Friday, December 30, 2005

New Year's Day

I guess we’ve all seen that New Year’s cartoon where the old year exits stage right, battered and bruised, while bouncing baby New Year enters, blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead.  Usually the old grandad makes some wry comment in passing.  I guess I look at a cartoon like that with a mix of feelings – who would envy the new arrival when we know what’s in store for it!  - But at the same time there’s a twinge of excitement – who knows what the New Year will bring?  We recognise all the frustrated hopes and the hurts of the year gone past and who can resist hoping that the new year will be different – why not get excited?  We’ve got a blank slate in front of us!

It’s a clever analogy isn’t it? It plays on the all too familiar problem of the young and the old not really understanding or appreciating one another – in a society that idolises youth, the wisdom and experience of age is all too easily overlooked – and looking from the other direction it’s easy to be cynical about the enthusiasm and brash optimism of young people!  The old and the new seem to be in opposition, never really learning from one another.

Nowhere, I think, is this more evident than in the life of the church.  Partly it’s about the different style that young people bring to worship, the preference for informality, movement and music that we can see really clearly in some of the non-mainstream churches, but which is also making headway in our own Anglican tradition – but at a deeper level it’s about how we understand and talk about the mission of the church, always connected at one end to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ – to the historical bedrock of our faith – and at the other end is always searching for new ways of interacting with an unfamiliar cultural landscape.  And here too, the church I think finds itself torn between the old year and the new year – the desire to preserve and cherish the tradition of the church on the one hand, and the need to connect with the currents of contemporary life and culture, on the other hand.  Critics of the old claim that the liturgy of the church – the Eucharist itself that informs us who we are – has become inaccessible and incomprehensible to people who wander into our worship.  Other Christians are equally anxious about the danger that newer expressions of the church might lose touch with the depths of Christian spirituality in an effort to connect with modern culture. 

Here in our own parish I think we are right at the coal-face of all this.  Certainly, when I look back over the last 12 months of our parish life I can see much that has changed, for example with very different services of worship and new ways of doing the Eucharist at 12.00 o’clock with the Open Door Café community and more recently at 6.00 pm with our small contemporary service.  We have also made a number of quite significant changes to the physical layout of our church, mainly in the front garden which really is starting to look like an informal and attractive Australian outdoor gathering space.  All this is going to make it possible for us to try new ways of connecting with the culture we live in.  Maybe the biggest – and scariest – possibility that lies before us is the ABC childcare centre project – to be quite honest I think this has the potential to affect quite fundamentally how we work as a parish and what sort of things we do – because it’s going to introduce a whole new set of relationships with families and child care centre staff.  These things are exciting and forward-looking, and I have to say that I am proud to be the priest of a parish that has been able to catch this vision of what could be.  But it’s not plain sailing is it?  And I think for all of us who love the church and who love the depths of our tradition and history, there’s also some anxiety about facing times of fundamental change.

Today, after the wonder and miracle of Jesus birth we find ourselves back in the realm of practicality – and addressing this same, age-old question – what is the relationship between the new thing God is doing in Jesus, and the ancient and life-giving traditions of the people of Israel.  Because this baby - in whom we invest so much hope - is born into a culture and a society that has some expectations, and we are told that Jesus’ parents, do everything that is required of them under the law. 

I think the very first thing we need to notice about the story we read this morning is that it doesn’t happen by accident – or even because any of the people in the story planned it.  The encounters between Jesus’ family and the old folk in this story – Simeon and Anna – happened firstly because the Holy Spirit guided and prompted them.  How many times in this reading does Luke repeat it?  Simeon is in the temple firstly because of the Holy Spirit’s leading – Jesus’ parents bring him into the temple because they faithfully observe the requirements of the Jewish law.  God’s coincidences aren’t coincidences at all, but the leading and the activity of God’s Spirit at work in our world.   

Thinking about what I would preach about today – New Year’s Day – I was struck by how the encounter between Simeon and Jesus is so different from the way the cartoon figure of the old year shuffles past the baby new year.  Simeon and Anna don’t represent the old ways giving way before the new ways, the old religion being superseded by the new – rather, we see the faithfulness and the holiness of these old folk finding its completion as they recognise in the child Jesus the fulfilment of God’s promises.  The writer of the gospel emphasises continuity between the prophetic voices of Israel’s past and the radical new experience of God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth.  Luke doesn’t see the old story and the new story of God’s people as being in opposition, but instead sees their grounding, their promise and their fulfilment in one another.

The second point I want to pick up on in this story is that the context of God’s blessing in this story is Joseph and Mary’s faithful observance of Jewish religious ritual.  This story confirms that Joseph and Mary are poor folk from the bush – the instructions in Leviticus chapter 12 say that if parents can’t afford lambs they can substitute pigeons or turtle-doves as a sacrifice.  But even if they are country bumpkins, Joseph and Mary do it ‘by the book’, observing the requirements for Jesus’ circumcision on day 8 and the purification ritual 33 days later.  Luke emphasises the importance of ritual – not as an end in itself but as a way of interacting with the holy in day-to-day life.  I think this is something for us to think about in our own de-ritualised century in which much of our daily life has been hollowed out of meaning – as the pace of life reduces the opportunities for everyday rituals like family prayer and Bible study, or grace before meals gives way to the more secular ritual of a TV dinner – this exchange in the temple reminds us that the everyday experiences of life are filled with God’s presence.  By celebrating the goodness and mystery of God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth within the simple and familiar container of ritual, God’s promises are allowed to shape the unknown potential of human love and relationships.  We as a church, facing times of change and new possibility, must allow ourselves to be shaped in the same way, in the powerful and simple rituals of the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, the pouring out of the water of baptism, the reading of Holy Scripture, the rhythms of the church year.  God’s new thing for us grows out of this simple celebration of the holiness of life.

The last point I want to make is this – that the blessing of the child Jesus in the temple reminds us that God’s blessings for us, too, are known in community.  Mary and Joseph could have fulfilled the requirements of the law by staying at home and just sending their pigeons.  Simeon and Anna could have been holy at home.  But the name that that is given to Jesus in the temple ‘God saves us’ – only becomes meaningful as we experience the reality of it in our life together as a community of faith.  This child represents not just our individual hope or the hope of a Sunday morning congregation but the consolation of Israel – the hope and dreams of a community of faith.  And this is what it means to be the church as the old dodderer of 2005 hands over to the gurgling baby 2006 – just as the past and the future in this story are brought together in the temple and find their fulfilment in one another – that by praying and dreaming and working together we at Belmont might also become a community of faith rooted in the past but journeying toward the future.

 

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas gifts

As a regular reader of The Australian newspaper, two items especially caught my attention this week – the first was an article on Monday in the Business section reporting on one of the greatest brand competitions of recent times – Jesus vs. Santa – well, the surprising thing was not that Santa is still outselling Jesus by a factor of about a hundred - we already knew that – after all, it’s hard to beat the marketing strategy of a fat guy in a red suit who can persuade you to punish your credit card by pretending to fly around the whole world in a single night, giving everybody exactly what they want – the truly surprising thing about the article that seemed to utterly flabbergast the writer – was that Jesus is catching up.  Fast.  Nativity scenes still have a long way to go before they’re as popular as Santa’s grotto – but according to this columnist religion’s making a comeback – it’s almost cool to be Christian.  Almost.

