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
real.

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.