Saturday, May 24, 2014

Christianity in the Marketplace

I guess some Western tourists, when they venture overseas, throw themselves enthusiastically into the full strength experience of a foreign city – wandering through the markets, sampling local food from street vendors, leaving the beaten track – learning a few words of the local language – and for them the overseas holiday becomes a real venture into unknown territory – even if at the cost of coming home with a crook tummy, or of taking a wrong turn and getting lost in a city where you don’t speak the language.

But of course most of us take the less adventurous “package tour” option – I read somewhere recently that McDonalds in Bombay does a roaring trade with Western tourists who prefer to play it safe – a hamburger with fries at a McDonalds any where in the world is virtually identical – so even if you know that it’s not going to be amazingly good you also know that it’s not going to be amazingly bad – on the one hand it’s always a bit bland but on the other hand at least we know it’s never going to surprise us – the lure of the familiar is that at least we know what we are getting.

In a sense, that’s the dilemma for today’s church, and for all of us who are called to proclaim the Christian gospel in a world that more and more looks like a marketplace of ideas and options, a world where there are so many different religions competing for attention, where the dominant religions of competition and consumerism make the claims of the Christian gospel harder and harder to hear. We seem to be faced with a choice – do we go down to the marketplace, in other words, do we work at making the gospel more accessible, more “relevant” in today’s culture, do we try to establish a dialogue and try to find common ground with other religions, do we learn the language and use the insights of modern depth psychology or social analysis or political science – or do we in a sense stick to McDonalds – do we stay within the boundaries of our tradition and faithfully proclaim a gospel in language that fewer and fewer people seem able to hear?

So today St Paul, the accidental tourist, is wandering in the streets and the market place in Athens – as a matter of course starting off at the synagogue, because like every large cosmopolitan city in the ancient world Athens has a sizeable Jewish population and in the middle of this university town with its amazing plurality of cultures and religions and ideas the Jewish community would faithfully observe its own traditions and faithfully worship the one God who made the heavens and the earth – but then Paul ventures out into the market place where there is every conceivable god on offer – quick fire gods who promise immediate gratification, gods for the greedy, gods of ecstatic indulgence, gods of nationalism, gods with all the answers, gods of magic, gods to prop up the Roman political system, gods to keep the working classes happily in their place – gods for the curious – in fact all the gods we can also find in the market place of our own secular culture and sometimes even in our churches.

Paul dives headlong into the “no holds barred” competition of the ancient world’s religious market place and shows that he can stand up intellectually against its best philosophers – at this point we half expect him as a good Jew to launch into a tirade against paganism and idolatry but instead we are startled by what almost sounds like approval – something very close to agreement – “you Athenians are clearly very devout – so devout that you even have an image to an unknown god just in case you’ve maybe left one out”. Very cute.

And yet, Paul isn’t just finding a hook to hang his argument on. He’s hit on something very important, in fact he’s making the same fundamental point that the 4th century BC writer of the Wisdom of Solomon also makes. It’s the fact that this God is unknown that is so important. This most elusive God is the one who can’t be captured by intellectual arguments or ideas, who can’t be pinned down in temples made by human hands, not the one in Jerusalem or the dozens that line the streets of Athens or the shopping malls of Perth. This un-pindownable God Paul claims is the God at the heart of everything – the God of Jews and Greeks, Christians and Muslims and Buddhists, the God of atheists and football fanatics – the divine essence that is as close to us as breathing but that slips through our fingers like water as soon as we try to hold it. And to make his point Paul quotes not a Jewish but a pagan poet, Aratus, who wrote in Athens 300 years earlier “in, or perhaps through, whom we live and move and have our being” – Paul, the monotheistic Jew, recognises a spiritual kinship with the pagan Athenians, the truth that wherever we find ourselves in the bewildering market place of human culture and ideas we are immersed in God and if we are prepared to listen we can hear the rhythm of the divine just beneath the surface of our every day life. As – like Paul – we find ourselves living in a culture and at a time where all sorts of different intellectual fashions and religions collide, we need to learn to listen with every one who – however different from us – is also trying to hear the voice of God’s spirit.