So I started thinking about this whole Santa vs. Jesus thing.  Of course, Santa’s got the whole present-giving scene wrapped up (if you’ll pardon the pun) – even small children realise very quickly they’ve got a vested interest in believing in Santa Claus when there’s a Nintendo at stake.  But even though Santa and the reindeers and all the paraphernalia of fake snow and tinsel might hype it up a bit – and even though Santa with all the secular mythology and the relentless commercialism of Christmas has added considerably to the guilt and the stress and the anxiety of the age-old practice of giving gifts to those we love - the giving of gifts at Christmas-time is something that Jesus and Santa very much have in common.  And it’s a practice that I think tells us something quite profound about ourselves – and about God.

You know the old saying, ‘it’s the thought that counts’?  Well, I’ve got to tell you something that generations of kids have known all along – it isn’t the thought that counts – well, not entirely – it’s the present!  On my bookshelves in my study – at least when I clear away a few layers of paper and stacks of books and used coffee cups – you can see a number of little gifts my wife has given me on various occasions – a couple of little wooden angels, a set of Chinese chiming balls, a few pieces of pottery – each of these little objects tells me that my wife loves me, that she thinks about me, and it seems to me that in some way Alison’s gifts for me are a part of her that she has given to me.  When you give somebody a present, you remember them, you affirm how much they matter, you say something tangible about your relationship with them.  Santa reminds us of this, and that’s a good thing, it’s an appropriate thing and I don’t even think that Jesus and Santa are in competition about this.  But the story we celebrate tonight – the story of Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago – I think that tells us that the idea of giving presents didn’t start with us, it started with God – and it tells us what God’s present to us really is.  And you already know this.  The reason every one of us thinks it’s worthwhile coming here in the middle of the night is because we know that in the not very remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth – 2,000 years ago – God is not just telling us he loves us, it’s not just the thought that counts but the gift – God making it tangible and real because in this unlikely birth heaven and earth have touched – God giving us himself, flesh and blood real, as the world’s first Christmas present. 

And that brings me to the second item in The Australian newspaper that caught my eye this week – and it was the cartoon in this morning’s paper – superimposed on a backdrop of an actual photograph of the devastation of an village in Afghanistan – destroyed by who knows what – earthquake or war – huddles a little Afghani boy and he’s hung a red sock on a makeshift washing line.  It looks utterly incongruous.  And the caption reads, ‘At least Santa won’t forget me’.  I guess, to some extent, we do forget, the suffering continues there but we move on, more concerned about troubles closer to home, terrorism, riots in Cronulla, industrial relations laws.  And that image is troubling because we know that the Santa story doesn’t help, deep down, we know there’s a fault-line that runs right down the middle of the Santa myth, because it affirms the haves and it leaves the have-nots out in the cold.  And deep down we know that Christmas isn’t good news at all, unless it’s good news equally for us and for that little boy in a forgotten village in Afghanistan.

And so we look a little bit closer at the other Christmas story, the one about Jesus.  It, too, contains much that’s glossy and romantic – stables and animals and mangers – angels bursting into song in the night sky – until we think about the reality of Jesus’ birth, not to a powerful or a wealthy family, but to a woman and a man too poor to grease a few palms to get somewhere to sleep for the night.  Born to a scandalously unmarried girl in an emergency shelter surrounded by animals and presumably some other equally unpleasant-smelling humans, put to bed in an animals’ feed trough because his parents couldn’t afford anything better, the Son of God enters the world on the very edge of poverty.  And the angels?  They don’t burst in on King Herod in his palace in Jerusalem but on a windswept hillside to a group of the smelliest social pariahs of the day – shepherds living rough out in the bush.  And what do they say?  A Saviour is born tonight – to you.  That’s what the story claims – that the gift of God in Jesus Christ is meant to make a difference to losers and outcasts. 

In Jesus of Nazareth we see the world’s first Christmas present.  Not just the thought that counts, but God taking away all the distance between the human and the divine; God remembering us, God wanting to be loved by us, God becoming vulnerable and helpless before us.  God, risking everything to give us a gift we might reject.  And we recognise this, because that’s what it’s like for us when we give gifts to one another; to really give a gift to one we love is to give ourselves, it’s to be vulnerable to the one we desire, to risk rejection.

And that’s good news for shepherds, good news in Afghanistan – how?  In part, I think, because the gift that God gives us in Jesus Christ is the gift that keeps on giving – the gift that transforms us as we dare to receive it.  Accept this Christmas present and you’ll never look at the world in the same way again.  Dare to accept the God who gives God’s own self – dare to take the risk of coming alive by giving your own self in love for the world that God loves.  The God who gives himself away for us blesses us to the extent that we become poor in spirit, the extent that we dare to stand in solidarity with those who are literally and unambiguously poor.

But mainly, it’s good news because of its sheer, breathtaking extravagance.  God desires us and chooses to live among us despite all that’s mean and small and corrupt about us – quite incredibly, despite the selfishness and he meandering and the inconstancy of the human heart - God wants us.  Despite the agony of bereavement, the anguish of a feared prognosis, the dull ache of unemployment or homelessness or out-of-control debt – right where you are is where God wants to be.  Despite the poverty and the dirt and malnutrition that one half of humanity forces on the other, the God who created us says tonight, ‘I’m with you, I’m going through what you go through.  I will always remember you.’  And within the embrace of that extravagant love we discover ourselves to be blessed, to be those for whom as St Paul writes: ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

 

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Of all the treasures that have come down to us from the history of Christian spirituality, of all the various ways of prayer, the one that I think speaks most clearly of the mystery of Advent is the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading.  The reality, of course, for most Christians since the time of Christ has been that they could only ever hear the scriptures, not read for themselves, because until fairly recently most people couldn’t read.  And so in the monastery, every morning, a group of monks would gather together in the chapel around the lectern and a single monk, who could read, would come forward, approach the book and bow.  Then he would find the passage set down for the day, and, very slowly, he would begin to read the story of God’s words in the world.  When he had finished, he would bow again and back away from the lectern.  After a short silence he would again approach and read again the same passage.  He would do this, over and over, until there was nobody left in the chapel to hear.  Each monk, as he heard the word that he needed to reflect on that day, would silently leave, the Word having invaded not only his ears and his brain but his whole body.  Throughout the day, the monks would chew it over – ruminate on the Word they had received until it literally transformed them from within.  We don’t listen like that any more - since words to we folk of a more literate age have become black marks on a page that we scan at increasingly high speed, we’ve lost the art of allowing God’s Word to sink into us at the level of our flesh and blood.

The most scandalous message of Advent comes through loud and clear today as Christmas approaches: despite everything, the angel tells us, God’s true home is within us, God desires us and God chooses to be most fully revealed in us, despite all the violence, all the corruption and all the trickiness of human hearts, God chooses to be at home in us.  “My gospel,” Paul says in the final verses of his letter to the Romans, “The heart of the good news that I share with you - which has been completely misunderstood all through the ages, this mystery that I am giving you is going to change the whole world.”

