his message of forgiveness and freedom, that idea that the last shall be first and that those who are comfortable and well off now might find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order, in the world where God's reign is realised – Jesus knows his good news is attracting powerful opposition, and today's Gospel story shows that he is under no illusions about where this is all headed.

There's a saying, isn't there – 'if I just knew the time and place of my own funeral – I wouldn't turn up!'?  Or – 'if I knew then what I knew now – I never would've got involved!'  The logical human thing to do – most of the time – is to take a reality check, to glance ahead, so far as we can, and convince ourselves this is going to work out OK for no. 1.  And if not, well, Plan B looks good.  Except, not always.  Sometimes we do get involved, even when the price tag seems too high, when we actually don't know whether we have the strength, or the courage, even when we know there are going to be tears before bedtime.  And invariably, that is when we are motivated by love – love of others, love for an ideal, or for truth, love of country for example.  And the surprising thing is that when we really are motivated by love, then the resources and the courage for the journey somehow grow in us, and we find companions for the journey in the least likely places.  Lent itself is a journey – a journey in companionship with Jesus, and if we don't expect it to take us to our own deaths, still, it takes us to a place most of us spend most of our time avoiding – a place we have no alternative but to acknowledge the truth about ourselves, a place of honesty about our own compromises and moral shortcuts, the truth that much of our religion and spirituality is self-serving and self-obsessed, the truth of our neglect of the needs of others – Lent leads us into an uncomfortable moral stock-take and the need for confession and repentance.  The logical destination of the journey of Lent, in fact, is death – the realisation that much of what we take for granted about our own lives needs to die, in order that who we really are – who God created us to be – can rise with Jesus on Easter morning.  And actually the only way we are able to undertake such a journey – as opposed to pretending to take the journey of Lent – is if we are motivated by love.

'Just tell that fox, Herod', Jesus snaps to his fair-weather friends, the Pharisees, his favourite sparring partners, who have come to warn him off.  If Herod, for us, represents the naked reality of political power, the collaborator with the Romans, the puppet ruler who senses the threat to his authority and is prepared to use violence to preserve his own position – then the Pharisees represent something more familiar, closer to home.  Jesus talks and argues with the Pharisees, accepts their invitations to dinner – he engages them as conversation partners, as seekers after truth, and in fact much of what Jesus has to say is echoed in the early rabbinic writings of the sect of the Pharisees.  I don't accept the line you hear so often in churches that the Pharisees are all hard-hearted, or insincere, or morally compromised by being too close to the political power of the day – or at least, any more so than we are, you or me, Jesus' favourite 21st century sparring partners.  He eats with us, too, and at the same time exposes the hollowness of our words when they are not matched by our actions.  Like the Pharisees we, also, are just a little bit too fond of being respectable and middle class or at least comfortable, and like them we substitute, more often than we care to admit, the veneer of religiousity for the real thing.  We talk the talk but fail, like them, always to walk the walk, and just like them we too would probably be counselling Jesus at this point to be a bit careful, stop antagonising Herod and go home.  We need to be a little more nuanced in how we read the Pharisees, and possibly even a little more compassionate towards them because, when it comes down to it, they represent the best and the worst of religious people everywhere.

Jesus reminds his followers and hangers-on that he is headed for Jerusalem, and there they can kill him all they want.  You can hear the sarcasm, and you can hear the steel.  He knows what he is about – and in the next words you can also hear the love.  Herod the fox, Jesus' weak co-religionists, the Temple authorities and even the Roman occupation forces – in a sense as we read this we need to recollect that they all represent us, different aspects of us, the different ways in which we use and hide behind political and economic power, the ways in which we use our religion as a mask for our own self-interest, or our weakness as a way of manipulating others – but all these, as scary and powerful or as holy or as practical as they might like to see themselves are in reality just fluffy chickens – lost and frightened and needing a pair of wings to shelter under.  Jesus is using a feminine image, an image of maternal love, to remind us that God's love isn't conditional on us being holy – or even nice – God's love is unconditional, but we do have to know we need it. 

Jerusalem is ground zero.  It represents Israel in a microcosm, where it all comes together.  The Temple, which is the heart of the cult of Israel, the dwelling place of God in the Holy of Holies, but also the centre of an economy based on ritual observance, and the heart of a political system based on patronage.  The centre of the system of cooperation between the Jewish authorities and the Roman occupying army.  Jerusalem is also the intersection between Palestinian Jews and the Jews of the Diaspora – observant Jews who come from all corners of the Empire to sacrifice and worship – the intersection between Israel and the ancient world.  It is a hotbed of barely suppressed violence and discontent, crazy zealots and freedom fighters, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, the seat of barely to be comprehended wealth and privilege.  Jerusalem is the centre of the self-understanding of the people of Israel – this journey will confront the people at the heart of who they think they are – which of course is where the journey of Lent also takes us, if we dare to undertake it.  Jerusalem represents the contradiction and turmoil, the mixture of love and self-doubt and fear that lies at the very centre of us, and that, says Jesus, is where we are headed. 

In the time-line of Luke's Gospel, it's early days yet – but a quick glance at the calendar confirms that for us, the journey of Lent is half gone.  Which route are we taking, this year?  Are we in retreat with our inner Herodians and Pharisees? Or are we heading toward Jerusalem with Jesus, toward that uncomfortable place in us where human moral complexity and divine purpose intersect?

[1] Lk 4.16ff

[2] Lk 7.20ff