Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lent 1 - Living in trust

Last year, at the end of August, I travelled with a few friends down to the Koora retreat centre, halfway between Southern Cross and Coolgardie.  Originally, 90 or so years ago, Koora was a homestead until it was abandoned because the country was too harsh, then for a few decades it was a travellers? pub until it burned down.  Then it was used for a while as a prospectors? camp and for 20 or 30 years after that it lay empty until Anglican priests Anna Killigrew and Peter Harrison found it and fell in love with it. 

No doubt some of you have been on retreat from time to time ? you spend a few days following a strict timetable of prayer, you spend some time reading, sleeping, you immerse yourself in silence, perhaps you meet daily with a spiritual director or you make your confession.  Well, going on retreat in the middle of the bush out near Coolgardie even with all the mod cons like pit toilets and open-air showers does intensify the experience.  I did a lot of walking while I was down there ? fortunately the pipeline runs through the middle of the camp so it was difficult to actually get lost, but out there on the edge of the desert if you walk a couple of hundred metres out from the camp you?re absolutely alone, the bush is surprisingly green but spiky in that quintessentially Australian way, the sky immense and the silence almost scary.  I quickly discovered that the scrub was a lot more alive than it looked, for a start the bull-ants were that big, once when I sat under a bush to meditate I heard a funny sound and quickly opened my eyes to see a curious-looking emu staring at me ? various reptiles, massive kangaroos and everywhere the signs of the different stages of human habitation, bits of iron, broken pieces of china.

I?ve heard it said that we Australians are ambivalent about the bush.  On the one hand, for the early settlers it was a force to be defeated and a resource to be taken possession of.  If you read the journals of our great Anglican pioneer, John Wollaston, you soon pick up the sense of discomfort at what he experienced as the spookiness, the silence and the hostility of the bush.  On the other hand, Australians soon began to develop a romantic ideal of the bush, the swaggie, the resourceful bushman, and perhaps even to pick up from the original inhabitants a sense of the outback as a place of depth, silence and spirituality.

So maybe we Australians can understand something of what the desert meant to the people of Israel.  A place where the challenge was simply to survive, but also a place where you escaped in order to survive.  A place where you struggled with God, and with your own demons.  Jews understood themselves as the descendents of a wandering Aramean who made a covenant with God in the desert.  A people rescued by God from slavery in Egypt and made to wander 40 years in the desert, learning the hard way that the only thing they had to rely on was the faithfulness of God.  A people brought back from exile in Babylon across the desert highway, an occupied country that bred resistance fighters, terrorists and crazy religious fanatics all of whom found in the desert a place of hiding - a refuge from the Romans, a place to prepare and dream.  In Jesus? day we know the Essene community retreated to the desert, John the Baptist also lived out in the desert on a diet of wild locusts, and Jesus himself ? in Mark?s more terse version of the story ? driven by the Spirit out into the desert.  Paring away all that is superfluous, starving himself of everything except the intoxication of the Spirit, trying to work out what it means, this conviction, this experience at his baptism by John, what it means to be a Son of God.

In Mark?s version Jesus struggles with the devil for forty days, surrounded by angels and wild animals ? in Luke?s more structured account Jesus fasts for forty days and then the testing starts ? no matter, but the number 40 tips us off that this endurance test is meant to remind us of the 40 years that God?s people wandered in the desert after escaping from Egypt.  Except of course that Israel in the desert stuffed up at every turn, failed every test.  You?re thirsty?  Complain.  You?re hungry?  Grizzle, demand to go back to Egypt.  Point out that Moses isn?t the best man for the job.  God gives you bread and water in the desert?  Complain.  Demand meat.  God wants you to engage the Canaanites in battle?  Get terrified.  Refuse to trust God under any circumstance.  Arrive in the land of promise anyhow, get dragged there kicking and screaming.  The faithfulness of God that isn?t diminished by human faithlessness.  That?s more or less the book of Exodus in a nutshell.  And in our gospel story today, what we?re meant to hear is this ? Jesus is tested as the people of God are always tested.

Funny thing, whenever the devil gets a starring role in a story in the Bible, he always seems to be working for God.  Not too sure what we?re supposed to make of the devil ? the Hebrew Bible for example always depicts Satan ? the Accuser ? as one of the heavenly council ? a sort of divine churchwarden who gets the dirty jobs like tormenting Job to see how good he really is.  And the testing of Jesus ? the Greek word peirasmos like the Hebrew word nasaw in today?s reading from Deuteronomy both mean to assay or test the quality of a metal.  In ancient folk literature the hero always has to be properly tested before he takes off on his journey ? here Jesus is assayed to find out if he is strong enough, if he is malleable and ductile enough.