 

What mystery?  What’s been so completely misunderstood?  According to St Paul it’s this: that God is not up there or over there - Do you not know, he asks almost incredulously, that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?  That God is incarnate in you.

It’s what David finds out in our first reading.  David’s intentions seem honourable enough – ‘here I am, living in a palace – it’s not right that God should live in a tent’.  It’s what we do ourselves – let’s do up the church, plant a garden, decorate the worship area – it’s God’s house and we want to praise God in it.  But God puts David straight – you’ve got it the wrong way around – you don’t build me a house – instead, I’m going to make a house out of you.  It’s a play on words – David is thinking about bricks and mortar but God has got something else in mind - a lineage, flesh and blood.  It might seem strange that in this last week of Advent we’ve left the sweeping visions of Isaiah to hear about David’s building plans but here’s the point – God doesn’t plan to be confined to a building we visit on Sundays, or to a book on a lectern – or even to the bread and wine of the Eucharist – God doesn’t even intend to be confined in the heavenly hereafter – God plans to live in us.

This isn’t new or radical thinking about God.  St Paul knew it, the writer of the book of Revelation knows it when he writes, ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them”’. [1]  And the monks who allowed God’s Word to seep into them in the practice of lectio divina also knew it.  The people of Israel knew it in their earliest writings, in the book of Genesis that tell how God breathes life into the dust of the earth, how God walks with human beings in the cool of the evening – but along the way we forget, we come to think of God as remote from us, as being up there or over there, or in a different dimension.

We forget so much that by the time of the prophet we call 2nd Isaiah the people of God have to be jolted awake by being called ‘ the people who walk in darkness’.  Even we Christians forget, when we elevate Jesus so highly that we want to make him the only human being in whom God is revealed.  When we so emphasise that God is present in Jesus of Nazareth that we fail to see the presence of God in the people we live with, that we fail to see the suffering of God in the faces of street children or homeless men; the God who is incarnate in those we fear just as much as in those we love.  When the Incarnation of God is an event that we think only happened 2,000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, we run the risk of making Christmas too safe, mistaking the cuteness of the nativity scene or the sublime architecture of a city cathedral for the utter scandal of God choosing to be revealed amongst the scruffy and the unclean and the dangerous.

And so we come, in the fourth Sunday of Advent, to Mary.  Writer Madeline L’Engle reminds us of the legend that Mary was not the only or the first teenage girl that the archangel Gabriel visited – just the first one to say yes.

“Are you sure (L’Engle writes)

but I’m unworthy -

I couldn’t anyhow -

I’d be afraid.  No, no,

….

Do I have to answer now?

I don’t want to say no-

Let me have a few days to think it over.”

 

Sorrowfully, although he was not surprised

to have it happen again,

the angel returned to heaven.” [2]

 

What makes Mary extraordinary, according to this legend, was her willingness to stand face to face with an angel in all its scary splendour and open herself to God at work in her, the gift of God’s Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us...  As William Willimon writes, ‘incarnation means that the God who stands outside of time also enters into time, the God who is infinite becomes finite, the God who is all-powerful becomes all-vulnerable.  The God whose womb bore the world now grows molecule by molecule in Mary’s womb to bear the good news of peace on earth’. [3]

I think Madeline L’Engle gets it about half right – but it’s not just teenage girls in Nazareth who get a surprise visit from Gabriel – we all get the invitation to open ourselves up, to become pregnant with God’s Word – I think, over and over –such an intimate, gentle breath of angels’ wings that we often don’t hear.  The beauty and the wonder of Mary is that she stands for all who are powerless and vulnerable, the ‘yes’ she gives is so incongruously self-assured – she stakes everything she has and everything she is on the utterly preposterous notion that God’s Word taking shape within her is going to be sufficient not only for her but for the whole world.  Maybe you have to be poor and powerless to take a risk like that – how often, I have to ask myself, have I refused to let God’s Word find a foothold in my life because I think there’s more security or better prospects in following my own agenda?  The gospel of Mary is a gospel of challenge.

In a slightly grotesque image, St Augustine claims that when Mary says ‘yes’ she is impregnated by the Holy Spirit through the ear.  Maybe he could have thought that metaphor through a bit better, but what he means is that just as Mary conceives through hearing and responding to the Word, so too new life comes to us when we listen to the Word.  When we hear and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Word, we become "pregnant" with the Spirit.  The scandal of Advent repeats itself - Christ takes on flesh in you and me.

 



[1] Rev 21.3

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, And It Was Good: Reflections on

beginnings

[3] William Willimon, Pulpit Digest

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Rejoice?

One of the things I always love about the Advent season is the Advent wreath that we put right in the middle of the church, and each week as we light a new candle it seems we enter a new phase of our waiting – the quality of our attention seems to shift, the message seems to alter just a bit each week and the lighting of a new candle symbolises that.  Now the colour of Advent, traditionally, is purple, but today’s candle is rose-coloured -  maybe you’ve been thinking to yourself the last couple of weeks, Evan couldn’t find enough purple ones – And it looks good, in the middle of this muted season of Advent, that is almost like an echo of Lent, the rose-coloured candle is like a splash of joy – and that is exactly what it’s intended to be.  Because today is Gaudete Sunday – in Latin, that means Rejoice!, and it comes from the opening word of the traditional Latin entrance psalm set for today – if you listen carefully you can hear the joy bubbling up through the readings today, it’s as if even though we’re not there yet, halfway through the deepening spirituality and the introversion of  Advent we can’t resist breaking out a bit, celebrating a bit in advance.

And the reasons for letting our hair down today are right there in our first reading from Isaiah.  The Christian church has never hesitated, right from the beginning, to pick up the bold announcements in the book of Isaiah and say, that’s about Jesus!  That prophecy comes true in Jesus, that’s what Isaiah is really talking about.  And even though the prophecies of Isaiah are written hundreds of years before Jesus comes on the scene, even though we know Isaiah’s confronting mixture of challenge and comfort was written for the people of the prophet’s own time, I think we’re right to claim them, because that’s exactly what Jesus does. 

You know how it was all the go at one stage for businesses and government departments and even parish churches to have mission statements?  A short, snappy couple of sentences that says what we think we’re about?  It was all the rage in the 90s, the idea is to create a strong image right from the start in your flyers or your TV advertisements – and that’s exactly what Jesus does when he bursts onto the synagogue scene in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus chooses as a mission statement for himself this passage we just read from the book of Isaiah.  And what a passage!  It’s nothing short of an announcement by the prophet that he has been called by God, that the words he speaks are not his words but God’s words, and that God is going to do great things through him.  As if that wasn’t a big enough claim, the prophet claims that he is anointed by God – the Hebrew word is moshiach and that’s a huge claim because it’s only kings who are anointed – it is the claim that God’s message and God’s purposes have come true in Jesus’ own words and in his own person – it’s a huge claim because this is also the word - moshiach – that we know as Messiah.  It’s the most confronting claim imaginable, and it’s a claim that carries with it good news - not of the airy-fairy kind, but good news of the kind that alters history.