In our own land this Spirit has been represented as the Rainbow Serpent, shimmering in the landscape of lakes and caves and rock formations for tens of thousands of years – we need today to listen to what the Spirit is saying to us as Australians through the spirituality of the Aboriginal people. Many young people find they are most connected to their spirituality through the experience of nature; the deep silence of the desert or the beauty of the sun setting into the ocean – we need to listen to what they are telling us. As Christians we need also to be sensitive to the spiritual currents in our secular culture - for example through the spirituality of the ANZAC tradition; the spirituality of mateship and self sacrifice, even – though as a fully paid up member of the anti-football league I hesitate to say it – the spirituality of sport.

But Paul doesn’t leave it at that – if he did he would be advocating no more than some sort of warm fuzzy tolerance, in which everything is relative to everything else. Because Paul goes on to make the robust and un-water-downable claim that this essentially unknowable but universally experienced God – the One who is not far from every one of us – has revealed himself most fully in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The God who tells Moses “I am who I am” reveals that his character is to be faithful and to travel with his people through the wilderness. The God who gets local and who makes himself known through the life and ministry of Jesus as the God of generosity and compassion and justice, the God of the poor and marginalised who reverses the expectations of secular power and authority –– the God even more powerfully revealed in the empty tomb who shows us that nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from his love. And, Paul claims, this Jesus has become the yardstick and the criterion by which we can recognise the presence of God’s Spirit in our world and judge the authenticity of competing claims to spiritual authority and experience.

I think the middle way that Paul takes in Athens – the middle course that doesn’t veer either into a fundamentalist claim that other religions and other forms of spirituality are false or Godless; or into a shapeless relativism that approves equally of all religions and all forms of spiritual experience – I think this provides a clue for the church of the 21st century as like Paul we find ourselves in a marketplace of religious and cultural alternatives. We can enter into conversation with the world around us, and find common ground with men and women of other faiths of no faith at all – in fact I think we have to, if we are to be the church that God is calling us to be. But at the same time we can proclaim the fundamental truth of our faith, which is that in Jesus Christ we are reconciled and brought face to face with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

The good news in all this is that we human beings are God-shaped, made in the image and likeness of God as the earliest creation stories of the Hebrew Bible affirm. And that God doesn’t wait for us to realise this, God doesn’t wait for us to learn the language of the angels before he or she starts a conversation with us – instead, God learns our language, God speaks to us in whatever time and place we live in, in the language of our own culture, the spirituality of our own place and our own time. Wherever and whenever we choose to look, to scratch the surface of our own experience, wherever we sink a well we find living water because as Jesus himself promises us, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit is woven into the DNA of life itself.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Easter 5A Living Stones

Every year in Australia, on the 27th of May, we have an important anniversary – an anniversary that to my mind celebrates one of the most defining events in our history as a nation. This was the date in 1967 when a Constitutional amendment was passed by a whopping 90% majority to recognise Aboriginal Australians as citizens of our country. Referendums don’t very often pass, actually, and they need to receive a two-thirds majority in every State – but Australians recognized overwhelmingly the need to change the original Constitution that specifically excluded Aborigines not only from the census but from the exercise of democratic rights like the right to vote. I think this was the beginning of the long road to reconciliation, and it was also one of the defining moments for our national identity because it said, Australians want to be a people of fairness, Australians want to be an inclusive and a just people. But for a moment what I want to ask you to think about is what it would have felt like on that day if you were an Aboriginal Australian – one day you were an outsider, not counted as belonging – one day you didn’t count and the next day you did.

Unfortunately, fewer people count in Australia now. It’s been a sharp slide down from the national ideal of fairness and justice – we started by declaring that asylum seekers don’t count and that climate change and the environment are figments of the imagination. We counted ourselves out of the shared task of overseas aid. And in its budget last week, our elected government has withdrawn the safety net from the most vulnerable groups within our own community – the young and the old.