The three tests themselves form a sort of sequence ? first Jesus is offered control over his basic bodily needs ? comfortably-off city folk in the 21st century probably don?t quite get the sense of desperation but for 90% of the population of Jesus? time, living on the edge of starvation, this is a big thing that Jesus is being asked to consider.  Does being Son of God mean being Mr Handout, meeting his own basic needs and maybe the needs of others as well?  But Jesus tells the devil that what gives life is not just food but being in right relationship with the God who created us.  And then the second test ? political power, ambition, status ? now that?s more subtle, it starts to appeal to our sense of self-worth.  The temptation of having power over things that aren?t yours to control.  But Jesus has already told the devil his understanding of what gives him life ? the Word of God ? so it?s not surprising that he quotes a bit more Deuteronomy.  Our own plans are not as reliable as God?s plans, that?s a big part of it.  But I think the main point is this ? Jesus looks to the history of God?s faithfulness to God?s people in the past as a guide to what?s true and what?s not true in the present.  The desert was not just a place of testing for God?s people, it was also a place of covenant, a place of promises made on both sides, and Jesus is reminding the devil that God?s faithfulness is beyond question.  And then the third test ? the temptation of using our weakness to manipulate God ? just jump, man, God?s going to have to catch you.  This one appeals to the universal human desire to have a cast-iron insurance policy - but Jesus reminds the devil that you don?t put conditions on the God who over and over through the history of God?s people has shown himself to be faithful.

Of course, you know and I know what the devil doesn?t know ? that?s the irony - we know that the world itself is going to belong to the resurrected Christ ? we know that angels really will bear him up but we also know that before we get to that point death itself is going to be the cost of faithfulness. 

So, what does it all mean for us?  I think it?s that we do find ourselves in desert places, we do find ourselves in places where we struggle to understand where God is, where we seem to be tested beyond our endurance.  And we also find ourselves in places where we seem to be offered an easy way out, where we?re tempted to create our own future or rely on our own resources instead of relying on the faithfulness of God.  And when we?re in that place of testing ? whether we?re being tested by emptiness or by fullness, how do we respond?  How do we live in trust?  It?s the question for the first week of Lent, it?s the question we have to ask ourselves as a Diocese, approaching our 150th anniversary, it?s the question we have to ask ourselves as a parish as we move towards making some decisions about how we use our resources.  And Jesus provides the model for us, Jesus reminds us that the way we grow in trust is to have long memories.  What stories can we tell of God?s faithfulness in the past?  Because that?s the key to the future ? not in repeating the circumstances but in recognising the pattern of God?s faithfulness in the past.

Sitting in the desert, the ground starts to shimmer.  It?s hard to tell what?s real, and what?s a mirage.  What Jesus is saying to us today, is that the solid ground is the choice that makes you more dependent on God.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007


So this last week we celebrated St Valentine?s Day.  Did everybody get flowers or chocolates ? a card, at least?  I?ve often wondered how St Valentine got roped in for this particular gig ? according to one version I came across Valentine wasn?t at all romantic but he was a fair dinkum martyr who met a sticky end when the Emperor Diocletian had him shot to death with arrows ? thus giving rise to the Cupid connection which, when you really think about it, does rather make light of what must have been a fairly serious moment for St Valentine.  To add insult to injury our Anglican lectionary doesn?t even give him a special day of his own.  But it?s not such a bad memorial, is it, to have a day every year named after you when lovers the world look deeply into one another?s eyes and remember what it was in the first place that made them think their beloved is the most beautiful woman or the most handsome man in the world.

