Saturday, October 19, 2013

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Back in the 1980s Terry Waite was a lay Anglican working for the then
Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Waite had had a lot of
experience working in Africa – in Uganda during the Idi Amin years,
and in Sudan – and had travelled extensively in the Middle East where
he had worked as a hostage negotiator. In 1987, Waite travelled to
Lebanon to try to obtain the release of four hostages – but on this
trip he was himself kidnapped, and held as a hostage for five years –
nearly four years of which were in solitary confinement. No
information on his whereabouts or survival reaching the wider world
for over four years. During his incarceration, he was blindfolded,
beaten, and subjected to a mock execution. He lived much of the time
chained to a wall in a room without natural light. In the final months
of captivity he suffered from a severe chest infection which almost
cost him his life. He was finally released in November 1991 Since
his release, Waite has been active in a variety of humanitarian
causes, including working with prisoners, former hostages and
prisoners of war, and international aid. I recently read an interview
with Waite conducted a few years ago, in which the interviewer very
carefully asked him about those years of captivity. How, he wanted to
know, did you survive? Waite told him, 'You're sitting on the floor
in a dark room with no books and papers for a long, long time and no
communication with anyone or with the outside world … And you have got
to be able to discipline your mind, because everything is lived from
within'. And Waite said:

I was fortunate, firstly, because through life I had been an avid
reader and therefore I had built up a store of books, poetry and prose
in my memory. Secondly, I'd been brought up as an Anglican—I'm an
Anglican Christian—and had been brought up with the Book of Common
Prayer. The language of that was very, very helpful. I had
unconsciously memorised it as a choir boy. If I can just give you an
example of what I mean from one of the great old collects of the
prayer book:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night . . .

That is very, very meaningful when you're sitting in darkness. That
collect not only has meaning but it also has poetry and rhythm. There
is a relationship between identity, language and prayer; somehow they
help you hold together at your centre.

Waite survived, he said, because he recited – snatches at first, then
whole chapters – of the scriptures and other long-forgotten books, and
because he prayed the Book of Common Prayer.

Our reading this morning from Luke's Gospel is about prayer, but it is
also about life on the margins, about living with integrity in
situations of discouragement or alienation. Luke is writing his
Gospel a generation or so after Jesus' crucifixion, and he is writing
for a Christian community who are feeling discouraged. They are tired
of waiting for Jesus to return and finally bring all things to
fulfillment. They are tired of being persecuted as a tiny little
minority in a great big, powerful empire. They are anxious and
suffering. Today's passage is about that waiting and about not being
discouraged, not losing heart. Somehow, however, along the way,
Christians have learned to read it more as a recipe for nagging God
with repeated requests, until God, like a weary and worn-down parent,
eventually caves in and gives us what we want. But it's not that at
all, I think. It's about learning to rest in God's arms.

As he so often does, Jesus uses a character familiar to his listeners
as an outsider, someone poor and powerless. The Hebrew word for
'widow', almana, is derived from the root word alem which means,
"unable to speak". Widowhood made these women silent – without voice.
Unable to legally inherit their husband's property, and without a
husband to speak and act on their behalf they had no voice, no legal
rights, and no recourse against injustice. A widow faced a future of
frightening defencelessness and vulnerability. So in this story, the
one who has no voice is acting outside the normal bounds when she
finds her voice and speaks up for herself. Maybe it's because she
knows that there's a special place for her in the heart of God, as the
Bible often says. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament we
read that widows, orphans, and refugees – dispossessed aliens - are
especially close to the heart of God and the focus of God's concern.
We might ask ourselves who "the widows" are in our own time: who are
the ones in our own society without a voice who speak up anyway in
protest of injustice?

Anglican Bishop Barbara Brown Taylor gets inside the story and
explores the heart of this woman. Society may have told her she was a
nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence
helped her hold on to that knowledge: "She is willing to say what she
needed – out loud, day and night, over and over – whether she got it
or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was
how she remembered the shape of her heart…".[1] Claiming your
identity through prayer, through the remembering of your deep
connection with the one who created you, is in more ways than one,
good for the shape of your heart.