This is the good news that Jesus packs into the mission statement that he adopted from Isaiah:-

1.     First, it’s good news to the poor – in Luke’s gospel, the word literally means those who are bent over, the lowly.  That’s the first priority, and it’s echoed in the announcement by the angels not to important folk but to dirt-poor shepherds freezing out in the hills near Bethlehem.  God taking on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth is good news for those who are literally at the bottom of the heap.  I guess the good news for the rich is the challenge to adjust their priorities and their practices. 

2.     Second, the prophet says the good news is comfort to those who are broken-hearted – living with dignity also means hope for people whose lives are dominated by anxiety, humiliation or fear.  This claim is getting bigger and bigger!  God has got a special priority for those who are left out, for those who have got used to living without hope – if that’s good news for them, it’s also good news for those of us who are doing OK, because it carries with it the invitation to see things from God’s point of view, to be the agents of God’s good news.

3.     Then the prophet says the good news means freedom for prisoners – oh, hang on, mate, surely not the ones who deserved to be locked up?  Well, apparently freedom is the condition God created us for – and I think that here we are meant to be reminded of people whose lives are not free, not just those who are literally locked up but people whose lives are dictated by their circumstances – the uneducated, the unemployed – refugees, those who are locked away in prisons of mental illness, the sick and housebound.  Jesus claims that the good news he embodies is powerful enough to open the gates of the most powerful prisons human society can invent.

4.     And the biggest claim of all – the prophet claims it’s the year of God’s favour, that means the year of Jubilee – even bigger than the Get Out of Jail Free card, this one says your mortgage is paid off, your credit card bill has been settled for you – in the most ancient law of the people of Israel the Year of Jubilee that came once every 50 years was when everyone’s debts were cancelled, all slaves set free, all aliens living in the land were given permanent residency visas.  A fresh start.  By quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is claiming all that.

Has Jesus maybe overstated his case a bit?  Did he bite off a bit more than he could chew?  Has he really delivered?

In the movie, ‘Superman returns’, there’s a wonderful line from Superman’s dad.  Now Superman comes from the planet Krypton – I must admit I’d always thought he got to earth more or less by accident but apparently it had all been planned: "Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them...’ – this is what Superman’s long-dead dad tells him via a sort of hologram cassette-tape message - "They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.  They only lack the light to show them the way.  For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." 

Well, apart for the obvious and kind of goofy religious overtones – don’t we sometimes wish that Jesus was a bit more like Superman?  – though when I think about it, it does seem that Superman’s presence in Metropolis have made the human beings there even more passive and dependent – so maybe it’s a good thing that God – the real God, that is, chooses a different way to work.  Over and over again, in the story of God’s people, God chooses those who are weak, those who don’t have super-powers, people who are ambivalent and indecisive like Jacob, and Jonah, and Peter; people who are old and barren like Sarah and Hannah; people who are crotchety and unattractive, like John the Baptist, people who are young and scared and poor, like Mary.  The big claims that Jesus makes are claims about how God works in the world – that we are not alone because God is with us, in Jesus himself, born to love and laugh and suffer with the rest of us, God shares the circumstances of our lives - but Jesus’ big claims are also, I think, the claim that God works through human hands and hearts in all their weakness.

There’s a story about a travelling rabbi who finds himself in the court of the king of Egypt.  He is treated like royalty and the king shows him around the palace.  In one room, the rabbi is shown the paintings of an illustrious master who died prematurely, hundreds of years ago.  These are paintings that take the breath away, every one a masterpiece, like jewels that open onto another world – but one wall of the room is bare.  ‘Why’s that?’, the rabbi asks?  The king tells him that the master had died young, that the wall is left bare to remind them of what else he could have painted. ‘But nobody else can do it’, says the king.  ‘Give me a few days’, says the rabbi, ‘and a few chemicals – powered silver, antimony, a few things like that’.  And the king does – a few days later he comes back to find the fourth wall covered with a great mirror that reflected all the beauty of the paintings, which seemed to have come alive and moving, shimmering and radiant. [1]

The Advent journey this year is getting closer to its end.  We find ourselves looking ahead to a pregnancy, to an insignificant birth in a forgotten outpost of the Roman Empire that tells us we are not alone, that God has come into our world.  The message of Advent is that God works through human hands.  And Jesus’ big claims, his extravagant mission statement, tells us what our part of that is – to reflect the light, to rejoice at the presence of the light, wherever we find it, to be the mirrors that bring the light into the dark places that still exist in our world.  To be good news in a world that desperately needs some.  God, strangely enough, chooses weak and imperfect people to do that, people like you and me.

 



[1] Megan McKenna (1999), Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: stories and reflections on the Sunday readings, (Orbis, Mayknoll NY), p.72.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Getting ready in the desert

A couple of years ago a journalist named Ann Medlock founded an award called the ‘Giraffe Award’ – so named because it is awarded every year to honour people who have stuck their necks out to speak up courageously on behalf of others or who have risked paybacks or worse because they have worked for justice in an unpopular cause.  For example, people who advocate for the rights of low-paid outworkers, people looking out for the rights of young women brought into the country illegally to work in the sex industry.  The Giraffe Award for people who stick out their necks in unpopular causes, for the year 30AD or thereabouts, could well have been awarded to John the Baptiser.

Last week, we started the season of Advent, and the liturgical year of Mark, with the Jesus final teaching according to Mark.  This week, we swing right back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel, back to ground zero.  But the theme is exactly the same: what’s going on in the world?  Last week the reading was framed by concern for the time of the end, and the gospel writer is addressing the anxiety of his own community who are living through dreadful events: the brutal suppression of a brief-lived uprising against the Roman occupying army, and the destruction of the temple around 70 AD.  But this week Mark begins his story from the beginning, writing about the events of another dark age, 40 years earlier.

And he starts with the whopping big claim that what he has to say is good news for the whole world!  The first 8 verses of Mark’s gospel set the scene, and some commentators might say, set the course of all four gospels.  It’s a bold claim for a people who have lived under occupation for a century or more and now face the destruction – for the second time in their history – of the temple that assures them of God’s presence in their midst.  What could possibly be good news?

For first-century folk who knew the Roman propaganda all too well, the good news that Mark dares to write about would have been nothing short of alarming.  There was after all only one person in the ancient world who you could safely call the Son of God, the Saviour of the world - and that was the Emperor Augustus.  Those were the Roman emperor’s official titles – if it’s good news to call an obscure Galilean peasant executed 40 years earlier the Son of God then it’s dangerous good news, it’s good news that thumbs its nose at the status quo, good news that means liberation for the poor.  So Mark himself, the writer of the gospel, is a bit of a giraffe – and then onto the stage steps John the Baptist, the most uncouth of all God’s prophets.

And what a fanfare he steps onto the stage with.  Mark cobbles together some of the most resonant verses in the Old Testament to make something totally new – the voice of the one who cries out in the desert as a messenger, not the good news himself but the one who announces the good news.  For anybody who knows anything about how Israel has been liberated in the past, here is something to prick up the ears.  There’s a sense of continuity with what God has done for God’s people before – the distant memory of a desperate flight from Egypt and a long journey through the desert.  We know that many of the revolutionaries who fought to liberate Judea from the Romans started out in the desert.  The desert was also the place for spiritual renewal and purification – home to the mysterious Essene sect who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls – wilderness to Israel in the first century was a symbol of hope.  And Mark does something even more dramatic, even more giraffe-like – he picks up his single verse from the middle of the book of Isaiah right where the prophet speaks of the turning tide of hope.

