Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pentecost +12

On 11 November 1993, the then Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered one of his finest speeches on the occasion of the dedication of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial.  Keating, never at a loss for words, simply and elegantly reminded Australians of the mad, awful and brutal waste of the war to end all wars which ended in a victory all but indistinguishable from defeat - according to one contemporary commentator - and which sowed the seeds of a second even more bloody conflict in the same century. Refusing to glorify war, or to assert the superiority of one race or one nation or one religion over another, Keating claimed that this Unknown Soldier who died on the Western Front embodied the bravery and the sacrifice of all whose lives were shattered and scattered in the obscenity of war.

It was a simple and profound moment, one of a handful of profound moments in the history of our nation that have informed us who we are, that have given a concrete and recognisable shape to the story of what it means and what perhaps it might mean to be Australian. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a solid presence that is also an absence, speaking both of the tragedy of war and the sacrifice of those sent to fight wars, and the character of the nation in whose name they are sent. Perhaps the power of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is that it tells us what we already know, it confronts us in a way that statistics neither can, with power and the pathos and the futility of suffering. All this is compressed into a single, silent space which one immediately recognises as both familiar and unfamiliar. 

In something of the same way, I think, King Solomon's great prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem expresses the ambiguous tension of the holy place which serves as a lightening-rod point of contact with the divine – but at the same time fails to contain the divine presence of which it speaks. This is an “aha!” moment in the history of God's people, as the scope of their history and self-identity suddenly gets stretched. Solomon recognises Yahweh not just as the tribal God of the people of Israel, but as the one who is also known and encountered by faithful foreigners with the same shock of familiarity.  As the God of heaven and earth, the God who can't be contained, pinned down, seen or heard - but who at the same time is tangibly encountered in this place that human hands have made. Psalm 84 hints at the same tension between rejoicing in the worship of the temple but recognising that the God we worship is present throughout creation.

Celtic spirituality uses that wonderful expression, "thin places", to describe the places, and the moments in history, where the world of the everyday and the world of the spirit cross over, where the membrane that separates the mundane world from the spirit world becomes thin and permeable, where our lives leak into God's life and God's life leaks into ours. In the British Isles, places like Lindisfarne, Iona or Stonehenge are thin places, places of power and mystery that have been known for thousands of years as places of divine energy and transformation.  Aboriginal spirituality is based on the same intuition, and even non-Aboriginal Australians recognise the mystery and power of places like Uluru or Kakadu or the Porongurups.  The Jerusalem temple was built perhaps 1,000 years before Christ as a way of encapsulating and carrying the power of divine revelation, of representing and of attempting to crystallise God's incarnational presence amongst God’s people. And yet, as Solomon recognises in his prayer, the temple also points to the deeper, uncontained reality of God’s activity in the world. "Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you", Solomon prays, "much less this house that I've made". And so the reality is that God is always deeper and more powerful than we can imagine or describe. Recognising this is the best antidote to idolatry and the religious sin of constructing God in our own image-as the Zen Buddhist koan has it, mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself - and it's also the main inspiration for Christian spirituality and mysticism. Like the wonderful and wild Aslan, in the Chronicles of Narnia, God is contained and unchained, everywhere and every-when at once.

It highlights a creative tension in our own Christian faith. For many Christians, God is like an invisible matrix of creative energy that brings the universe into being and shapes it through the underlying dynamic of love. From this sort of perspective, God is not confined by any of our faith traditions, and needs only our imagination and our openness to divine transformation. In this perspective God's grace, and the transformation of divine power, underlie the whole universe, and can't be confined just to a particular religious tradition. For other Christians, the focus is on the historical revelation of God in a particular person at a particular moment in history, Jesus of Nazareth, who not only demonstrates for us what the invisible God is like, but who is himself the promise and the means by which human beings can be brought into a life-giving relationship with God. In this particularist perspective it matters what you believe, and it matters how you worship.