Listening to the way in which Terry Waite used prayer, through the
years of darkness and disorientation, as a way of grounding his own
knowledge of himself in his deepest God-given identity – and listening
to today's parable about the persistent naming of her needs by the one
who lives on the fringes of tolerance – remembering that Jesus offers
us this parable as a model for our own prayer - I wondered about the
state of my own prayer life. How many of us – as Taylor expresses it,
'pray like we brush our teeth – once in the morning and once at night'
– perfunctorily and out of habit? What would it take to pray rather
like we breathe? allowing the breath of God to fill us and flow
through us and oxygenate us every moment, waking or sleeping? Shaping
us, and helping us to remember who we are and what we are for,
aligning us with the intentions of God?

So, yes, the lesson is about prayer, but it is also about the nature
of the God in whom we find our very being. Jesus uses one of the
creative teaching methods of the day, in this case making a point
about God by using as an example someone who is rather un-God-like.
For goodness' sake, he says, if even an unjust, disrespectful judge
who's afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a poor widow
just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading,
well, then, how much more will the God of justice and compassion, the
God of the ancient prophets, the God on the palm of whose hand our
names are carved – how much more will that God hear the prayers of
God's own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and
their need?

Yet Luke – the Gospel writer – is concerned with a Christian community
losing heart, unsure any longer what it is waiting and working for –
and the situation today is not that different. Why are we a Church?
Why are we a parish? What are we waiting and working for, and have we
begun to drift away? And Jesus finishes this story with an admonition
to pray constantly and never lose hope, and then he says – how little
faith you have! – you, who say you are waiting for the fulfilment of
God's promises. Jesus, in this story, is talking about justice, and
God's priority for justice – and it is easy for us to relate to that,
especially if - as we all of us sometimes do – we are feeling
overwhelmed or alone or powerless. But he is also talking about
faith, and therein lies the key.

It's a funny word, 'faith' – and we often use it and think of it as
though it meant that we believe the right set of catechisms. That we
sign up to the right set of statements about Jesus, that we don't
believe in anything heretical. And of course that makes it passive –
if you can believe what you have been told, or what you read in the
Catechism or yes, the 39 Articles at the end of the Prayer Book, or
the creeds of the Church – then that's it, really. But that's not the
way Jesus uses the word, not by a long shot.

A few years ago at St Michaels we had a study group in which we read
through Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity. And Borg
reminds us that we can believe all the right things about God and
still be unhappy or unloving. What you believe with your head, Borg
reminds us, doesn't change you from deep within. So instead, Borg
talks about faith as having to do with relationship and with radical
trust. He draws on the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish
philosopher, who says that "faith as trust is like floating on a deep
ocean. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If
you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually
sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float." Borg expresses it
this way: "Faith is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting
in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being." [2]
Children, I think, get that way easier than adults – because children
are closer than adults to the first and most powerful lessons we learn
in this life about trust.

Terry Waite understood that the reality of prayer is about buoyancy,
about learning to float and trusting God to keep us and to hold us.
Trusting also that in the sea of unknowing that is God, we find all
that we need and all that God needs us to become.


[1] "Bothering God" in Home by Another Way.

[2] 'Faith, the Way of the Heart', in The Heart of Christianity

Friday, October 11, 2013

21st Sunday after Pentecost - Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7 and some reflections on Diocesan Synod