We heard three very powerful and very familiar readings from the Bible this morning, the Gospel which is one of the passages most often chosen for funerals, and for very good reason. This passage from John tells us we have an eternal home – we are not wandering from nowhere to nowhere but we are going home. We belong somewhere, we belong in God’s heart and the journey of our life doesn’t end with our death because we have an eternal place with God. We all I think have experienced times in our lives when we didn’t fit, or we didn’t belong, times of homesickness or alienation, and the desire to find a place where we belong, and place that we can call home is very powerful. That may be why people speak of finding a church ‘home’ when they find a congregation that welcomes them and feels like a place in which they can grow their faith. Finding a church home means finding a safe haven, a refuge, a fortress, and a rock. The church may be the one place, the one way, in a person’s life that they experience God's protective love in a hostile and dangerous world.

But the reading from the first letter of Peter reminds us that that’s only the starting point for our journey as God’s people. Specifically, it’s only the starting point for the journey that we take together, as a Church. We perhaps need to remember that Peter here is writing to a dispossessed group of people, people who didn’t belong anywhere – a Gentile not a Jewish community, and a group of people who were outsiders and nobodies, slaves and lower-class people. And he tells them – echoing actually the words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea – once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you were nobodies, and now you are God’s chosen people. Can you imagine the effect of hearing that, if all your life you had lived on the edges of society, maybe working hard for other people’s comfort but belonging nowhere yourself? No wonder early Christianity appealed so strongly to slaves and misfits. No wonder Christianity even today appeals most strongly in places and amongst people where day to day life is hard and unjust. People who don’t count. You have come out of darkness, says Peter in this letter, and now you are living in the marvellous light of God. If these words are familiar to you it is because this is what we say in the liturgy of baptism. Yesterday you didn’t belong anywhere – today you belong to God, you are beloved of God and you have an eternal home in God’s heart. Can you imagine the power of those words if your only experience, up till now, had been the experience of not belonging? And St Peter reminds the people that they are just at the beginning of a new life, that they need to be fed, like babies, with spiritual ‘milk’.

But Peter doesn’t stop there. If we begin as babies needing sustenance, or as misfits and slaves finding a home and a safe haven, then the implication is that we have to grow – and specifically that we have to grow in ways that we ourselves can become the hospitality that is offered to others. Continuing the analogy of a home, and a safe refuge, Peter tells his baby Christians that they themselves will be shaped by God into living stones, the stones that the Church will be built out of and the stones that are going to be strong and durable enough to provide shelter to others. Peter here, it seems to me, his drawing his analogy from another part of the Old Testament, in the Book of Samuel when David suggests he might build a Temple for God. And God says, through the prophet Nathan, no. You won’t build a home for me – that’s altogether too safe and domesticated. No, I’m going to build a house out of you. David, and those who come after him, are given a vocation and a task – it is they who will be the house that offers safety and shelter to God’s people. You see the distinction? We come for reassurance, and for safety and belonging – and we stay because we are commissioned by God to be the safety and reassurance and belonging and speak God’s words of love to others.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles which describes the stoning of Stephen in a sense gives us a glimpse of the moment when the infant Church begins to grow up. This is the first martyrdom, the first recorded instance where an ordinary Christian meets a sticky end for daring to live the faith without compromise. And the important point I think is that Stephen is nobody particularly special. He is a deacon – the Greek word in the New Testament, diakonos, simply means servant – and the deacons were commissioned literally ‘to serve at tables’. The early Church found itself doing some emergency relief, feeding widows and orphans and the apostles needed some help so – well, basically Stephen and the others were on the morning tea roster. But Stephen also felt the need to preach the word, and what he had to say set the cat among the pigeons. Perhaps it wasn’t very tactful to be reminding his listeners of their habit of ignoring the prophets going all the way back to Moses, and of complicity in the death of many of the prophets, most recently Jesus. The story reminds us that living our Christian vocation with integrity can provoke opposition – the way of service, and of compassion and forgiveness has a way of exposing the way of worldly power that is based on competition and inequality. If you think that doesn’t happen so much nowadays, you maybe didn’t notice that the sharpest critique and the firmest opposition to the government’s Budget attack last week on the most vulnerable of our community came immediately from Church organisations like Anglicare, St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. Not coincidentally, these are the service organisations, the modern waiters on tables or diakonos of the modern Church.

