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’.