There's a lot of nostalgia in the Church. Maybe your yearning is just
for the heady days of the early 80s when Mothers Union and Sunday
School were packed – or maybe you go back further in your nostalgia to
the days when a social in the church hall drew the crowds because,
let's face it, it was the most exciting form of entertainment in town.
The vicar rode around the shire on his bicycle collecting donations
even - or especially – from the people who never darkened the doorways
of the church and to be an Anglican meant you were upwardly socially
mobile. One speaker at Synod last weekend let his nostalgia range all
the way back to the 16th century, waxing lyrical about the 39
Articles, those funny little chunks of dogma at the very end of the
Prayer Book that cobble together the compromises of the Protestant
Reformation. The speaker thought we should base our teaching more
closely on the 39 Articles, which when you think about it might not
work very well since Article no. 35 commands clergy to preach the same
21 sermons over and over again. Certainly the sermons in the Book of
Homilies exhorting parishioners to keep the church clean and
denouncing them for drunkenness, gluttony and rebellion make
interesting reading. Eventually another speaker rose to remind us that
circumstances change, however, and quoted Article no. 34, which
recognises that the ways we worship and teach, while grounded in the
scriptures, also need to be appropriate to the times. But we often
look back, the speaker remarked, with the rose-coloured glasses of
hindsight, as though somewhere back there was a golden age that we
could recover, if only we did things right.

Our first reading this morning, from the prophet Jeremiah, is a
surprising message for a community in exile, a community that
remembers back when and yearns for the days when the worship of Yahweh
centred on the temple that now lay in ruins. Living in the ruined
city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah sends word to the exiles in Babylon that
they should not believe the prophecies of the optimists, who are
predicting the imminent fall of the Babylonian Empire. 'You won't be
home by this Christmas, or even next', he assures them. 'Put down
roots, make a home, start businesses, live productively, raise
families, and be in harmony with your oppressors.' Jeremiah
recognises that there has been a fundamental shift – nostalgia for
what has been lost is understandable but it isn't what God is calling
them to. Historians who study the ways that Judaism was fundamentally
altered by the experience of the exile between 597 and 538 BC conclude
in fact that the years of dislocation and exile saw a creative
flourishing and a renaissance in the religious life of Israel. But
when the life of the community has been turned upside down and the
centre of its worship destroyed and they have been severed from the
land, Jeremiah's advice that they are still called to follow God's
word is hard to hear. God, says Jeremiah, is not is not restricted to
a particular time or place. This is a huge leap of understanding,
because it means that even when the world the people knew had been
destroyed and all the religious traditions they knew had become
impossible, God was still God. Even in exile the people can never
escape God's care or God's ethical and spiritual vision.

This is a good reflection for a Church living through times of rapid
change, as we are today. Because it reminds us that though the world
changes, God doesn't, and to be faithful to God means learning new
contexts and new ways of worship, new ways of proclaiming age-old
truths. Another big debate at Synod – the one that the media got
excited about last week – was to do with same sex relationships and
the movement for civil recognition or extension of the Marriage Act to
include same sex couples. I missed this debate, actually, because I
was busy marrying another couple here at St Michaels at the time. But
we were reminded that the world is changing, and that we can't be left
in a position where we fail to show the love of Christ or where we
adhere so rigidly to the social mores of a bygone age that modern men
and women experience us as rejecting and judgemental. Surely, the
speaker argued, civil recognition of same sex relationships can
coexist with affirmation of the traditional form of marriage, even
within the Church. And for all that the Archbishop is placed in a
difficult position in deciding whether or not to give assent to the
motion, I am glad that Synod resoundingly agreed.

Change is uncomfortable, often, but change also brings with it the
opportunity to show hospitality to men and women who previously have
felt excluded, and to proclaim the Gospel in new ways that have
relevance in new situations. We dare not blow it.