I?m reminded of a story about a king who ruled over a little tiny kingdom ? nothing much ever really happened there, no great military exploits or fabulous mineral wealth or anything very much except that the royal family had a single, lustrous diamond of monstrous size and beauty ? so world-famous was this stone that it appeared as the emblem on the country?s flag, and people came up every day to the royal palace just to marvel at it.  But then, one day, a jeweller from one of the big industrialised nations came to have a look, and after he had examined it, he sent a message to the king to say that he had discovered a crack running right through the middle.  The king got experts in from all over the world and one by one they gave their reports ? sorry, your majesty, but it?s true.  The stone was flawed beyond the possibility of repair.  Needless to say, this was devastating news for a tiny country with nothing else to boast of, and the king and all his subjects sank into a deep depression.  Nobody even had the energy to run a national competition to design a new flag, but then, nobody felt like flying the old one, either.  Until, one day, an old man came up to the royal palace claiming to be a master jeweller, and when he had had a look at the diamond, he asked to see the king.  ?Your majesty, he said, ?I can fix the stone.  In fact, I can make it more beautiful than ever?.  There seemed to be nothing much to lose, so the old man was set up in a workshop in the palace, and he went to work.  Months passed, and nobody was allowed inside the workshop, not even the king.  The whole kingdom waited with bated breath for the old man to finish his work.  And then, after six months had passed, the old man asked to see the king again.  ?Did you repair the crack??, the king wanted to know.  ?Your majesty?, said the old man, ?why would I want to do that??  And he showed him the stone.  It was more beautiful than ever, because the master craftsman had used the crack that ran through the middle as a stem, a starting point from which he had carved a rose of stunning beauty, the petals seeming to open as you turned the diamond this way and that to catch the light, the thorns of the rose gleaming on the edges of the stone.  The diamond that was irredeemably flawed had been transformed in a way that a perfect stone could never have been.

It?s like that, I suspect, with love.  The transformation that human beings undergo when we are loved, and when we love in return, has got something to do with a new way of seeing, the gift that lovers have of revealing the beauty in one another that lies at a deeper and a truer level than the all the cracks and chips acquired along the way.

But of course we need to talk about the Transfiguration.

Isn?t this a mysterious story?  Jesus takes the three disciples that seem to form a sort of inner circle, and he takes them up a mountain where they see him transfigured, shining from within with the light of heaven, chatting to the two all-time greats, Moses and Elijah who, so the legends went, never actually died but got sort of beamed up to heaven.  What are we supposed to make of this? 

I read the other day that the Transfiguration is like a science fiction story where time and space get distorted - for a start, the disciples? vision of Jesus is more typical of his appearances after the resurrection, so it is a sort of advance viewing, a foretaste of what?s ahead not only for Jesus but for all of us.  The future, in other words, has for a few brief moments coincided with the present.  And at the same time it?s a vision of the divine world ? heaven, in other words, which the story seems to assume is geographically up there somewhere ? heaven colliding for a few brief moments with earth, with Elijah and Moses there as witnesses by way of a sort of unnecessary guarantee of Jesus? credentials as the one in whom all time and all space are experienced simultaneously.  For good, God-fearing Jews who know their Bible this is a sort of symbolic code, a shiny Jesus up on the mountain-top for example puts them in mind of a shiny-faced Moses coming down with the tablets of the Law in the Book of Exodus, and then they would think of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy predicting that another prophet as great as himself would arise, and commanding the people, ?when he does, listen to him?.  For the disciples, of course, it?s all part of the growing realisation of who Jesus actually is, and we get this sense not so much of Jesus being in any way changed but the disciples, for a few brief moments, getting just a glimpse of Jesus as he actually is, just for a few moments seeing the true beauty and the light of God shining through him.

And so the first thing I to do with this is to draw the connection between the transfiguration of Jesus and the transformation of disciples who need to learn a new way of seeing.  The disciples who ? just for a moment ? see in Jesus the whole of time and space ? are able to do so only because they themselves are being transformed, their eyes are being opened so just for a moment they see the world not through the human lens of desire and need but through the divine lens of grace.  That?s the first thing, that the transfiguration of Jesus shows us the transformation of beauty that lovers already know and disciples need sometimes to be reminded of.  The Celtic peoples have an expression for this experience of the divine world poking through the fabric of the everyday, they call it ?thin time?, and the transfiguration reminds us that as disciples ? some of the time up there in the rarefied atmosphere of prayer and spirituality but most of the time on the level ground of work and family relationships ? as disciples we are in the business of thin time, the business of learning to see the world we live in through the eyes of God.  All we need to do is to be attentive. 

