Friday, August 30, 2013

15th Sunday after Pentecost .... before an election

With acknowledgement to Gary Deverell, who provided much of the middle part of this sermon in a sermon written in 2001.  Unfortunately we continue to tread the same ground in Australian politics ...

Every year there is an anniversary which is easy to miss, because the date moves.  Back in 1993, this anniversary fell on 21 October.  In 2003 it had moved a bit earlier in the year to 22 September.  This year I missed it because it fell on 20 August.  Every year it's creeping down the calendar, getting earlier in the year.  It's Earth Overshoot Day, which is the day of the year by which we have used up all that our planet can sustainably produce for the entire year, the day when our use of the world's resource outstrips supply and we go into global overdraft.  After 20 August this year, we are in effect drawing down on resources that can't be replenished.  What this means is that, as of this year, humanity is using up the resources of the Earth at 1½ times the rate the Earth can produce them – we are using up the resources of 1½ planets.  It wasn't always like that – back in the 1960s, for example, human beings were using up only two-thirds of the natural resources that the Earth was producing.  We have forgotten that our planet is finite and vulnerable, and that if we fail to live within its limits and care for it, then we invite disaster.
I was reminded of this fact by the first reading for today, from the prophet Jeremiah who no doubt never heard of global warming or sustainability, but who sees a people who have abandoned the covenant by which they have been commanded to live in life-giving relationship with God, the land and the peoples around them.  And Jeremiah says, in God's voice, 'what have you done? I have brought you into a good land, a fertile land, and you have lived wastefully and selfishly.  You have not recognised the limits that I have given you, you have abandoned justice.  You have set your mind on worthless things, and so you yourselves have become worthless'.
We're hearing a lot about economics these days.  Mostly in terms of black holes, and you'd be forgiven for thinking economics was about arithmetic, and about which side of politics you can trust to do their sums so we don't spend more than we make.  You'd be forgiven for thinking that the economy was about tax and the cost of living and mortgage and interest rates and whether or not you are going to be able to afford that overseas trip if the exchange rate keeps going south – and we forget that actually economics is an older and a richer word entirely, and it is about interdependence and sustainability and justice and care for the vulnerable.
It's a curious thing how words change their meanings. Because economics hasn't always been about the accumulation of private wealth. It hasn't always been about getting rich off the back of someone else's labour. Once upon a time, economics was about the way we shared this planet of ours. It was about the values of equilibrium and care: care of one's neighbour, and care of the land on which we all depend. In fact, the word 'economics' is derived from a Greek word: oikodome, which means 'household', and another Greek word, nomos which means 'rules'. The Greek word, oikonomia, basically means 'the rules of the house'.  In the ancient world, economics was about the way in which a household constructed its life not only for its own ends, but also for the good of the community in which it participated. And in the hands of early Christian thinkers like Paul of Tarsus, oikodome became a powerful symbol of the new life of peace and justice which Christ had come to build in the world. Originally in the Greek version of the Old Testament oikodome means the process of building, in St Paul's writings it comes to mean the building itself, and the growth of the Christian community through God's Spirit where the over-riding concern is to build up the whole community through works of love (see eg. 1 Cor 14.3, Eph 4.12).  Paul corrects the Corinthian slogan of 'looking out for number one' by suggesting that they ask themselves whether their actions protect the most vulnerable and build up the whole community.
The values of God's economy are spelled out for us in the passage we read this morning from Hebrews.  The Hebrews reading says, in various ways, 'don't treat people like commodities, like they are disposable or like they are there for your benefit, because they are daughters and sons of God'.  For Christians, economics or the house rules are not about the accumulation of personal wealth. Or about keeping ourselves safe from the misfortunes that happen to others, but about seeking our own good in and through the good of others.
Of course, the economics of God's commonwealth are seen most clearly in the career of Jesus. In Luke's gospel this morning we read that Jesus goes to the house (the oikos) of a local Jewish leader for a wedding party. And of course it is the Sabbath, the day on which Luke situates most of his really important stories, the day when Jews celebrate and anticipate the shalom of God. For Jesus, the Sabbath provides the perfect symbolic backdrop for confronting the false economics of his own time which was based on a patron/client system of relationships. What this means is that everybody was born to a predetermined station in life, a position in the pecking order, and the only way you can hang on to your spot is to curry favour with someone a bit higher up the ladder. The more favours you do, the more likely you are to find a patron who can look after you and the better your odds of feeding and clothing and housing your family. The most important thing about this system is that it is an economics based on preserving inequality.  And the shocking thing about it is that this is exactly how things work today on a global level.  You don't believe me? Then ask yourself who made the shirt on your back or the shoes on your feet, where in the world they live and how much they were paid.