We heard it in our Old Testament reading, the full passage that Mark is quoting from.  After long years of humiliation and exile in Babylon that the Judean people saw as punishment and rejection by God, God announces in the council of heaven that they have suffered enough.  The lever is thrown abruptly from suffering and judgement to pardon and tenderness.  The change is immediate and dramatic – commentators are divided as to whether the effect of this is that God is bulldozing a track through the desert for the homecoming – a path from Babylon to the doorstep of Jerusalem – or is it something a bit more nuanced? – in the desert itself where the people are wandering, that’s where God’s path is to be prepared – not so much the promise of rescue as the promise of comfort in the middle of hardship.  But there’s to be no more punishment because – even though human beings haven’t changed – even though we’re as reliable as couch grass in the summer sun – God’s back in the business of nurturing, of being a shepherd to his sheep.

Mark pulls up that verse that reminds his hearers what God has done before in the face of military defeat and humiliation.  This is the God of the underdog, the God who brings us back from the edge of oblivion!  And onto the stage steps John the Baptist, spitting chips.

I can’t quite work out why, but the Jewish historian Josephus, writing during the time of the Roman wars about the same time as Mark is writing his gospel – Josephus reckons John was a popular preacher.  Can you figure it?  This guy is rude.  He dresses in coarse rags, and his message is blunt and uncompromising – repent – you take the day off work and you go out into the desert to hear him – and what he tells you is that you’re not in a good way, not spiritually, not morally – if you want to be able to receive what God’s doing, the good news poised on the brink of coming into the world – then repent – make a U-turn.  Both Josephus and the Bible tell us John came to a sticky end, so it seems not everyone wanted to hear his blunt message that things weren’t good enough.  Maybe the only ones who were flocking out to the desert to hear him were the ones who knew already that the way things were was intolerable.  It’s the poor after all who find the simultaneous message of repentance and hope intoxicating.  The rich find that sort of talk disturbing.

John does something else that’s disturbing to the status quo, and it’s going to set the stage for Jesus’ whole career.  He baptises.  A dunk in the river – nobody knows whether John made this ritual up for himself or whether it comes from some obscure rite practiced by the Essenes.  A dunk in the Jordan, that most symbolic of rivers because it represents the dividing line between the wilderness and the land of God’s promise.  Symbolically it’s about more than just individual forgiveness, it’s a whole turning again of a people towards the covenant made and renewed with God, over and over again, in the desert.  John thumbs his nose at the temple authorities who believe that they alone have the institutional means of forgiveness.  From now on, says John the Baptist, forgiveness comes wholesale.

And that’s where we come in.  Except that we’re not giraffes, we don’t want to stick our necks out any more than the poor folk who flocked out to see John in the desert.  Last week we got the message – wake up!  Something new is afoot – look around you and see for yourselves that the jacarandas are blooming and that summer is here.  Dare to believe the spirit is stirring, that God is doing something new.

This week the message gets both more personal and more urgent.  God himself speaks the intimate language of comfort and reassurance – your time of heartache, your time of grief and emptiness, your time of guilt is over, I am with you in the wilderness of your life.  And on the edges of our consciousness, John the Baptist picks up the counterpoint – you want good news in the desert? – then be good news!  If the one who is to come is going to make any difference, then we have to be ready for the Spirit of God to enter us and lay claim to our lives.  John picks up correctly that the job of making a straight path in the desert, the work of preparation, is up to us.  Advent is about stripping back our pretences, about preparation, purification and setting straight – both in our individual lives and in the world.  You want to receive God’s message of comfort and reassurance? – then learn how to give comfort, speak tenderly, proclaim an end to others’ guilt and grief.  On the second Sunday of Advent we are called back by John the Baptist to the promises of our own baptism, called to prepare the way of the Lord in silence, called to listen with one another to God’s Word, to share one another’s burdens, called to humbly wait for what God has to reveal to us. 

 

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Dare to hope!

Christmas is coming.  It’s official, the jacaranda flowers have started falling all over my car where I park it down in front of the rectory.  I love the predictability of that, the very first week of Advent when we begin to decorate the church with purple you can be sure the mauve flowers will be falling off the trees.  But at the same time there’s an awareness of how few shopping days there are before Christmas – the Santas and the cheesy Christmas carols have been there in the background of my consciousness for weeks and weeks now – the commercial world always jumps the gun – but for me it’s only now, with the first week of Advent, that I come to with a start and think, ‘get ready!’ What do we have to do?  Where’s the list?’

We’re in Advent, that all-too-brief time of reflection and preparation for the great events of Christmas – in my mind I begin to remember the Advents of years gone past, and the almost contradictory sense of the deepening spirituality and the gathering expectation that the church points us towards, set against the backdrop of the gathering frenzy of commercialism and the hectic round of family duties.  Part of the difficulty id that the secular world doesn’t actually get the point of Advent at all – you don’t go around wishing people a happy and repentant Advent, or send people cute little cards with John the Baptist eating locusts on the front.  The bit that the secular world gets, and that the shopping centres get, is the anticipation of the Bethlehem bit – the multiplication of donkeys and camels and mangers – but Advent is actually rather more than just a churchy way of counting down the days until Christmas, and over the next few weeks we find ourselves confronted in church with some unusual and even confronting images – many of them from that motley collection of Old Testament characters we call the prophets – daring to speak for God and offering a strange mixture of challenge and hope for a people going through times of turmoil, transition, exile and home-coming.

This Advent, many of our readings come from Isaiah, a long work that spans several centuries and joins together the work of prophets writing in times of crisis – firstly in the eighth century BC when Judah seems to be at risk of invasion; then two centuries later when Jerusalem is laid waste by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon – and finally at the end of the long period of exile when the Judeans return home to a ruined city.  And that’s where we come in today, a dispirited people returned home to find their entire world of faith reduced to rubble – the place that epitomized God’s presence occupied by foreigners and destroyed – and we read this impatient, almost despairing prayer that’s got no time for polite language, ‘O, why don’t you just tear open the sky and come down!  If you’re really with us, stop pussyfooting around, God, just tear apart the divide between heaven and earth and show yourself!’  It’s a prayer of a people at the end of their rope, a people who’ve been pushed around for centuries and have lost hope in conventional avenues of change – ‘God, just do it!’  Tear the sky open, just do something!

And I think we can see a number of things in this prayer – a movement taking place from yearning, to the recognition of the community’s own brokenness and sin, a movement from exasperation at God to submission to God’s vision, God’s purposes – and there is hope.  That’s why this reading is the first word we hear in the season of Advent.  That’s what Advent means.

You might maybe wonder what our situation has got to do with the situation the people of Judah faced when they returned from exile in 537 BC.  Really, is our situation as broken and as despairing as theirs?  And the answer, of course, is yes.  Absolutely, yes.  What a year we’ve had.  A year of tsunami, of hurricane and earthquake, a year of suicide bombings, the wretched misadventure in Iraq, children continuing to be maimed by landmines in Afghanistan, lives lost, futures mortgaged to despair and homelessness.  These things affect us here in our little parish church in Belmont, at least I hope they do.  And in the church?  A loss of confidence, I think, a failure of nerve as church leaders look nervously over their shoulders at the statistics of declining congregations and evidence that nobody really is listening to whatever good news we think we’ve got to share.  And I think we’ve got our own share of that right here in Belmont – has God got a future for our parish?  If so, how do we know what it is and how do we work towards it as a real community of faith?