So that?s the first thing.  The second thing is this, when we do have the ?ah-hah!? experience, when we have the unexpected epiphanies of God that are part and parcel of discipleship, what are we supposed to do about it?  Peter, who the gospel writer lovingly assures us doesn?t have a clue what?s going on, babbles something about building a row of huts.  It seems there?s something symbolic in this from Luke?s point of view, perhaps something to connect this mountain-top experience with the desert experience that the people of Israel celebrated in the Feast of Tabernacles.  We probably don?t need to delve to deeply into that, but the point remains, when we do catch a glimpse of the undiluted beauty of God we need to do something.  We need to celebrate it somehow.  And the all too human reaction to catching sight of something as wild and unrestrained - as un-pin-down-able as the beauty of God - what human beings generally want to do with that is to pin it down, to catch it in a cage of words, make a doctrine out of it or put up a whopping great building.  The church, of course, is very good at buildings, maybe too good at mistaking the brilliance of God for the edifice, too good at putting up buildings to try to keep the experience of God inside, and the rest of the world out.  We need to resist our tendency to build places to retreat into, because the first thing that Jesus does is to gently lead his disciples back the way they came, straight back down the hill to the everyday world which is where, when you think about it, it most matters that the beauty of God is made visible. 

All you need to do is to be attentive.  Be attentive, and be in love.  Learn to look at the everyday, imperfect world with the eyes of God, and you will be transformed into the beauty of God.  Learn to see the beauty of God in the world you live in, and you will grow in love.



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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Epiphany 6 - The Little Match Girl

According to the story by Hans Christian Anderson there was once a little girl who sold matches.  Do you know the story?  The little girl had no shoes, because she was so poor, and she was wearing only a little torn dress, even though it was the middle of winter, and in northern Europe, so her feet were red and blue, and her body was shaking with cold, but she didn?t dare go home because nobody had bought any of her matches all day, and with night falling she was sure her father would beat her when she got there.  And so she curled up in a laneway between two tall buildings and lit her matches, one by one, and as she lit each one she saw the most wonderful things, and the most wonderful thing of all that she saw - in fact the last thing she ever saw, was a vision of her grandma.

It?s a dreadful story, isn?t it?  The little girl goes happily with her grandma into a world where nobody is ever cold or hungry, there?s not a hint of suffering - yet in the morning when they find her little, curled-up body the people shake their heads and say, ?poor thing!  Look how she lit her matches one by one to try to keep warm?.   Most fairy stories have got happier endings than that, haven?t they? ? in fact fairy stories are mostly about a sudden reversal of fortune, like Cinderella for example who does get to go to the ball -  I?ve heard the idea that fairy stories originate as a sort of underground folk literature, the subversive story-telling of the poor, or a kind of alternative reality storytelling where the poor really do inherit the kingdom and the hungry get invited to the banquet. 

But not the little match girl, who never does get warm again in this earthly life.  For me, this is an especially disturbing story because it?s a truer one, we know that the world really is filled with little match girls and boys, we know the reality of children playing fantasy games as they die of cold or starvation, as they work long hours in sweatshops making joggers for middle-class Western men and women, as they die suddenly in the minefields of grown-up wars, or as they sniff petrol in some remote outback community or right here, on the streets of Perth.  And it?s a disturbing story because it catches us squarely in the age-old act of making excuses ? just look! she didn?t suffer, she died with a smile on her lips, she?s at peace now, in heaven with God and with grandma.

So Jesus comes along, today, he?s begun his ministry in the countryside and the fishing villages of Galilee, a world where poverty is just as real and as confronting as that, and he says, ?how lucky you are to be poor like that because you?re going to get the keys to the kingdom.  Your belly?s empty today?  Well laugh, because that means you?re going to be feasting!?  It?s the same sort of subversive, fairy-story kind of logic, daring to imagine and even believe in the possibility of the world that God intends, a world where everyone has enough.

We call this passage the Beatitudes, this list of paradoxes, the blessings and woes that we meet in both Luke and Matthew ? but there?s a difference, isn?t there?  In Matthew?s version Jesus goes up onto a mountain, the traditional place for divine revelation, and he teaches the people, ?blessed are the pure in heart ? blessed are the poor in spirit?.  It?s a spiritual kind of message, good news for Christians trying to get the inner and the outer self in synch.  But Luke?s version of the same sermon goes a bit differently, for a start Jesus teaches the people not from the moral high ground of the mountain but on the level ground - maybe because, for Luke, the main issue is about how the good news of God?s kingdom works out in the hurly burly of actual everyday life.  And the sermon Jesus preaches, the Sermon on the Plain, is not spiritual but literal, not ?blessed are the poor in spirit?, but ?blessed are the poor?, not ?blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?, but ?blessed are you who are hungry, because you?re going to eat?.  It?s simple, it?s unambiguous, and it?s confronting because as we look around the world we live in we have to admit that it isn?t true.  Not yet, anyway.

