Friday, January 24, 2014

Australia Day - Epiphany 3

The second half of the 16th century saw the beginnings of the great era of European exploration and the mythical rumours of a 'terra australis', or 'great southern land'.  Over recent years the convenient fiction that James Cook was the official discoverer of Australia has been well and truly debunked, with well documented Dutch landings on the coast of Western Australia early in the 17th century.  Our continent was first named, however, by a navigator who took a wrong turn and never actually set foot here, one Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, a Portuguese-born navigator who led a Spanish expedition crossing the Pacific in search of the southern continent and its fabled riches in 1605. 

De Queirós never actually found the continent he was searching for, though he believed he had, when he landed on what is now part of Vanuatu.  Queirós landed on a large island which he took to be part of the southern continent, and named it Australia del Espiritu Santo.  Which means 'the great southern land of the Holy Spirit'.  In fact, the small island on which Queirós landed is still called Espiritu Santo.  Queirós envisaged one huge land mass extending south from Papua New Guinea and extending east across New Zealand and parts of the Pacific.  We Australians even today, of course, like to believe that these places should all properly be regarded as outposts of Oz.

The point of course is that Queirós, and others like him, believed they were on a quest that was as much spiritual as geographical.  Claiming the lands for Spain and for the Church, Queirós assumed not only that he had been guided to the southern continent by the leading of God's Holy Spirit, but that the Spirit of God was present to this land, so long shrouded in mystery and conjecture, in a unique and wonderful way.  It was an assumption that, had they known of it at the time, the Aboriginal population of Australia would have concurred with heartily.  For them, the Creator Spirit was interwoven with the landscape like a great rainbow serpent winding its way through every waterhole and river and cave.  The whole land was a sign of its Creator, and human beings had been placed within the landscape to care for it and to understand their own lives within its context. 

I make mention of all this, of course, because it is Australia Day – a day which falls on a Sunday once every seven years or so and so becomes an important part of our Epiphany reflection.  In our reading this morning from Isaiah – and St Matthew quotes these verses also in a different context in the Gospel reading for today – we read the verses: 'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined'.[1]  The prophet is talking about good news – the sort of good news that not only lifts spirits but that has the power to transform who a people are and what they can believe about themselves.  Epiphany, as perhaps has become obvious over the last few weeks, is a festival of light.  Metaphorically, we speak of the birth of Jesus as the light to the nations, Matthew the storyteller gives us the image of the magi from the east following the light of a moving star.  It's perhaps an especially apt season of the church year for people who live in the Northern Hemisphere, for those enduring the cold and the long nights of the northern winter, who are reminded that as people of God we live by a different clock.  Epiphany is a season of light not during the day but a season of light amidst the darkness. It is a season of light that ushers in the daytime and in the Northern Hemisphere Epiphany is one step ahead of the world.  In Australia and the Southern Hemisphere Epiphany comes in the middle of the season of excess light, of the hard hot light of blue skies and brown lawns.  For the most part, we Aussies love the abundance of light that uniquely characterises our land, but we don't take it for granted and we understand that proximity to the Sun comes with its own risks.

The prophet is talking to a people who have got in the way of a superpower.  The deep darkness of siege and war has overtaken the lands directly west of the sea of Galilee and the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III, has conquered and laid waste and deported the political elites of the land.  The population that is left has fallen into despair, cursing their political masters and forsaking the instruction of Yahweh.  The population has been decimated by hunger and much of the land has been left uncultivated.  It is in this despondent and stagnant state that Isaiah announces that the lights have come on – Galilee of the nations will again flourish and become a great trading centre, the land will yield its produce, the worship of Yahweh will again be central with a new righteous king and the armies that have oppressed the land will be gone, their equipment good for nothing more than kindling.  It's a word of comfort and hope, a word of transformation to a people who no longer believed that the future was God's.