And this is the value of Advent.  Because Advent is both a look backwards and a look forwards – a time of balancing delicately between the sadness of the mess we actually live in and the joy of the world we would like to believe in.  During Advent we become exquisitely aware that what we really need is not tinsel and Christmas cake but to become something more than what we are now – right in the middle of the chaos of the world’s politicking and power-mongering – what we really want is for God to tear open the sky and do something.

So at the beginning of Advent, we might use Isaiah’s model of an impatient prayer for one of our own –

·        Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence.  Just like when a forest catches fire, when fire makes a pot to boil—what are you so impatient about that you would talk to God like that?  Get in touch with the centre of your dissatisfaction, the heart of what you really long for – be real with God about what you’re waiting for.

·        When you did terrible things that we never expected, when you descended and made the mountains shudder at your presence.  Since before time began no one has ever imagined, no ear heard, no eye seen - where have you come from – cast your mind back over the journey of your own faith, the history of our journey together as the people of All Saints’, Belmont – when can you personally remember God doing something wonderful? – call to mind your memory of God’s faithfulness in the past. 

·        But how angry you've been with us! We've sinned and kept at it so long! Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved?  We're all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease-stained rags. We dry up like autumn leaves-- sin-dried, we're blown off by the wind.  No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you.  Because you've turned away from us, left us to stew in our sins – what do you need to repent of? What is your part in what’s wrong with the world? – when have you failed to forgive?  When have you acted selfishly or with prejudice, and when have you put your own agenda ahead of God’s?  Get in touch with the hard knot of lovelessness within you and hold it up to God.

·        Still, God, you are our Father.  We’re the clay and you’re our potter.  We’re all what you made us – imagine God’s hands on you, pushing you and pulling you into the shape that God wants.  When God remembers you – when God re-members you, God is re-forming you back into God’s own image – the shape God always intended for you.  Are you willing to relax your own grip so that God can make you into the shape he wants?  Imagine us all together, as the community of faith called All Saints, as a lump of clay that God is forming into something new.  When God moulds us into the shape God has in mind for us, that’s the Incarnation – that’s God, taking on flesh and blood in our world.

·        Don't be too angry with us, O GOD. Don't keep a permanent account of wrongdoing. Keep in mind, please, we are your people--all of us – What are you hoping for?  Get in touch with what poet Emily Dickinson calls that feathered bird that keeps singing and singing in your chest – find a name for the thing you most desire and dare to hold it up to God.  Imagine us as the people of God.  What do we most hope for this Advent?  What might the birth of God’s Son be promising us?  Dare to hope!

 

Friday, November 18, 2005

Sheepish goats

It seems we human beings are a tribal lot – psychologists tell us our almost universal tendency to set up divisions between insiders and outsiders helps us to see the world as orderly and even safe.  If I work out that there’s two sorts of people in the world, and I’m one of the right sort, then that’s OK.  Well, this morning we hear about the ultimate distinction – you’re either a sheep or you’re a goat.

Maybe you’ve already noticed that there’s a connection between this passage and Jesus’ very first speech in Matthew – the beatitudes – because in both of them he turns the world’s priorities right around the opposite way – in both the beatitudes and today’s gospel Jesus tells us that the standard for salvation isn’t whether we’ve got the right set of beliefs, but whether or not we show mercy – whether or not we’re willing to cross the boundaries between those that the world approves of and those the world disapproves of.  ‘Guess what?’, Jesus seems to be saying to us, ‘none of the divisions that the world thinks are important actually matter at all’ – if Jesus is a king, then he is the king of the beggars.

But there’s a contradiction in all this – because right in the middle of demolishing the divisions of this world, Jesus seems to be setting up a new outsider group in the next world!  In this world you might be ‘in’, but watch out, because on Judgement Day you’re going to be a goat and you’ll be ‘out’.  You’re ‘out’ now, but don’t worry, because later you’ll be a sheep and that’s good, because you’ll be ‘in’.  And I think that’s a problem because this passage seems to contribute a whole lot to the image that so many of us carry around with us, a sort of split personality image of God – on the one hand a genial, Father Christmas type who wants the best for us in a vague sort of way, but who deep down is really just waiting for us to make a wrong move so he can cast us out into eternal hellfire.  And whose demands, when it comes down to it, are the next best thing to impossible.  You know, that’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s not so far removed from the sort of image that a lot of people have, and it does a lot of damage – for a start, when we have a picture of God as being judgemental and vengeful, then it’s hard to act towards other people in ways that are forgiving and loving.

You have to wonder, too, whether the Jesus who eats, not only with prostitutes and tax collectors, but with Pharisees as well – the Jesus who stands on the side of the woman caught in adultery – how good a prosecuting attorney is this guy really going to make!  Much more in character, I reckon, is the vision in the first letter of Peter of Jesus going to be with sinners in hell on Easter Saturday, in between dying on the cross and rising again, choosing to be with the very ones who have made the choice to close their hearts to God.  It’d be a problem for the sheep too, wouldn’t it – I mean, talk about do-gooders! – this lot have fed every hungry person they ever saw, given a couple of bucks to every down-and-out they ever came across, regularly visited the local hospital and the local jail, helped out at the local soup kitchen.  Now they’re expected to trot happily off to their eternal reward while the goats end up as kebabs?  I don’t think so – if the sheep are as selfless as all that they’d be all for solidarity – ‘we’ll go with them’ – and so, I believe, would Jesus the Good Shepherd.

I read a while ago about a group of elderly nuns, discussing this passage from Matthew’s gospel, and someone wanted to know how you could be sure whether you were on the right side.  So the person leading the discussion asked for a show of hands – maybe we might do it here, too. [1]

How many of you, even once in your life, have ever done what Jesus asks at the beginning of this passage and fed a person who was hungry, or given clothing or blankets to a family in the cold months, or visited somebody in prison or hospital?  That’s great – you are all sheep.

How many of you, even once in your life, have ever walked past a homeless person and not offered help, or have known somebody in hospital and not visited when you could have?  That’s not so good – you’re all goats.

And this is the whole point – every single one of us is a sheepish goat - or a goaty sheep – our goodness and our failures are all mixed up together and that, I think, is part of what it means to be human.  We spend our time trying to divide the world into two kinds of people, trying to convince ourselves that we’re the right kind, when the reality is that the world doesn’t divide that easily, and the sheep and the goats both represent our own personal experience.  The reality is that it is we who are divided, and we both pass the test and fail it at the very same time.  What’s God going to do with that?