And so the Church has wrestled with this one ever since Jesus said it.  On the one hand it has sometimes retreated to the spiritual version, Matthew?s version, and ignored the confronting reality of actual social suffering by saying to itself, ?oh, the poor are us, because we reject worldly things, we only want God, we?re hungry for God?.  On a more psychological level, as I suggested last week, there is a sense in which we experience all that is incomplete or broken in ourselves as the special arena of God?s grace.  And if we hear Jesus? Sermon on the Plain like that, then can include ourselves in the blessed group, not the woebegone group. 

But Luke doesn?t let us stay with that interpretation.  Not entirely.  Because we?ve been listening to Luke?s gospel for weeks on end now, right from the start when we heard Mary?s psalm of joy, the Magnificat, shouting as though it were already a done deal, ?God has lifted up the humble and thrown down the mighty, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with nothing?.  Then Jesus sits down in the synagogue in Nazareth and calmly announces that he?s got good news to the poor.  Luke?s special twist, the theology of Luke, is to emphasise the radical reversal of fortune that Jesus was talking about, the topsy turvey kingdom of God where beggars and fools get the best seats.  God really does take sides, Luke assures us, God is on the side of the poor.  God has a soft spot, God has a preferential option for the poor - and why?  Because real, literal, poverty - hunger, homelessness, lack of education, living in a war zone, never having a chance because you grew up in an institution and the only school you ever went to was the school of hard knocks ? that?s the opposite of what God intends for human life.  God creates human life for flourishing and wholeness, and when some people are denied that, then God is on their side first and foremost.

It?s a wonderful gospel to hear, if you happen to be poor.  I don?t know if it?s a gospel that gets proclaimed often enough, but it?s the gospel of life for those who live on the edges.  For those of us who aren?t poor ? for those of us who have food and medical care and a roof over our heads ? it?s a challenging gospel even if we don?t actually consider ourselves part of the rich and powerful. 

Because the most important thing we need to notice about the Beatitudes in Luke?s gospel, is that it?s a set of instructions for disciples.  Did you hear that?  Jesus looks up at his disciples, and says, ?blessed are you who are poor because the kingdom of God is yours?.  It seems he?s telling would-be disciples - like us ? something important about what we?re letting ourselves in for.

And I think it?s this: discipleship isn?t just a set and forget thing, not just a label you put on yourself.  Discipleship implies movement from one way of living to another way, from an old set of priorities towards a new set.  It?s an active process.  We?re not called to some sort of little match girl theology where human need gets postponed until the afterlife, or until Jesus comes back, but to actually live in ways that restore human dignity.  As disciples we are called to see ourselves not only as a transformed community but as a community of transformation, part of the miracle where water gets changed into wine, where hungry folk are filled.

The gospel of life for disciples is the challenge to be a place of life, and a place of restoration for those who are on the edge.  As God?s people, as a parish, that?s the challenge ? how is our life together going to demonstrate the justice and the generosity of God?  How do we use our resources, how do we engage with the community around us in a way that builds hope and empowers those whose lives have too little of either?  It?s not a rhetorical question, it?s an actual question, because over the next few months as a parish we are going to have to think about the question that?s been put before us, about the sale of some of our land, and to weigh that up against the alternative uses.  We need to think about that in the context of Jesus? challenge in the Beatitudes.  Last week I told Parish Council that I believe we need to think about this all together as a parish, and I told them that in a couple of months I would ask them to facilitate a consultation where the whole parish as well as other community agencies would hear and consider a range of ideas.  We need to listen together to what God is telling us, I need to listen to you, and I think the yardstick for how we listen together is this challenge of Jesus to see ourselves as a place of blessing and transformation.

And in the process, we ourselves will be blessed.


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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Epiphany 5 - The Credibility Gap




A few days ago I was lucky enough to be in a small group of priests taking part in a workshop on spiritual direction – I suppose that’s an odd-sounding title for one of the most special and privileged of all the priestly tasks, which is to sit with another person and listen with them for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  One of the main ways we do that is to learn to sit still ourselves, to learn to give attention at a deep level to the other person, and to God.  Brian, who was leading the workshop, has been doing this for many years so he has learned the value of showing what he means, as opposed to saying what he thinks – but he did say one thing that struck me as very important, maybe because I was already starting to turn over in my mind what I would say about our readings this morning, and it was this – our main task as human beings, and the whole movement of our lives, is about learning the difference between our false self and our true self – the person we think we are, or the person we pretend we are, the image of ourselves that gets superimposed on us by other people, or by our circumstances, or by the history of our failures or successes – all that stuff that gets built up like layers of varnish – learning the difference between all that and our true self, who we really are, the person that God sees when God looks at us.  And then Brian said, sorting out the difference between our false selves and our true selves goes hand in hand with sorting out the difference between our filing cabinet full of false and misleading images of God, and who God really is. 