St Matthew takes these same words and he places them in Jesus' mouth at the beginning of his ministry in – of all places – the exact same spot, Galilee of the nations – the not-quite-Jewish, not-quite-kosher mixed-race impoverished backwater where the cultural elites and the Biblical scholars and the moneyed class and all the people you'd think Jesus should be trying to win over with his ministry – where all of them … aren't.  Northern Galilee is definitely not where "the beautiful people" are… nothing but fishermen and subsistence farmers, and poor ones at that. But as Isaiah had predicted – and Jesus is clearly schooled in the prophet Isaiah - this backwater is where the light is going to be seen first: the people who walk in darkness are the ones who know their need of the light.

The darkness in Northern Galilee was a darkness of isolation and poverty. They were way out of the mainstream, eking out a subsistence living. Jerusalem was where the action was, where the priests held sway, where theology was the hot topic of the day. In Northern Galilee their focus was on empty nets and trying to fill them with fish. They lived in the darkness of bare, solitary subsistence.  Not to mention the darkness of military occupation.

You might think that we, by contrast, are the children of light.  In our southern land of the Holy Spirit, blessed with an abundance not only of light but of material wealth and more than our fair share, some might think, of plain luck.  As far back as 1894 you could hear the expression: riding on the sheep's back.  Australia was on the road to prosperity and it was merino wool that was carrying us.  More recently you might think we are riding on the iron ore train – or nickel, or the natural gas pipeline.  Our darkness is not a darkness of material shortage, though there is inequality, there are people doing it tough in the Lucky Country - and there are areas of our national life and character that we sweep firmly under the carpet.

The original inhabitants of the land – the Aborigines living in harmony with the land at the time Queirós named it from a distance – call today Invasion Day, commemorating as it does the day boatpeople landed with disastrous results for their timeless culture.  Perhaps Australia Day is a good day to name the reality that although some positive steps have been taken in reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, the effects of dispossession and the sad history of the stolen generations still linger as a poison that affects not just individual lives but our life together as a nation.  I wonder sometimes whether the racist and xenophobic streak in our national character – a streak that at times has been well contained and that clashes at times with that other undeniable streak of generosity and refusal to take ourselves too seriously – I wonder whether the dark streak of racism and xenophobia that we see all too clearly on display in our current ugly behaviour toward refugees and asylum seekers might not have at its root an uneasiness about the historical dispossession on which our nation is founded.  The light in which our land is bathed seems sometimes to have robbed us of the ability to introspect, or to reflect honestly about who we are and what we stand for – and I fear we have become a nation of consumers, defensive about keeping what we've got.  Our current refusal – at least at the political level – to acknowledge or to play our part in the mitigation of climate change comes from this short-sighted selfishness.  She'll be right, as long as we can pretend it doesn't exist, or if it does that it's somebody else's problem.

Our secular, clever, talented, wealthy, multicultural, beautiful and selfish country is a people in darkness.  We are selling ourselves short.  We have come a long way from the truth of Aboriginal people who saw themselves, not as owning but as being owned by the land.  We have come a long way from the easy-going larrikinism and self-reliance of convicts and stockmen.  We have come a long way from Terra Australia del Spiritu Santo, or from the understanding of the land as suffused with the Spirit of the Creator.  We have become tone-deaf, and we need to remember how to listen.  We have bathed so long in the sunlight that we have become blind to its nuances.  Increasingly, Australians have turned away from the Church, and with reason, because the Church has not provided good moral leadership, has not always shown solidarity with the poor, has been complacent, and has squandered its goodwill through the shame of child sexual abuse.  We as the Church in Australia need to understand our own need for repentance, and we need to work humbly to rebuild trust with the community we serve.

But as people who walk together in darkness, together as Australians we need to recognise our need for the light.  What afflicts our country is a spiritual malaise, and it is also what afflicts our Church.  We proclaim at this time of year that in Jesus, God offers a light to the nations for us to see by – for us to see who we truly are and what we might become, and for us to see where we are going.  This is of course true, but not if we just repeat it as a sort of formula.  The light to the nations is the light that we ourselves might become, a light in our local community, for example, only once we acknowledge the truth of who we are, and allow God's Holy Spirit to lead us and to reform us in service.