So what does Jesus think about this system?  Well at first glance, in today's story, he doesn't seem quite consistent.  At first he seems to opt for practical advice for getting ahead in such a system, advice about how to play the game.  'Don't try to take the highest seat, the one you think you should be entitled to', he recommends.  'Sit at the lowest place', says Jesus, 'so that when you are invited to come up higher, everyone can see that you have the favour of an important patron'. Well, there is nothing in this bit that suggests Jesus opposes the system or wants to subvert it. Even St Luke's spin on the story when he reminds us of the virtue of humility doesn't challenge the basic morality or inequality of the system.
But in the second part of the story, the ground shifts. Because Jesus turns to the host and pulls the rug out from under his entire enterprise. 'and you', he says, 'stop inviting people to banquets for what you can get out of them', he says. In the Aussie vernacular we'd say, 'stop sucking up'.  Don't invite potential patrons who can help you get ahead. 'For that matter', says Jesus, 'don't invite potential clients, either, people you expect to scratch your back in exchange for scratching theirs'. 'When you are preparing a banquet,' he says to his host (and can you see how blatantly offensive this would have sounded in such a society?), 'invite only the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.' In other words, invite only the invisible ones, the very dregs who aren't patrons or clients because there's nothing to get out of them one way or another. Why not? Because they could never repay you in a million years.
Do you hear how unheard-of this would have been? Jesus is calling the whole system of patron and client into question. He rejects, utterly, the morality of a system whereby people are valued only insofar as they have something you can get out of them. Only valuable insofar as they can play the game of exploit and be exploited. And he critiques the existing system on the basis of God's system of justice, a radically different system of patronage which gives even the 'untouchable' ones a sacred status as sons and daughters of God.
Well in the light of the second half, the first half of the story starts to make some sense. Because we get to see what kind of humility Jesus is actually recommending. Not the sort of humility that expects a return as part of the exchange of client and patron. Not the sort of humility that actually is motivated by self-interest, but the sort of humility that takes the form of solidarity. The sort of humility that blesses other people because they are created and loved by God, and for no other reason.  And the whole point is that this is the sort of humility that radically transforms the economics by which we operate, from an economics of exchange to an economics of compassion.
Do you get where I'm heading with this? Over the last few weeks both sides of Australian politics, both the major parties, have shown that they are deeply committed to an economics of exchange, and that they know almost nothing about the economics of compassion taught us by Christ.  I mean this seriously.  The disgraceful race to the bottom that we have been having on asylum seekers as both parties try to outbid each other on who can be the hardest and most cruel.  What I suggest is that the reason we are unwelcoming and harsh towards vulnerable dispossessed people is simply that the rate of exchange isn't good enough. That, in the view of politicians and economists and business people, yes and also ordinary working people as well because the debate in this country appeals not your best instincts but to your fears – being hospitable and generous or even fair and just to asylum seekers simply isn't a good business decision.  They are never going to return our investment in their livelihoods with a sufficiently high rate of interest.  And I suggest that at the heart of this long-running and ugly controversy that destroys our own national soul is a clear and decisive contradiction between the economics of exchange and the oikodome of compassion. A contradiction, in other words, between God's economy and the economy of self-interest.  And it is a contradiction that we as Christians are called to live out and draw attention to. To gossip about, to preach, to work and to pray this contradiction with all the grace and compassion of Christ.
Back in 2001 the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Konrad Raiser, reminded us, '. . . the Gospel tells us that Jesus made the love for strangers and enemies a hallmark of the inclusive community of the children of God'.  'Christians', he said, 'are called to be with the oppressed, the persecuted, the marginalised and the excluded in their suffering, their struggles and their hopes'.  Without exception.  Or as Jeremiah might put it, 'I have given you a covenant – an oikonomia – I have given you house rules that give life and flourishing, but you have put in their place the economy of the hip pocket.  You have substituted that gave life for something worthless and self-serving, and so you yourselves have become worthless'.  This election, it isn't about your hip pocket but about the oikonomia of interrelationship, of living justly in a community that recognises the economics of interdependence and the needs not just of Aussies but the poor of the Earth, and of the Earth itself.