Neither, I think, is it coincidental that the stoning of Stephen contains several details that remind us of the death of Jesus. For example Stephen’s face shines with a heavenly light – reminding us of the Transfiguration – he surrenders his spirit to God and prays forgiveness for those who didn’t know what they were doing. As we learn to give flesh and blood to God’s priorities in our own actions – caring and speaking for the vulnerable – then that is where the Church really becomes the body of Christ and comes to shine with the light of Christ.

We start by being a place of safety and welcome, and a place where lives are nurtured and relationships are built. A place where those who once were outsiders and nobodies can find themselves loved and included. A place where we find ourselves at home in God’s love, and where we are secure enough to allow ourselves to be shaped and transformed so that we can become the promise of nurture and safety and homecoming for others. That’s how Church works, and St Peter is gently telling us we can’t just stay put as milk-drinking infants because God needs us to do some of the heavy lifting – to become part of the fabric of shelter and care, to be tellers of the truth that is God’s concern and God’s priority for the most vulnerable in our world – to be grown-up members of the body of Christ.

What makes us a distinctive people? In what ways could a visitor come in here and immediately tell the difference between our community and the culture we live in? Just because we sit and stand and pray and sing hymns? Or because the reality we proclaim and the values we enact are fundamentally different? In what ways do we offer ourselves as a safe haven and a place of welcome and healing and inclusion? In what ways do we – must we – stand apart from the culture we live in and by our actions and priorities declare ourselves different? Yes, it’s how Stephen got himself stoned. It’s also how the light of God shines through.


Sunday, May 04, 2014

The surprising experience of resurrection

In the wonderful 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is picked up, holus-bolus, by a tornado from her aunt and uncle’s dustbowl farm in Kansas and plonked down, house and all, on top of a wicked witch in a land that’s even further away from anywhere than home was – a dangerous and wonderful place called Oz where Dorothy’s only friends are missing the essential ingredients – a Scarecrow who needs a brain, a Tin Man who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who yearns to be courageous – and they all set off together down on a desperate journey down the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz who they hope can give them a heart, make them clever and brave, get them home again. The irony of course is that at the end of the road and all its dangers they find a pretend wizard who nevertheless teaches them the most important thing of all - that the resourcefulness and courage and love they need has been growing inside them all along the way.

A colleague who finds he has his best ideas and writes his best sermons on the move told me he was recently given a gift by his family – a little paper-weight with the words engraved on it, solvitur ambulando, ‘it will be solved in the walking’. Like Dorothy, my friend has discovered that what we think we don’t have sometimes comes to us fully formed along the way. The important thing is to keep moving, because it’s movement, not stagnation, that stimulates creativity.

The Gospel, I think, is teaching us something similar, telling us that we will be transformed not by sitting and waiting but by movement – that we are going to encounter and be changed by the risen Christ in the process of spiritual growth, movement, pilgrimages whether involving physical journeys or journeys into new ways of seeing and understanding. We are transformed by our moving. God’s Easter Spirit is found most significantly in process, rather than stability. To experience God’s inspiration more fully, we have to be on the move, because God also is on the move!

Why? Because resurrection is about a whole new way of being, new ways of seeing and understanding, new relationships. As Mary Magdalene discovers in St John’s Easter morning story, resurrection is about learning to see familiar landscapes in a new way, daring to let go of old certainties and limitations and allowing God to tease our closed minds into recognising new possibilities, new connections. As soon as we open our minds to the paradox of resurrection we discover new ways of understanding our relationships with the people around us, new ways of understanding who we might be ourselves. A living faith, resurrection faith, we discover, is not about holding fast to the certainty of ‘old time religion’ but about strapping ourselves in for a white-knuckle ride through change, dying to much of what we thought would last forever and waking up to new challenges and new resources that we never dreamed possible. Discovering that the God of change – the God of resurrection – is always there ahead of us, creating us moment by moment as the future unfurls in front of us.

Does that sound scary – or exciting?