One of my friends once said to me – I think this must have been during our training, when we had lots of theories about these sorts of things, that when she sat down to prepare a sermon she would first read all the lections for the day and then sort of let them have a conversation with each other until the common thread appeared.  I thought to myself at the time, ‘yeah, right’, because to me most of the time the Sunday readings seem to about completely different things - but today is different, isn’t it, because by the time we’d read through to the Gospel it was almost as if the theme was being shouted at us, and it’s this - when you bump into God, you find yourself confronted by the credibility gap between the self you know yourself as and the self that God knows.  The old-fashioned name for that credibility gap of course is sin, a word that includes both guilt for things that we know we have done and shame for what we believe ourselves to be.  Sin is where we continue to live with the credibility gap between our false self and our true self, because we don’t know how to get them into alignment, and of course it is the chronic state of every human being.

For Isaiah, the vision of God that so terrifies him happens in the temple, presumably he isn’t alone there, and the priests are going about their business but all of a sudden reality kind of slips for Isaiah, the roof of the Temple fades out of sight and the trails of incense from the offering on the altar morph into the folds of the very bottom hem of the cloak of God.  So Isaiah has got this sense of just being on the edge of the throne-room of God who is so terrifying that, so it was thought, only Moses could look at and still live.  And Isaiah assumes he’s cactus, we don’t actually know that Isaiah was either especially holy or in any way a major sinner but he does understand that the credibility gap of his humanness has been exposed, the divided self that just can’t survive being bumped up against the terrifying holiness of God.  And of course in the encounter something of Isaiah is burned up - the image of a hot coal being pressed against his lips is not exactly cosy - but we get the point which is that God is not safe, but in some sense if we dare to stick around, our moral ambiguity is going to get cauterised, God’s holiness transforms us even as it wounds us. 

For the apostle Paul, the sense of regret and the painful memory of having been the one who had hounded and persecuted God’s church seems to have stuck with him throughout his career.  In his case, we do know something of the self-recrimination that lies behind his shocking self-description as the least of the apostles, comparing his own status as an apostle to the tenuous existence of an aborted foetus.  Maybe this nagging sense of regret is even behind what St Paul describes as the thorn in his flesh, the awareness of his own brokenness that never seems to have left him.  Why would God call somebody like that to be an apostle?  Certainly that was the question that apparently some of Paul’s rivals seem to have been asking, and when Paul writes in his letters, for example in Galatians, about his own claims to be considered an apostle, you get the feeling that his tone is more than a bit defensive.  And yet, I have the idea that when we are called by God – as indeed every one of us is – it is not only in spite of, but even at times because of, our flaws and our shortcomings. 

What St Paul writes echoes for me most particularly, because at the time when I first seriously began to hear what I knew as God laying some sort of claim on my life, I suppose about 15 years ago, I was in the middle of serving a long prison sentence.  I don’t know if any of you have ever been to those evangelistic revival meetings where somebody gets up and gives their testimony, and it’s always a Cross and the Switchblade sort of thing where the speaker’s life has been turned around from being a major drug dealer to working with troubled youth.  I suppose, like that, the story of how I found myself called to the priestly ministry is a stark example of God’s lopsided logic, the way God uses what is most painful and most broken in our lives not only to heal us, but to be a source of healing to others.  I guess, along the way, you’re going to hear more about my journey because, in a sense, the only way we have to talk about the grace of God is to talk about how we have experienced it ourselves.  For now I just want to stay with what St Paul says, ‘by God’s grace I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been wasted’.  We are redeemed, not because of our own holiness, but because of God’s holiness, and just as well, too.