[1] Isa 9.2

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Baptism of our Lord

One of my all-time favourite movies is the film 'Oh brother, where art
thou?' – starring George Clooney. Loosely based on Homer's timeless
Odyssey, the movie revolves around the fortunes of three escaped
convicts on a quest for hidden treasure who eventually discover where
their real treasure lies. In the story, the three prisoners are on
the run after slipping away from a work gang when they come across a
bizarre scene in the woods in Bible belt country in southern USA. It
is a mass baptism – long lines of white-robed figures are converging
on the river singing over and over, 'o sinners let's go down, let's go
down, come on down, o sinners let's go down, down to the river to
pray'. Delmar, who is easily the dumbest of the three, gets caught up
in the beauty and the emotion of it all and jumps the queue – running
headlong into the river, yelling at the preacher that he wants to be
baptised – he throws himself backwards into the river just trusting
that the preacher will be able to catch him, simply expecting that he
is going to come up out of the water into a new life - saved and
forgiven. When the preacher finally lets him up for air he roars up
out of the water spluttering 'boys, I'm saved! The preacher said my
sins been washed away! Come on in, boys, the water's fine!'. And at
first it seems the dunk in the river has done the trick – convinced
that the baptism has worked like some sort of magic he sits in the
back of the getaway car with a happy but dazed sort of expression,
assuring the others that all the wrong things he has ever done don't
count any more – of course, before he knows it, Delmar is unwittingly
dragged back into the chaos and compromises of life on the run.

Which, of course, is the story of each of us as well – whether we were
baptised as babies or as adults, whether or not we have any memory of
our baptism at all – whether we were baptised because it was what we
chose for ourselves or because our parents chose it for us - no sooner
do we emerge from the water of renewal, regeneration, new birth and
new life, than we find ourselves right back where we started. No
sooner does the water dry than we find ourselves bang smack in the
middle of the murky moral choices and chances of real life – we
Anglicans don't do altar calls, we don't really go in for tearful
displays of repentance, and we certainly don't do rebaptisms – we
don't believe in daring God to prove, over and over, that we belong to
him – but we do believe in taking a look at reflection once in a
while, in the water of the baptismal font – if in baptism we really
have died to sin and risen with Christ then once in a while we like to
remind ourselves of that.

The story of Delmar sounds like it's at the opposite end of the
spectrum to the story of Jesus' baptism that we read in Matthew's
gospel and yet they've got something in common. Jesus comes to John
to receive the baptism of repentance – however hard to explain that
seems to have been for early generations of Christians - both Delmar
and Jesus receive the same baptism specifically targeted at the
forgiveness of sins – and for Jesus just as much as for Delmar that
baptism is no guarantee that for ever after he will be immune from the
effects of human sinfulness, from the full range of human experience
or from the moral choices and the pain of human relationships. The
question of why Jesus chooses to submit to the baptism of repentance
is one that continues to exercise the minds of modern theologians –
surely Jesus was without sin? – say some – but did Jesus really see
himself as sinless, say others? Because if Jesus is really human – if
in Jesus God is really sharing the whole range of our human experience
– well, part of being human is knowing ourselves to be flawed – being
human, like being in love, always means having to say you're sorry.
Leaving aside such imponderable theological questions I think the
point that really matters is this – that Jesus chooses to stand in
line with sinners – here in his baptism, as always, Jesus chooses to
act in solidarity with those who are labelled as sinful, and that,
thankfully, includes us.