Jeremiah's advice to the Church actually turns self-interest on its
head. Even though Jeremiah himself and the people he is writing for
have been torn away from everything that is familiar, he sees an
intricate ecology of life and economics going on underneath the
surface that points the way not just towards survival but towards
future growth and new possibilities. What benefits Babylon benefits
the captive sons and daughters of Israel. For the Church to work for
the benefit of Australia, the vibrant, multicultural, gifted lucky and
self-deprecating country we live in, is life and health for the
Church. We don't always get that, in fact very often we retreat into
a limited vision of the Church as something apart, self-protective and
defensive in a time of subtle persecution. To work for the benefit of
Babylon doesn't mean to stop criticising it, of course, or to refrain
from reminding it of its own better nature - for example when our
country lurches back to border protection policies that impose cruel
and harsh conditions on vulnerable people fleeing dispossession. But
it does mean to get with the times, to be unselfconsciously and
authentically Aussie, to have a good laugh at ourselves, to talk the
language of the community around us, to be bright and welcoming and

This is good and challenging advice for a parish church like ours
that, let's face it, does the same thing week after week and engages
an ever-shrinking group of faithful Anglicans. Do we want to reflect
on our own navel until we disappear into it, or do we actually want to
serve the community we live in and be relevant to it? What should we
be doing differently? And if you think the answer is 'nothing', or
that's the priest's problem and the rest of us are just here to
listen, then actually you've made your choice. In the context of a
planned refurbishment of our parish buildings and grounds, what are
the opportunities to create spaces for greater involvement with the
community around us? It's a question that needs to involve the whole
parish, and I hope it eventually will.

But there's also a wider context of Jeremiah's advice, that's even
more challenging. Because the world's most persecuted minority across
the world today is the Christian Church. Christianity is vibrantly
alive in Africa, but Christian communities are under attack in Sudan
and Nigeria and Egypt. The ancient Coptic Church is hounded almost
out of existence in the Middle East. Christian Churches and
communities are under sustained attack in Syria and Iran, Iraq and
Pakistan and the Church in China continues to be harassed even as the
country becomes more open and wealthy. It's uncool to be a Christian
in Australia, but it's life-threatening in many other parts of the
world. How would Jeremiah's advice be received by a Christian
community in Egypt today? You can't give such advice from a position
of privilege to people under attack or on the margins. But for the
Church in our own country to work for the good of the community in
which we find ourselves is to call it to account sometimes, to oppose
oppression wherever we find it and to offer a more inclusive
self-understanding. Another speaker at last week's Synod asked us to
remember the promises that both major parties in Australia have made,
to lift foreign aid to 0.7 percent of GDP. And yet, the speaker
informed us, one of the first actions of our new government has been
to slash $4.5 billion in foreign aid. The government is committed to
a redefinition of foreign aid that brings it under the umbrella of
trade rather than seeing it primarily as a way of mitigating suffering
and human need. Even the money that our lucky country spends on
holding asylum seekers in detention is now being counted against the
foreign aid budget. It's not good enough – it sells short communities
living in poverty or under persecution overseas, and it also sells
Australians short. We are better than that.

Ultimately, however, Jeremiah's advice to an inward-looking and
sorry-for-itself community in exile is to believe in the future. God
has not stopped being God, and wherever life is celebrated and
children are born and women and men give themselves to one another in
love, wherever recipes are swapped and songs are sung and trees are
planted then God's priority for human flourishing is quietly at work.
Learn to sing a new song in Babylon. It's the way of the future.

Wedding homily for Claire Barrett-Lennard and Rodney Duffy

An elderly couple once asked me to help them celebrate their 50th
wedding anniversary with a renewal of their wedding vows, and as well
as a reading from the Bible asked if we could read a passage from a
children's story. A quite ancient children's story, in fact, and I
must confess I was a little skeptical until I read it for myself.
Written in 1922 by Margery Williams, 'The Velveteen Rabbit' seems to
have remained in print ever since, and I recommend it for lovers of
all ages. The velveteen rabbit was of course a stuffed toy, and like
all nursery toys came to life and had deep and meaningful
conversations with all the other nursery toys once the humans had gone
to sleep. The velveteen rabbit had noticed that it was, in fact, a
stuffed toy, and yearned to be real - and so consulted with the oldest
and wisest toy in the nursery, the Skin Horse.

