Saturday, February 01, 2014

4th Sunday after Epihany

On Friday, I was privileged to represent Anglican EcoCare by giving evidence at the Senate inquiry into the government's proposed changes to the carbon pollution reduction legislation, the so-called 'carbon tax' which the Abbott government plans to replace with a 'direct action plan' of paying businesses to reduce their carbon emissions.  Bishop Tom and I sat in the hearing room and listened to representatives of the WA Wilderness Society before it was our turn to give evidence – the Senators listened politely as we told them that right from the beginning of the Hebrew Bible the scriptures tell us that the Earth and all its goodness belong to God,[1] that in the language of Franciscan spirituality every created thing and all the living systems of the Earth are unique creative expressions or Words of God, and reflect the beauty of their Creator.  We told them that the protection of the environment is part of the core mission of the Church, and reminded them that when the Earth suffers, whether through climate change or the extinction of species, through loss of natural habitat or the degradation of water or soil – then inevitably the impact is felt hardest and heaviest by the poorest of the world's poor.  We were listened to politely, and we answered questions – some sympathetic and others less so.  What was most clear to me was that to speak of the vulnerability of God's creation and the need to care for it – even though to care for the Earth is ultimately in our own best interest – instantly evokes a hostile reaction from self-interested power and privilege.

But when I sat down yesterday to write this sermon, the words of the prophet Micah jumped off the page at me.  In fact, all the texts this morning do nothing less than turn our understanding of the world upside down.  And the power comes from the outpouring of God's goodness and beauty that we call creation.  Because it is in the act of creation that God offers hospitality and opens a place in God's own life for others.  In our reading from Micah we see the Hebrew tradition of profound respect for creation – here the prophet is acting as a sort of clerk of the court, reading out the indictment in a divine lawsuit against God's people.  But the truly stunning thing is the jury – who is it that listens and bears witness as the list of charges are read out? – the mountains and hills and the foundations of the Earth.[2]  The image is one of timeless impartiality – creation bears witness to what is done to it, and no amount of spin-doctoring and no special pleading from vested interests make a jot of difference.  This image comes from the unique Hebrew understanding of the relationship that human beings have to the land – the Earth and all its resources are not commodities to be bought and sold, not goods to be owned, because the Earth itself belongs to God. 

In the prophet Micah the land itself indicts the people with injustice, with the centralisation of land ownership that deprives the poor of a just living, and with corruption.  And the prophet tells the political elites – paying lip service is not enough, God isn't interested in your religious rituals or your pious platitudes – what God requires of you is just this – to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.[3]  The words are powerful – the Hebrew for kindness is not quite so bland as the English, the word hesed means covenant loyalty and mercy and care.  The English word humble is also powerful, deriving from humus, meaning of the earth, grounded.  But the main point — and the challenge — is to move from business as usual and the following of social norms or the weasel words of lawyers to practising justice, looking at the world through God's eyes and doing what is right.

It's a distinction that can often be overlooked in the Church, and Paul's letter to the Corinthians is a case in point.  The Church in Corinth, to put it bluntly, was full of people who took themselves a lot more seriously than they took God.  As one commentator puts it, 'they expected God to submit to their criteria'.[4]  And Paul reminds them that it's the other way around – it is God's holiness that provides the standard by which we are judged.  Paul strips away the self-serving illusion of human criteria using the language of paradox: 'For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God'.[5]  In the Aussie vernacular he is basically telling them to get over themselves.  Don't fall into the trap of mistaking human institutions – church or government – as ultimate authorities because it is this that leads to discrimination, violence, economic inequality, war, and ecological meltdown.  Our human standards and criteria are always partial.  We fall too easily into mistaking self-interest for what is right.  And Paul reminds them of the one who models the way to go beyond self-interest, and who in putting love for others ahead of love of self taps into the logic of self-giving love that is the power of God: 'For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength'.[6]

It's a good lesson for a world that has exalted the technological fix and the morality of free market capitalism, not to mention a level of military power never before seen in human history.  The Earth, that is God's, the Earth that human beings have stripped and exploited and thought we had conformed to our own priorities – the Earth says 'enough'.  I read recently a beautiful little saying called Stein's Law: 'If something can't go on forever', said Stein, 'then it will stop'.  We forget this, in our obsession with economic growth and the built-in competitiveness and the quest for material security that drives our human culture.  What God requires of us is not to give lip service, not tokenism but repentance and justice, and the humility of remembering that we ourselves are creatures of the Earth.  The human community that lives within its true bounds is the one that lives by standards considered 'foolish' by the kingdoms of the world.  And Paul says this is the human community that models itself on the way of the cross.

Jesus makes it clearer as in our reading from St Matthew this morning he climbs the mountain and sits to teach the people who have come to hear him.  The beginning of the sermon on the mount are the beatitudes – the summary of Jesus' wisdom teaching.  The mountain, that in Micah acts as a mute witness here offers a space for both teacher and learners to come away from the everyday in order to see more clearly what the life of everyday really means. Sometimes translated as 'happy', the 'blessed' sayings declare God's favour for particular human virtues or by describing what it means to live as an ideal faithful community challenge the actual community's practices.  The 'blessings' of Jesus are not vague promises that when things go wrong for us God will put them right, but sharp reminders that we are to live as a blessed community.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Many Christians have seen in this a sort of escape clause – oh, Jesus says you don't need to be literally poor, just poor in spirit!  But Jesus never waters anything down, in fact he makes it more radical.  Blessed are the ones who are literally marginalised, oppressed, chronically or terminally ill.  Blessed are the ones whose very spirit is crushed, those who have no hope.  Blessed are those who stand in solidarity with the poorest of the earth's poor. And blessed are those who choose poverty, who recognise the proper limitations on their use of the Earth's resources. This blessing, according to one commentator, names the ending of human structures of power, by the initiative of God. 

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.  It says something interesting that meekness these days is not considered a virtue but is caricatured as passive incompetence.  Meekness here suggests courage and patient hope as well as grounded humility that Jesus promises will eventually trump all the strident paraphernalia of human power.  To be meek is related to the quality of hesed or covenant solidarity that we came across in Micah. To be meek is to learn to live in harmony with the quiet insistent rhythms of the Earth and its living creatures.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Again, not an escape clause or a watering down but a challenge.  Jesus is just talking about piety.  Physical hunger and thirst imply a hunger and thirst for justice, because where human beings anywhere live in situations where the basic means of life are denied, then human life everywhere is deprived of dignity and justice.  Either all human life is sacred and precious, or none is.  To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to yearn with a physical longing for a world in which right prevails.  Jesus is laying down the guidelines for the blessed life, and we find that the ways we actually live are challenged.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  It was the common fate of the prophets, and of the apostles who spread the message of the gospel across the ancient world.  But actually it goes with the common territory of telling the truth.  Truth-telling offends power, when it insists on naming injustice.  But to live the blessed life, to live as a blessed community, is to choose to live as a community that recognises and lives by the truth.

To live as the blessed community — as the community of solidarity and humility, of yearning and of truthfulness — is to live intentionally into the rhythm of God's own life, the ecology of self-giving love that connects us with the cycle of creation and reveals to us finally the deepest truth of our own selves.

[1] Ps 24.1

[2] Mic 6.1-2

[3] Mic 6.8

[4] Hans Conzelman, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47

[5] 1 Cor 1.22-24

[6] 1 Cor 1.25