We don't know, quite, where the sacrament of baptism in water comes
from. There's no really clear precedent for it in Jewish tradition,
but scholars think the Essene sect that John the Baptist may have
belonged to practiced some form of ritual washing. So we're not
really sure what the symbolism may have meant for John, but we know he
was expecting the coming of the Messiah. John understood that the
time was right for God to act decisively to free God's people from
oppression and tyranny. And we can guess from John's choice of the
River Jordan – the river that the people of Israel had to cross in
order to enter into the land of promise – we can guess that John saw a
connection between the baptism of repentance and the experience of
waiting faithfully for the fulfilment of God's promises. We can also
guess that the waters of John's baptism in the Jordan River
represented for him the watery chaos that God transforms in the
mythological story of creation in the Book of Genesis – so baptism is
somehow connected both with creation and with re-creation.

But it's just about here I always find my own inner voice objecting
that water isn't always refreshing and life-giving, it can also be
terrifying and dangerous – as for example the tsunami that struck
across the Asia-Pacific on Boxing Day nine years ago taking over
230,000 lives in the space of a few hours and leaving hundreds of
thousands more homeless and injured — or last year's super-typhoon
that smashed across the Philippines destroying thousands of lives.
Have you ever noticed that the exact same images the Bible uses to
represent the power and presence of God - water, wind, and fire – that
these are the dangerous and uncontrollable natural forces that can
both sustain life and destroy it? Scripture keeps reminding us that
the God of creation is just as much present in chaos and destruction,
that there are aspects of God we can't control or understand. This is
where the psalm we read this morning seems to be headed, that God is
in the chaos and the flood – it's an image that seems a bit disturbing
when we are confronted by disasters on such a ghastly scale – or is it
just a sort of confronting logic that the God who creates and sustains
all life must be also be seen in the chaos and the destruction that is
a natural part of that creation? As the great 5th century preacher,
Peter Chrysologus, suggested, maybe the image of the dove that appears
to descend on Jesus as he comes up from the waters of baptism is meant
to remind us of the dove that signals the re-creation after the great
flood in Genesis, the dove that signifies God's ability to bring new
life and beauty out of the deep waters of despair.

All of which means that baptism isn't a simple or comfortable safety
net. Baptism is certainly God's way of saying, 'you're mine, and I
love you', but on this side of salvation, at least, in the real world
where the unforeseeable and the chaotic and the morally murky are
ever-present facts of life, the assurance of God's love doesn't stop
bad stuff happening. Remember how God got a pretty bad rap for a
while there, after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004? I remember letters
to the editor complaining, almost in the same breath, that God doesn't
exist and has abandoned us to muddle through in a universe governed by
nothing more meaningful than the laws of statistics, or else that God
does exist and inexcusably allows this appalling thing to happen.

Baptism hints both at the promise of renewal and at the grown-up
realism of experiencing God in the context of a universe of chaos and
suffering. Both extremes of human experience are whispering in the
background as the dove comes down on Jesus' head, and as readers of
Matthew's gospel I think maybe we're meant to hear in the whispers a
hint of what lies ahead for Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the
cross. Finding ourselves adopted as God's beloved daughters and sons,
as we are in baptism, doesn't offer us an easy way out, certainly it
doesn't for Jesus, and not for Delmar, and not for us, either.
Looking at our reflection in the water of baptism does however reveal
something very powerful indeed, which is that in our lives God is most
present and most known to us exactly at the times when the boundaries
of our individual lives aren't strong enough to contain our experience
– at the times of great suffering as well as at the times of great joy
and renewal.

I don't know what Delmar hoped for when he jumped the queue to be
baptised in the river. A free pass, perhaps? I do know what I hope for
whenever I see the baptismal font filled with water: I want to be
reminded of my deep-down connection with the God who continually
creates and recreates us, the God who day by day is continually
revealed in the beauty and in the chaos of my life, in the suffering
and the joy of human existence; the God revealed to us in small human
acts of compassion and faithfulness – the God of solidarity who has
the power to restore us, to renew us, and to draw us from death into
new life.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Feast of the Epiphany