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that
happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just
to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse. "But when you are Real you don't
mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," the toy rabbit
asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It
takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to toys who
break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved
off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very
shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are
Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

The elderly couple standing together in the church were certainly real
- radiantly real - and Claire and Rod it is our hope for you that over
the years ahead you will become just as real. St Paul's advice –
written to a fractious church in Corinth who thought they already knew
it all – is about becoming real. And so are the teachings about love
from Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh. Love in fact is the only way of
becoming who God created you to be: the only way of growing into who
you most truly are, paradoxically, is to give yourself away without
holding anything in reserve and without trying to protect yourself
from the knocks and bumps – or from the sadness and heartache that can
be the flip side of a love that sees its fulfillment and greatest joy
in the good of the beloved.

The Bible, unsurprisingly, talks about love all the way through, and
in the very first couple of chapters offers as the basis for the love
between a man and woman the fact that – created in the image of God as
we are – capable of wisdom and beauty and compassion – we also know
ourselves deep down to be incomplete. Popular culture has a germ of
the same insight – I guess - when it counsels us that somewhere out
there for each of us is The One. In the mythological story of
creation in the Book of Genesis the archetypal man and woman – ish and
ishah - are created by God as complementary opposites, drawn together
from the first ungendered human whose name – adam – means 'creature of
the Earth'. In the one whom you recognize as bone of your bone and
heart of your own heart, you find the opportunity to learn the lessons
of patience and forgiveness and trust, and the capacity for delight
and gladness that gradually form you into the wholeness that God
intends for you.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once had this advice for a young
couple about to be married. 'Don't expect', he told them, 'that the
love you have for one another is what will sustain and nurture you
through your marriage. On the contrary, it is marriage that is going
to sustain and deepen your love.' Like becoming real, learning to
love the one to whom you promise yourself is a lifelong affair. As
you enter into marriage today, you are not just putting the seal on
the love you already share, but committing yourselves to learn to love
one another through all the seasons and all the circumstances of your

In her book, The Irrational Season, writer Madeleine L'Engle had a few
words to say about her long marriage to actor Hugh Franklin,
commenting that the reason their marriage had endured probably had
something to do with their decision never to eat breakfast together.
She also had this to say:

…. I've learned something else about family and failure and promises,
as well: even when a promise is broken, the promise still remains. In
one way or another, we are all unfaithful to each other…. We do break
our most solemn promises, and sometimes we break them when we don't
even realize it…. I can look at the long years of my marriage with
gratitude, and hope for many more, only when I accept our failures.

The reading we heard from Teachings on Love also reminds us of another
fact so often forgotten in a culture fixated on individualism and
personal fulfillment. Your love for one another, if it is life-giving
and unselfish, invites you into an attitude of love and reverence for
the whole creation. Because the love that makes you real is a love
that is open and encouraging and inclusive – as opposed to what
sometimes passes for love, that is possessive and jealous and
limiting. To be grounded in the love for one another that believes in
one another's best despite the occasional blooper is to be secure
enough to imagine and to strive to become the best that you can be.
Your love for one another – that I pray will become the unquestioned
ground and secure home of all that you can dream or accomplish – grows
in the womb of the love that shapes the whole of creation and so
invites you into an attitude of wonder and humility. Charity – or
caritas, which means love – begins at home, but if that is where it
stays then it was never truly begun. As you grow in love for one
another you come to understand the love that is the appropriate
response to the needs of others and to the vulnerability of the Earth
itself. This is a way of living that is grounded in the Wisdom
spirituality of the Hebrew Bible – a way of living that finds lessons
in the humble creatures and living systems of the earth, and loves
justice and generosity.

Claire and Rod, as you begin your married life, practice together the
humble and foundational virtue of kindness - the grace of never taking
one another for granted, of being careful with the raw and tender
places in one another's lives. Become real together, be fiercely
protective of one another's dreams and believe in one another. Grow
together in love and in wonder at all that is, and spend yourselves
without limit.


[1] L'Engle, M., (1977),The Irrational Season (The Seabury Press, New York)