Monday, August 26, 2013

14th Sunday after Pentecost

Having just moved house, I know what it means to have a pain in the neck.  And the back … after a week of fetching and lifting and carrying I woke one morning to the realisation that I couldn't turn my head and spent most of the day shuffling around and looking at the floor.

Chronic physical pain is often experienced by people who live with it as a great weight, almost literally as a crushing load.  Doctors of course can prescribe pain-killers and anti-inflammatories, but intriguingly one of the vital aspects of the treatment for a person in chronic pain is to learn how to manage and live with the pain.  A colleague and friend, the Fransciscan Anglican priest Fr Ted Witham, who has himself lived with chronic pain for many years, published a book a few years ago entitled 'Living well with chronic pain: 12 spiritual steps to manage chronic pain'.  Like the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, Fr Ted came up with a program that builds a person's capacity to understand, accept, work through and live with whatever their ailment or condition may be. Not the ability to destroy or overpower, but to overcome through understanding your inner self and how it relates to what you feel.  Fr Ted writes of the challenge of living well with physical pain as being like the challenge of climbing a mountain – the choice he makes to lift his attention away from the unremitting pain to see the wonder and beauty of life.  Having read some grateful responses to Ted's book it is clear his experience has been a practical inspiration to many. [1]

What keeps people bent over, of course, is not always physical pain.  Jesus, in this story describes the woman as 'pressed down, held bound by Satan'.  We all, I think, can recognise that condition when we see it – a person whose face reveals the weight of years of loneliness or disappointment or chronic anxiety or depression – or the crushing hurt of a new and painful experience: divorce; the loss of a loved one; financial worries.  People who know the pain and oppression of being marginalized and alone in the middle of a crowded city, or worse, within the church itself.  To be bent over is to be loaded down, oppressed or held down by realities that dominate and limit who we are and who we can be.

You see, today's Gospel story isn't only – or even mainly - about healing somebody who is sick – we miss the point if we start speculating on whether this poor woman has got osteoporosis and why exactly Luke tells us she's been like this for 18 years (which given the life expectancy back then would be about half a lifetime) – it's actually a story about God's people being set free from what imprisons them.

I think maybe the first thing to notice is that when Jesus comes across this woman in the synagogue – in the middle of God's faithful people - she herself doesn't approach Jesus, she doesn't expect anything from him, even though she's in the synagogue to worship the God who desires human flourishing and wholeness.  This woman challenges us, because if we're honest we recognise her.  The faithful member of God's Church who has spent half her life isolated, weakened and bent over – unable to take any initiative until Jesus takes the initiative for her.  Jesus calls her over to him and touches her – so the first thing this story tells us is that being God's people means we have to be prepared to take the initiative.  If this isn't a place where people reach out and touch one another, if people can come here and still be bent over and alone and in pain, then how do we dare say anything at all about the compassion of God? 