Maybe we allow this talk of resurrection itself to become over-familiar when we open the Lectionary every year at around this time to find that the season of Easter is upon us. But just imagine that very first Easter. Imagine being there. Imagine daring to believe that what experience and common sense, not to mention medical science, tells you is impossible, has just become the most fundamental reality of your life. Imagine being confronted by the realisation that the God of history, the God of scripture, the God of synagogue and timeless liturgy is none other than the God of novelty, the God who casually blows away all your preconceptions of what’s right and proper and what’s not – the God of resurrection who doesn’t play by the rules.

Because if I’m right – if resurrection is fundamentally about creativity and change and new perceptions – then what ‘new thing’, what novel practices and behaviours might God be calling us to right now? How do we respond to resurrection in all its surprise and novelty in our personal lives and in our life together as a parish? If living by resurrection challenges us and inspires us to expect something new – what new thing might God be about to do in our lives? If we take seriously the experience of the divine willy-willy of resurrection – well, what are we going to do differently?

Today, two pilgrims on the way to Emmaus find resurrection as they walk! Exhausted and depressed by the house of cards tumbling events of Passover Week, it seems they’re going nowhere in particular. Bible scholars tell us Emmaus can’t be found – none of the contenders for this ancient village a few miles out of Jerusalem make any sense even as a night-time stopover for these refugee disciples. If one of them is named Cleopas then the other may well have been the profoundly courageous Mary, the wife of Clopas who John’s gospel tells us stood with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Magdala at the foot of Jesus’ cross. It’s a journey without much sense of hope, walking for the sake of being somewhere else when hope itself - and everything you’ve lived for - seems to have been extinguished. Even the rumours of resurrection are unsettling, more than they can cope with.

The point is, it’s a journey we know about – a journey that most of us have been on at some point in our own lives, the journey to nowhere in particular.

But then, Luke’s Gospel tells us, a third pilgrim joins them. Hidden from their recognition, they journey toward nowhere with the Risen Jesus, not knowing that everything is about to change, that their own resurrection is as close as the next footstep. This, too, is an experience we know something about, the experience of being drawn, in spite of ourselves, at a time when we are most alone and most lost, into a new experience of life, new resources, a renewed sense of direction and purpose, the gift of the courage and wisdom of others that rekindles our own. I think it’s often like that. Right when our journey seems to be headed nowhere is when, if we are prepared to take notice, God offers us a resurrection experience, a new take on the reality of our own life, a new perspective on those who travel alongside us.

Resurrection, as I’ve been suggesting, is not static but fast-flowing and fleeting – God holds it out to us over and over again but the trick is, whether or not we catch hold of it depends on our reflexes. And see in this gospel story, still submerged in their own depression and lethargy, the two travellers do something remarkable. They reach out in hospitality to their fellow traveller, even though their hearts are breaking, their spirits are exhausted, and their bodies worn out. As the stranger prepares to walk on to his next destination, they invite him to supper. And, true to the promise Jesus made on the night before he died, it’s exactly in that moment, in the action of breaking and sharing bread, that they recognise the risen Christ in the one who has offered and shared himself with them. But, just like Mary of Magdala realised earlier that same morning, they discover they can’t hold on to the Jesus they knew. As soon as they get the point, it fades from their sight. Resurrection experiences come and go, you can’t hold on to them. Moments of assurance are fleeting. Inspiration is transitory. Health is temporary. But God is in every moment, filling it with holiness and then moving on the next and inviting us to follow. Faithfulness is about remembering but it’s also about the sort of movement that creates new memories and new possibilities. Hospitality is the open door to creative transformation.

So what are we going to do next? There’s something here, I think, about trust, about knowing for sure that even when we don’t know where we’re going, the God who creates the world we live in and time itself is going to meet us before we get there. There’s also something about understanding resurrection as a process that isn’t just completed in Jesus of Nazareth, but can only be completed in us – when we open ourselves to what God wants to show us, when we learn to live Jesus’ own practice of radical hospitality then Jesus is resurrected – the risen life of Jesus is experienced in the Christ space of new possibilities that God creates between us.

Above all, I think, it’s about recognising that resurrection life never stands still. Keep moving. Follow the yellow brick road of your life. Keep assuming that, no matter where you are on your journey of life, the God who created you and brought you this far has still got something new to show you. Just up ahead. Expect to be surprised. Expect Christ to come to life all over again, in you.