And so we come to the Gospel, where Jesus calls Peter, James and John as his first disciples.  We can actually be pretty sure about the tradition that says Peter is the first and has priority among the disciples, because all the Gospels and St Paul as well agree on Peter’s prominence, but what stands out just as clearly is that Peter stuffs up time and time again.  When he stands up in the boat, aghast at the divine propensity for overdoing it, the generosity and over-the-top abundance of God that Jesus demonstrates through the miracle of torn fishing nets, when Peter stands up and says ‘get away from me, Lord, because I’m just an ordinary, sinful bloke’, he’s not overstating the case.  This is the disciple who Mark shows us as inept and constantly missing the point, the one Paul dismisses as shallow and unconvincing, the one the gospel writers all agree is going to deny Jesus and run away at the end.  Why does God want him?  Repentance, healing and the forgiveness of sins fair enough, but why would God want someone on the team who’s simply never going to get the point, never going to quite measure up, always going to be a boofhead?  And make him the team captain!

Well, let’s be honest, that’s actually where things start looking up for the rest of us, isn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but for myself, I can’t actually point to a time where I stopped stuffing up.  A point in my life where I turned into a proper Christian.  I’m reminded of a story I heard about a Benedictine monk when somebody asked him what monks do all day.  ‘Well’, he said, ‘we fall down, and then we stand up.  Then we fall down again.’  Of all the apostles, St Peter is the one who gives me personally the most hope that God can really be bothered with us.

So it’s about sin, today.  It’s about recognising, about taking ownership of the credibility gap that, when you hold it up to the holiness of God, you really can’t help but notice.  It’s about recognising it and giving thanks for it, because that’s the scruff of the neck God grabs you by, what you are most ashamed of in your life is the very place where, if you take a really good look, God’s grace is shining through you.


Epiphany 4 - Prophets




What did you do for Australia Day?  Playing pool …

I must confess myself a bit uneasy about the popular celebration of Australia Day.  The attempt this year by one of the event organisers in Sydney to ban displays of the Australian flag made me think about it a bit more, with part of me feeling ‘what’s the fuss about?  What’s wrong with celebrating what’s good about the country we live in, what’s wrong with barbecues and flags and fireworks as a way of celebrating the open and tolerant society we enjoy?  Another part of me wasn’t quite so sure, because of what we might call the Cronulla factor, the all-too-easy slide from appropriate national pride to not-so-appropriate hostility directed towards minorities.

It does trouble me a bit that the loudest voices in our country today seem to be the voices of intolerance, the voices that tell us we have to stand up for ourselves, protect our way of life, deport troublemakers and insist that immigrants not only learn English but appreciate Aussie Rules as well – as though in the fearful world of the war on terror we’ve become defensive and withdrawn.  At the same time if we listen carefully we can hear other, quieter voices urging us to take a wider view.  Opening The Australian newspaper yesterday morning I was heartened to read how, on what Aboriginal Australians are calling Survival Day, the Queensland Government finally bowed to public pressure and charged a police office over the Palm Island death in custody case.  And on the same day how moderate Muslim leaders who reject the hard-edged rhetoric of jihad had made the foot-in-mouth Sheik Taj din al-Halali sit down and shut up.  To read of people like Tim Costello urging us to see the situation of the developing world as something that vitally concerns us, or Aboriginal leaders like Noel Pearson and Tania Major inviting Australians to see ourselves as one people connected by a shared history and mutual commitment; the new Australian of the year Professor Tim Flannery asking us to recognise our interdependence with the natural environment. 

It’s not easy being a prophet.  Because prophets challenge our tribalism, prophets invite us to see a bit further than we really want to … Jeremiah, for example, recognises that it’s a big ask to challenge the nationalistic assumptions of his day, and he sensibly tries to resist the prophetic call on the basis that he is only a boy – he doesn’t know how to speak the language of diplomacy – of all the prophets Jeremiah is the one whose trials and tribulations, whose personal attitudes and fears are most revealed to us, and we know that he is going to face hostility, rejection, imprisonment and death threats for speaking God’s challenging words to a people who most of the time don’t particularly want to hear.  And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it?  Why should we listen to you?  Isn’t this just some Marxist greeny claptrap, what makes you so special that we should believe what you are telling us comes from God?

In fact that’s the first sign of an authentic prophet – that they’ve tried to get out of the job.  Nobody goes looking for the role where they have to speak God’s uncomfortable truths, and if we believe the biblical record all of God’s true prophets have tried to wriggle out of the gig on one ground or another.  I’m too young, I haven’t got enough education, I’m not good enough.