The second thing is this, that for half her life this woman has been known by a false name.  She's been 'the crippled woman', the one who can only see other people's feet because she's bent so far over.  Nobody looks at her face, she has become less of an individual, she has come to be defined not by who she is but by her limitations.  But Jesus gives her a name, in fact, Jesus gives her back her true name, he calls her, 'daughter of Abraham', and by calling her that he gives her back her true identity as a child of God and as a member of God's family.  This actually is the difference between healing and just curing.  To be cured might relieve you of your physical complaint - healing is about being set free from what confines you, for example from a negative self image or a false sense of shame that can twist a person's life out of shape, and restores you to your true identity.  Healing, literally, is about unbending people, about setting women and men free from labels that imprison them, or from decades of fear or failure.  Being God's people means knowing ourselves and one another by our true names.

And the third thing, of course, is that Jesus sets this woman free on the Sabbath.  Actually, you read through Luke's gospel in particular, and you'd be forgiven for thinking Jesus only ever healed people on the Sabbath.  It's one of the things he gets into trouble for time and time again.  And in fact Jesus' argument back to the synagogue official about untying your donkey on the Sabbath to give it water doesn't sound at first like one of his finest come-backs.  If she's had this curvature of the spine or whatever it was for 18 years, another day wouldn't have hurt – whereas of course donkeys need water every day of the week.

Except that it's not really about a medical cure, it's about setting God's people free.  The synagogue official uses the Greek word therapeuo, to cure, but Jesus uses the word apoluo, to liberate, both for the woman and the donkey – the point he's actually making is that the Sabbath is a day for setting free.  If you happen to be Jewish, you understand that point straight away – because we were slaves in Egypt until God set us free – that's who we are, and that's who God is.  The Jewish understanding of God is of a divine rescuer setting people free: free from slavery in Egypt, free from captivity in Babylon, free from drudgery and toil for at least one day every week.  So Jesus is really saying to this religious leader, 'you're a clever sort of chap, you know very well that the Sabbath is the best day of the whole week for this sort of caper, because that's what God is like - what delights God best of all is setting people free'.

Actually, in our Christian tradition one of our less attractive tendencies is to poke fun at the Pharisees and the scribes and lawyers in the Gospels – as though they're a sort of religious equivalent of the Keystone Cops – perhaps forgetting the rich vein of Judaism that underlies our own religion and that Jesus himself was a rabbi who scrupulously observed the Torah – we poke fun at the hapless religious leaders who never get the better of Jesus in an argument but forget sometimes that we're really not all that different – in fact if you've spent your life believing that the Pharisees and Sadducees and synagogue leaders back in Jesus' day were uptight, judgmental, closed-minded, moralistic, religious fanatics – the sobering reality is that many people outside the Church see those of us who claim to be Christians the same way.

But of course the truth of Jesus' scandalous good news is that women and men don't have to do anything at all to earn God's love and God's forgiveness because it's absolutely gratuitous, no strings attached – it's as though the message that God has set us free to be ourselves scares us so much that we have to work extra hard at tying ourselves up in knots again.

We do put conditions and limits on the grace of God, that's the gist of it when we argue that we've got the right way of interpreting Scripture and try to bully others who disagree with us.  When we set up ways of controlling how God's people can worship, who is acceptable and who isn't; when we try to set limits to what is properly Anglican and what isn't – when, in other words, we forget that it's God's Holy Spirit that inspires and directs the Church and start to think it's us.  When we start to think we come to Church to be nurtured and fed, and forget that we're also called to nurture and to feed the ones on either side of us.  When we forget that the very main business of being the Church is to be a place where people can be set free, where people can find themselves accepted and loved, and where people can learn to let go of whatever has been keeping them bent over.  And in the process maybe we forget that we – like this synagogue official – are a bit bent over ourselves, and what Jesus really wants to do for us is to set us free.

The Sabbath is the very best day of the week to do it.  And the very best place is right here.