The key to all this, I think, is to fast-forward the story just a little bit – because in Matthew’s time-line we’re still on the wrong side of the cross.  The key is the cross, and the king-ship of Christ.  Actually, this day in the church calendar that we call ‘Christ the King’ is a very recent tradition, and it was started by Pope Pius IX in 1925 as a protest against the arrogance of fascism and a reminder that there is only one authority that really matters.  Yet what sort of kingship is it that doesn’t have any of the trappings of worldly authority or power, the sort of kingship that’s on the side of beggars and prostitutes, and ends up being executed as a common criminal?  Well, it’s an upside-down sort of kingship, but it’s also a kingship that’s based on a completely different view of what power is about.  In the world we live in, peace is maintained by dividing the world into those who belong and those who don’t, us and them, goodies and baddies – and power is exercised from the inside out – to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in.  In Jesus, God shows what a different idea he has of power – you might call it relational power, the power to demolish the false divisions of the world by coming amongst us as an outsider, by giving himself up to the violence and the hatred that the world’s divisions create at the very same time as loving and forgiving us.  It’s the power to reconcile what the world holds to be irreconcilable, the power to heal the false divisions within us and between us.  The kingship of Christ is the power to join together what we can’t join, to make the divided reality of human existence whole and complete.

Maybe the story ends this way:

All the nations have gathered before him, and the king asks which among them have seen him in the face of the homeless and the hungry and the condemned of this world – and with one voice they reply that yes, they have seen him there, they remember that when they most showed compassion that was where they found the Son of Man.  And so he places them all on his right hand.

And then the king asks which among them were sometimes too busy or too self-preoccupied or too afraid or in a hurry, or which among them didn’t want to get involved, and didn’t stop and look into the face of the Son of Man lying drunk on the footpath or sleeping rough at the railway station.  Which of you closed your hearts to me when it really mattered?  And they all say yes, that was them sometimes.  And so they shuffle over to the left and side.  Some of them try to stand more or less in the middle.

Well, says the king, you know the score.  As much as you did this to the least of these little ones, you did it to me.  And then the king steps down and joins them and says, ‘But I refuse to accept your choice.  If I really am king of the beggars, then I belong with you.  Nothing you can do will ever separate you from my love.  When you’re ready, we’ll rise on Easter morning together.’

 



[1] Matthew, Sheila and Dennis Linn, Good Goats: Healing our image of God, (1994, New York, Paulist Press).

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Parable of the Unscrupulous Master

We live in a world dominated by anxiety.  Now, I guess, more than at a lot of other times – every morning when I open my newspaper I can read pages and pages of articles about terrorism – our collective fear I think is fuelled not only by the ever-increasing violence that fills our TV screens – and to which maybe we even start to get a bit desensitised – what seems most frightening is the randomness, the existence of a shadowy enemy at the same time on the other side of the world and now apparently right at home in Australia, the incomprehensibility of what terrorists actually want – and even the way elected governments respond to the threat – all this I think is increasing the temperature of anxiety in our society.

But anxiety itself isn’t new.  Social scientists tell us that just living in a modern society produces a sort of background level of anxiety, just waiting to attach itself to some perceived threat.  The worst sort of vague anxiety is the sort that we attach to things we can’t do anything about, like crime rates or global warming.  A generation ago, teenage kids grew up feeling a huge level of anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war.  At the same time we were hearing vague threats about disappearing natural resources and environmental pollution.  Are we recycling properly – is that the right sort of plastic container for the recycle bin?  Young families have huge anxiety about rising housing prices, interest rates, unemployment – am I keeping up with the Joneses?  The list goes on but it comes down to this – am I going to be alright?  In a society that teaches us to be self-centred, anxiety is the natural downside.

The really strange thing is, there can be anxiety as well about the one thing that we really should have no anxiety about at all.  Am I saved?  What happens to me when I die?  Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’?  This week, and next week, as we come to the end of the church year, our readings from the Bible invite us to think about what Christians have called the Second Coming.  In some Christian churches you can hear in great detail how this is going to happen, and for my money some of these versions are very frightening indeed.  I think when St Paul writes about it, he doesn’t intend it to be scary, but he does think it’s going to happen any day now, and he tells the church at Thessalonica to get ready.  St Paul gets that one wrong.  Jesus didn’t come back in his lifetime, and so far, two thousand years later, still no sign - though there’s certainly a thriving business in speculating about it.  Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t believe that the God who created the world is also going to act to bring all things to their conclusion – and every week we recite the Apostles’ Creed in which we affirm our expectation that Jesus indeed will return to call all things in creation to account – but the only encounter with Jesus that every one of us knows for certain that we’re going to have is the one that comes at the end of our own lives.

In our gospel reading we heard the very familiar story from Matthew’s gospel of the three servants who are given large sums of money to look after while their master goes on holidays.  Older translations of the Bible use the word ‘talent’ which in the original Greek means a large weight of silver or some precious metal – and that’s always given this story a certain ambiguity because where in the original it’s about enormous, lottery-sized sums of money, in the English version it sounds as though it’s about abilities, the talent for playing music or writing poems.  And preachers get something useful out of that – the message becomes something like ‘don’t waste your God-given abilities’ – even if you think you only have one or two talents, God intends you to use what you’ve got.  And that’s an OK message, but it overlooks the main point, which is that Jesus is talking about our accountability before God at the end of all things – and in the story what the servants are entrusted with is not the ability to crochet or talk in foreign languages – but huge, over-the-top amounts of money.  And this story follows another well-known story, the one about the girls who miss the party because they run out of oil.  So the first story tells us that we have to be alert and we have to be ready, and today’s story tells us we are accountable for what we’ve done.  Taken at face value this story says something like, ‘don’t play it safe’ – the Kingdom of God springs up within us and around us when we are prepared to recognise the gifts of the Spirit within us and take a risk.  I think that’s one level of meaning in the story, and the fact that the sums of money are so huge – in one commentary it is estimated that a talent might be worth up to half a million in today’s terms – so that begs the question, doesn’t it – what have we as disciples been given that is that valuable?  If we’re not talking about crocheting, and we’re not talking literally about how much we’ve got in the bank – then what is Jesus saying is this wealth that we have been entrusted with?  And when you say it like that I think the answer pops out by itself – the treasure that we have as disciples is the gospel itself – it is the good news of Jesus Christ, and it is the indwelling inspiration and the creative power of the Holy Spirit.  As disciples we should be busting with it, we should be splashing it around like a high-roller down at the casino, the last thing we should be doing with it is putting it away for safe keeping.  As disciples we need to really get in touch with the treasure that we have been given – to attend to the Spirit within us, to drink deeply at the well of Christian spirituality, to learn how to pray and to meditate on the scriptures – to be so soaked in the Holy Spirit that we couldn’t dig a hole and bury it if we wanted to.  Like all of Jesus’ stories, this one uses wild exaggeration to make the point – discipleship means taking the risk of living and loving joyfully.

But there’s a problem, and I think this problem has got something to do with the anxiety I have been talking about.  Because in the ancient world there was really only one way to double your money, if you were a landowner, and that was to turn the screws a bit harder on the peasant farmers that worked your land.  The only way the first two slaves can meet their master’s demands for a huge profit and keep in sweet themselves is by creating a bit more misery and hardship down the line – but the third slave – who refuses to take that option – simply gives the master back what belongs to him.  The third slave who knows very well what his master is like is thrown out to join the peasant farmers he has refused to exploit – but is the master really supposed to be an image of the loving, generous and forgiving God that Jesus has been telling us about?  If our image of God is anything like this nasty character, no wonder we’d be anxious!  Have we done enough – could we ever do enough - to please him?