In Monty Python's famous and funny movie, The Life of Brian, a group of intrepid Oriental explorers follow a moving star across the deserts of Central Asia all the way to Bethlehem.  Unfortunately, they have a bit of trouble working out the point that's directly underneath the star when it comes to a stop and turn up at the wrong stable door at the exact moment when Brian's mum has just welcomed him into the world.  After worshipping Brian and giving his bewildered mum gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (she tells them they can keep that one), the astrologers leave – only to come back a minute later and demand the presents back again because they'd got the wrong stable.  Brian's life turns out a bit confusing after that, because he keeps getting mistaken for the kid next door at the most inconvenient moments.
Well, every year we celebrate – just a bit after Christmas – the visit to the infant Jesus by a group of foreigners that the Bible calls magi – this is a word that means astrologers, or sorcerers – not kings, not even necessarily wise men as some Bibles translate it – in fact, not even necessarily men! - but the sort of people who elsewhere in the Bible get a pretty bad rap for following a false spirituality and dabbling in occult powers that – at best – might seem to be seriously misguided.  But today we recognise the astrologers getting it right.  Not only that, but we call our celebration the feast of the epiphany – in regular secular language 'epiphany' means something like an 'aha!' moment – a sudden realisation that seems to come almost from nowhere - a glimpse of what's really going on.  Like all of a sudden the fog clears and we get to see clearly, just for a moment, what life's really about.
Literally, the word 'epiphany' simply means 'showing' or 'shining forth.' As Christians we get the meaning of this – in Jesus, God's light shines out into the world. But maybe we should understand it not so much as the appearance of God but more as the transparence of God. The 'see through' God.  Because the light that shines through Jesus is not something never seen before, not something foreign to creation but simply the Light at the heart of all life. It is the Light from which all things come. If somehow this Light were extracted from the universe, everything would cease to exist. So this is a story about the Light at the heart of everything, the Light at the heart of you, the Light at the heart of me.
I read recently a Jewish rabbi talking about the story in the Book of Exodus where Moses sees the bush on fire, but the bush isn't being consumed by the fire.  And Moses turns aside to have a look – he goes out of his way much as the ancient scientists in today's story, driven by their own curiosity and desire for the truth, risk a voyage across the desert to see the child promised by the stars.  But the rabbi said that the important thing about the Exodus story is not that the bush is burning but that Moses notices.  Because, said the rabbi, every bush is burning, every bush is on fire with the divine presence, everything in the universe shines because God is at the heart of it. Mostly we just don't notice.  And so it is in our Epiphany story. It is a story that invites us to open our eyes to the light that is everywhere.  
So, what are the magi telling us?  Are these barbarian astrologers just a fancy way of saying the whole world is going to sit up and take notice here?  Well, yes, at one level that's exactly what the story's saying.  In this way of looking at it the important thing is what the magi aren't – they aren't Jewish – they're not the sort of people who are supposed to get it right because they're not supposed to be included in God's plan – the fact that these outsiders recognise and pay homage to Jesus when the bigwigs in Herod's court and the chief priests feel threatened and reject him suggests that - in Jesus – God is breaking the mould and breaking all the boundaries that up to now have defined who is supposed to be acceptable and who isn't – so this story belongs to the strand of Jewish theology that says all the nations are eventually going to come to us and find themselves blessed in the God of Israel.  It's a generous theology of inclusiveness that has been part of the self-understanding of the people of Israel right from the start – and what Matthew is saying is that this is fundamental to the meaning and purpose of Jesus.  What stops this from just being a shallow sort of triumphalism is that at the same time Matthew is pointing to the cross as the ultimate cost and the key to this divine inclusiveness.  Because of the birth of Jesus, even Gentiles with their strange habits – people like you and me, in other words, get to find the purpose and the meaning of their lives in Israel's God.