And maybe that’s because of the second sure sign of an authentic prophet, which is that God’s people reject them.  Get that! – we, card-carrying Anglicans, sincerely trying to apply the scriptures to our everyday life, checking in with God daily (I hope!) in prayer – well, along comes a fair dinkum prophet and the odds are we’ll say, ‘nuh!  Talking rubbish!  As if!’

And that’s because we’re human.  That’s because we’ve got something hard-wired into us that makes us want to protect our own interests, our own family, our own church, our own tribe, our own way of life.  I guess at some deep-down level it’s some sort of evolutionary adaptation that makes human beings like that.  We’re skewed towards people like us.

So along comes Joseph’s boy, and remember last week I told you when he gets back to his home-town of Nazareth, his reputation has got there ahead of him.  His credentials are good, he’s spent time in the desert and got himself baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan – a thinly-disguised symbolic re-enactment of God’s people wandering 40 years in the desert and splashing their way through the Jordan into the land of promise.  We all worked that out, and we’ve heard the whisper that Jesus has been doing some pretty fancy things with the lame and the blind.  So here he is back where he grew up, there’s more than enough lameness and blindness here in Nazareth – not to mention the Romans - and after all, mate, charity begins at home.  Start with your own family, doctor.

But what does Jesus tell them?  He lets them know, and not too subtly, that he can see though their praise and their pats on the back.  They want the good news he’s on about, they like what they hear about God’s kingdom, but they want first dibs on it.  They want to accept Jesus – but on their own terms, not on God’s terms.

And Jesus responds to this by claiming the status not of a healer or a miracle-worker but of a prophet.  The people of Nazareth know what that means, and it’s not what they wanted to hear – prophets don’t do party tricks, prophets aren’t popular, they speak words that nobody wants to hear, and they claim divine authority for telling us off.  And Jesus rubs it in with a couple of quick examples – remember the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, when they did their great works of power, when they showed God’s mercy it wasn’t to the home crowd, was it?  It was for foreigners - some starving widow, some enemy commander.  He couldn’t make the point any clearer.  God isn’t a possession, God’s people don’t have the priority on answered prayer.  And here’s the Catch 22, if you like – we do want the grace that Jesus is on about, there’s nothing more attractive in the world than the claim that it’s the least powerful, the most vulnerable who matter most to God.  We’re drawn to the radical upside-down priorities and the breath-taking compassion of God – but then just as soon as we’re drawn into the logic of God’s way of thinking we hear the catch.

‘Hang on, mate.  Blind Jewish kids, sure, specially the ones around here.  You’re not talking about blind Romans, are you?  You’re not trying to get us to care about the Samaritans, with their funny accents and their religion that’s all wrong?  Anyway, it’s them that oppresses us.

What Jesus does is to give us a nudge, to challenge us with the idea that if God is for the last and the least – then if we’re along for the ride we’re going to get pushed out of our comfort zones pretty quickly.  God’s priorities don’t respect national boundaries, or ethnic or religious ones either.  And that’s the challenge, because God’s grace that we know we want can sometimes prove too much for us, the grace that we want to be on the receiving end of can be too hard for us when we realise that it comes with a challenge for how we live.  If God is for the last and the least, then who are we for?

Real prophets, the ones that truly speak God’s words, annoy us because they challenge the smallness of our thinking.  Jesus, we know, is going to make a fatal habit of this, getting good Bible-believing Jewish folk offside by his vision of a God who refuses to stay pinned down.  The paradox is that for the good folk of Nazareth because they couldn’t accept the prospect of God’s grace being showered indiscriminately on foreigners they missed out themselves!  And of course we see the shadow of the cross in this narrow escape as Jesus somehow gives them the slip, melts into the crowd and, so far as Luke’s gospel is concerned, never goes back to his hometown ever again.  From then on, the good news is going to be for out-of-towners, for sinners and tax-collectors, for centurions and Samaritans. 

So what is the good news for us in this story?

Prophets, I think, challenge us not only to a wider view of the world we live in, but also to a wider vision of who we ourselves are.  For example, Tim Costello invites us as Australians to discover ourselves as a people of compassion and generosity.  Noel Pearson invites us to cherish our ethnic diversity and to love justice, Tim Flannery invites us as Australians to see ourselves in an intimate and life-giving relationship with the land we spring from.  Prophets annoy the heck out of us, because they challenge us to see not just what we are, but who we could be.  Jesus invites God’s people to take God’s point of view, to become co-creators of God’s future and along the way, to grow into God’s vision of who we are as well.

And that’s good news.