But like all Jesus’ stories – none of which we should take literally! – this one can mean different things depending on which way around we turn it.  I think the clue might be right in front of us if we just read the very next thing that Jesus says, the gospel reading in fact for next week – ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ – Jesus is actually identifying himself with the ones who live ‘in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ – and when we do find ourselves pushed out because of our love for the gospel, then we discover that Jesus is there ahead of us.  If we dare to look at the story this way around – maybe - it is the third slave who represents Jesus himself – rejected and discarded because he refuses to accept the logic of worldly power.  If this story is about accountability – and no doubt it is - then maybe it’s about our being accountable for whether we have dared to resist the false and anxiety-producing logic of the world we live in.  Looking at it this way around, Jesus says to us ‘don’t be afraid, for it is my Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Wherever you end up for my sake, I will be there ahead of you’.

 

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Stepping into the river

Something that’s always amazed me, when I see film footage or a photograph of a serving prime minister or president – is how much they seem to have aged over a few short years on the job.  Maybe it’s just that effect of not noticing somebody getting older until you compare them with a photo taken a few years ago – or is it that people in that position, with that much power and responsibility, and the enormously long hours – is it actually true that the cost of bearing that much weight of responsibility begins to show?

You have to wonder why anybody would want the job?  Just the amount of personal criticism – you’d need a thick skin!  We don’t really believe the claim that they do it out of altruism or a desire to serve – in fact, we Australians are often fairly cynical about people wanting to be leaders, we tend to think there’s something self-serving about it, that people are attracted by the prospects of power, a high-paid job, high status.  And I think we’re right, at least to the extent that there’s always a mixture of motives, some good reasons and some self-serving reasons for wanting to take on a position of leadership.  Ironically enough, whenever they do those surveys of how trustworthy people think various professions are, politicians always come somewhere down near the bottom.  Somewhere down near priests and journalists.  It seems the very professions that have historically commanded the most respect are the ones that now seem to attract the most suspicion.  And that, of course, has got a lot to do with the times we’ve discovered – all too often – politicians or priests abusing the trust that has been placed in them.  Certainly we’ve a long way from the days when wearing a dog-collar down the street meant that people would be extra polite.  And maybe that’s not such a bad thing!

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is criticising the scribes Pharisees for abusing their position - funnily enough, even though Jesus gets into the Pharisees his point of view is not too different from theirs on a lot of things, and here, it’s just after Jesus has taken the Pharisees’ side in an argument with the Sadducees.  So he’s not attacking them for being Pharisees, and he even affirms their teaching authority but he accuses them of hypocrisy – of not practising what they preach – of making life difficult for common folk by insisting on a more and more detailed observance of the Law.  And he says they make a show of religiousity rather than practicing real holiness, that they put their own status ahead of God’s status.  It’s a damning criticism, and one that makes me personally cringe – maybe for anybody in any position of leadership in the church, this episode makes us think again about ourselves – what about my motives?  Why, really, am I doing this?  Truth is, we’ve got mixed motives.  There’s always a tension between selfishness and selflessness, between humanness and holiness.  In a church made up of imperfect, broken human beings, there is always a kind of magnetic pull on the one hand towards self-serving hierarchies and privileges, and maintaining outward appearances.  All the pharisaic stuff.  But on the other hand there’s the irresistible experience of God’s grace, the undeniable phenomenon of human goodness.

Jesus understands this, and so does writer of Matthew’s gospel who – though he has the utmost respect for the Torah and of all the gospel writers Matthew is the one who is most concerned to show how Jesus fulfils the Scriptures – but Matthew has taken to heart Jesus’ summary of the Law that we spoke about last week – that absolutely everything else comes second after the command to love – if leadership is not based on love then it no longer points us towards the God of love – the only sort of leadership that matters in the church is leadership that’s based on love, which is the leadership of the person who sees him or herself as a servant.  And Matthew widens it out, because when it comes down to it, it’s not just a critique of Pharisees – or of priests – but a warning for all disciples because in God’s eyes we all have ‘L’ plates on – we’re here to help each other and to love and serve each other.

So leaders have to be servants.  And in the Old Testament reading this morning we see two more important points about the leadership of God’s people.  And the first one is this – that the whole purpose of leadership is to show that God is here with us, that God is faithfully undertaking the journey with us.

Now, today, the mantle of leadership has passed to Joshua – notice that just like the Pharisees, Joshua’s leadership is based on continuity with Moses – but this isn’t just about establishing a line of succession – when God promises to exalt Joshua – that’s not just for the heck of it, not just to give his reputation a boost, not even just so God’s plan will be fulfilled – but so that the people will know that God is with them – ‘as I was with Moses, so I will be with you’ – the whole purpose of Joshua – and the whole purpose of Moses before him – was to be a sort of signpost or a symbol of God’s presence with God’s people.  If you remember the story of the Exodus, that was the one thing that the people questioned, over and over – where’s God? – is God really with us? – even Moses has to be reminded along the way that God is really present (in Ex 33 where God reveals himself to Moses) – when it comes down to it, God’s faithfulness to them is more important than their fairly half-hearted faithfulness to God.

The whole point of this story about the people of Israel crossing the Jordan into the promised land – does it remind you of the crossing of the Red Sea? – the whole point is that there’s a connection between the setting out and the arriving – between the escape from Egypt and arriving in the land of promise – what it emphasises is that God has travelled with the people from start to finish – and in spite of the people’s grumbling and their disappointment and doubt, the promised end of the journey is already present in some way at the very beginning – because the God who we long for is with us the whole time.

So leadership in the people of God is like being a billboard that says, ‘God is here, God has always been here and will always be here with us’.  It seems a long time, doesn’t it, since the good old days of the church when we had an assured place in society, when pews were full and Sunday Schools were full – what went wrong?  When you listen to the empty chatter of consumerism and the hollow cult of individualism – the shallow New Age trinkets that pass for spirituality in our world it’s hard not to wonder, where is God in all this.  Is God really travelling with us?  But even as the church struggles to find ways of speaking above the noise and chatter of the modern world – this is what we need leadership for – to tell us that God is indeed in this place with us, that the future God has in store for us is already in some sense here – because God is making the journey with us.

But there’s something else this story is showing us, and it’s about leadership but not just leadership within the church but about the leadership of the church.  Just imagine the picture – that the priests pick up the ark, like a portable temple, and they carry it straight into the water – in to the river which is in flood – and the priests stand there keeping the floodwaters back until all the people have crossed.  It’s about being prepared to take the risk – about being steadfast, about taking the risk of actually believing in God in the middle of change and uncertainty – it’s about being prepared – maybe against our better judgement - to carry the precious objects of our faith into the middle of the river because that is where God has promised to meet us.  Scary.  This last year, I think I’ve asked you to take a few risks.  I’ve asked you to take the risk of new ways and times of worshipping, of new ways of reaching out into our community with the Open Door Café.  The under-age dance party, fairly scary in itself.  And there are going to be more risks.  We don’t know where these things will take us, it’s like stepping out into the middle of the river and hoping for the best.  But God is with us, and on the other side, we have on fairly good authority, is the good land that God has promised us.