But I want to just speculate for a bit about what it is that the magi are.  Not only are they foreign, but these astrologers or sorcerers are the specialist revealers of hidden knowledge and wisdom in the religion of their culture, the scientists, the revealers of epiphanies.  These are people of patience and persistence, students of subtleties, they follow stars and they pay attention to dreams.  This is a very different sort of wisdom to the wisdom of our own age, the wisdom of pragmatism that all too often tunes out the softer voices of hunch and intuition.  The wisest man in Matthew's version of the nativity is of course Joseph, the foster father of Jesus modelled perhaps on the figure of that most famous dreamer of all, the Joseph in the Book of Exodus whose attention to his dreams delivered his people from famine.  In Matthew's story, Joseph is offered as a model for human spirituality and integrity – and possibly also as an example and a mentor to the magi themselves.  The magi from the east are students of the mysteries of the world around them, like all true scientists intuitive and persistent and willing to risk everything they have in following a lead.  And their science, their spirituality, their intuition and learning lead them across the desert to where Jesus is.  Almost.  The magi do take a wrong turn and end up in Jerusalem.  There, they turn out to be almost fatally naive to the realities of political power and fall straight into Herod's trap.  Human wisdom, human subtlety and learning gets us just so far.
Incidentally the story of the magi cautions us against believing that there is any opposition or contradiction between science and religion.  True knowledge of the world acquired through love and patient observation is a reflection of the wisdom of God.  Science leads us into love and wonder at creation that reflects the love and beauty of God.
But here's the point – however they get there, the magi eventually get to Bethlehem, and there they are blessed.  They find the child with his mother, they do homage and offer their gifts, and there they are blessed with true wisdom – it is only after they find the Christ-child with his humble and obedient mother and his dreaming, far-seeing father that the magi really become wise men, able to interpret their dreams and understand what God is trying to tell them.  
Maybe, if we look at it like this, the magi represent all of us, who are looking for the Christ-child but who routinely get muddled and lost in our own illusions of competence.  But they – also like us – are eventually brought to where the Child is, not through their own skill but by God's persistence and subliminal prompting.  And when they get there, they find something that upsets all their theories and all their science, because they find a child who is himself the revelation!  One suggestion I read recently is that the precious objects they give to the baby Jesus could be the symbols of their own status and learning as astrologers – which would mean they were not so much giving presents to Jesus as surrendering the emblems of their own competence and their own knowledge.  Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, the magi have been on a long and dangerous quest, and what they have discovered is that the one thing they have to give up is the symbol of their own power and their own competence.  The vulnerability of God coming as a tiny baby exposes the illusion of our own control and our own self-sufficiency.  Could it be that there's something more important than bringing gifts to the One who is the giver of all gifts?  Could it be that when we encounter the baby Jesus, and we see God daring to be weak, when we see the reality of God's powerlessness in the world, that we are being challenged to lay something down – to lay down all the illusions of control that we build up as defences in a world where nothing seems safe and certain?  That the love and the vulnerability of God-with-us – is paradoxically more life-giving than the most powerful ideology of control.  Because it's at the manger that we see clearly the power of an incarnate God which is the power of humble, vulnerable love - not the power to stop earthquake or bushfire or cyclone, or the power to topple dictators or protect the innocent, but the power to suffer and die, and the power to renew and restore us and all things.
Whatever the exact meaning of the gifts the magi give, what happens when they meet the Christ-child is that the magi worship, and hand over the treasures of their heart – the things that are most important to them, and in return they are given wisdom, the gift of discerning the truth, and that is what they take home.  That's the deal for each of us when we seek Jesus, we recognise the illusion of our own strength and our own competence by the light of God's weakness and God's vulnerability, and we are unexpectedly blessed.
On the feast of the Epiphany the Church has always called us to think about exactly what is revealed in Jesus Christ, and on how we respond to that in the world we live in.  Epiphany, in fact, was celebrated by the Church long before Christmas ever was, as a feast of the coming of the light.  Epiphany, I think, is a day for self-examination, a day for being honest with ourselves - both about what God needs us to pay attention to and what God needs us to give up - so that we can receive the gift of humble love that alone can transform us into the wisdom of God.

Reverend Evan Pederick
Rector, Anglican Parish of Canning
mob 0433 174 112