The danger of the first perspective, if we follow it to the nth degree, is that it can lead us to say very little at all about God, and to be so broadly inclusive that we end up making no claims about how human beings should live.  The danger of the second perspective, is that it can lead us to be parochial and narrow-minded, to close our ears to the truth-claims of other religions and to be blind to the language of creation itself.  So - as the prayer of Solomon affirms - we need to hold both these perspectives in a sort of creative tension.  Encountered within the sacred buildings and the sacred stories of our faith tradition in a real and concrete way, God addresses us personally and challenges our humanity in specific ways.  Encountered beyond the walls of our own tradition, outside own salvation-history in the market-place of competing values and cultures, in the evolution of the cosmos and in our own human experience of intimacy and loneliness, fear and joy, the God who whispers to us in all languages, and in none, interweaves our lives into the continuous fabric of creation.

What would it take, I sometimes wonder, for our worship here to be a “thin place”, a time out of time where we recognise the proximity of God?  The consistent witness of the prophets is that it might be a shattering experience were we to come here – not as a place separate from the world – but in the expectation that here our perceptions and experience of the world will be transformed, in the expectation that when we leave we will be different people from who we were when we arrived.  What would it take for us to approach the act of worship in this place as an act of dangerous complicity with the God who expects something of us, if we understood the act of worship as giving God permission to reach deep within us and fiddle with our genetic makeup to change our basic orientation from being self-centred to being other-centred?

I must confess I have always had some trouble with today’s reading from Ephesians – the putting on of the armour of God – not so much in our own day and age because I fear it might make us violent and militaristic, although there’s a pretty sorry history of kings and popes and ordinary Christians taking passages like this literally enough to go out and force others to convert – in our own context I have more of a problem with images like this that encourage us to feel defensive.  Like 1st century Christians, 21st century Christians too often feel embattled, sensing that the seductions and the cares of the world outside are laying siege to an increasingly rickety-looking fortress of faith.  And there’s a temptation to withdraw into the shared language and familiar ritual of a faith that is more about our own reassurance than about being strengthened to share in God’s great work of shalom.

Actually the prayer of Solomon that we read this morning wasn’t written down at the time by some temple recorder on the scene, but hundreds of years later, by Jewish priests in Babylon after the beloved temple had been destroyed. God’s people and the worship of Yahweh had been fundamentally changed through the experience of exile.  It’s a retrospective from a later time when the sacred place in which God’s presence had been experienced was lost, a poignant looking back, and what is most remarkable is that the scribes put on Solomon’s lips a prayer for inclusiveness.  “When foreigners pray towards this place”, he asks God, “hear them”.  It’s a realisation that the temple can’t be a fortress if God is to be truly present, to be a thin place it has to be permeable, to leak like a sieve, in fact.  To be truly sustained by the living water of our own faith we need to offer it to strangers, and we also need to drink deeply from the wells of others.  It’s about a basic orientation, instead of fearful apprehension and holding tightly to the practices and truths of the past, to be open to what God’s un-pin-downable Spirit is revealing to us in our own times and how God might be leading us into the future.

Solomon’s prayer, I think, gets it about right.  A presence that’s also an absence.  A thin place that points to something beyond itself, an openness to the Spirit of God who is encountered in all things and whose truth cannot be contained here.  A place, not a refuge, not of certainty, but of welcome and of humble listening.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Did you hear the one about Little Belinda who got into trouble at preschool for clobbering her playmate George? "That wasn't very kind, Belinda", a teacher told her with considerable understatement. "Now I want you to go and apologise to George".  So Belinda very sweetly told George that she was sorry. Five minutes later the teacher looked out the window to see Belinda giving George an even more thorough walloping. "What did I just tell you about hitting people?" The teacher asked her. "It's alright really" Belinda told her very reasonably, "I already apologised to him".

Belinda, of course, had worked out at a very young age that if the cost of hitting somebody is not as high as the benefit of getting them to do what you want them to, then it makes a lot of sense. No doubt the teacher tried her best to explain that the point of apologising was not to make the hitting okay. But what is the basis of our moral calculus? Why be good, if being bad is more fun and gets better results?

A number of years ago, SBS ran a series of short films on the seven deadly sins-one each on anger, sloth, gluttony, lust, gluttony, envy, greed and pride.  But they weren’t quite what you'd expect. The overall message, in so far as there was one, seemed to be that it is a matter of good mental health to get these things out of our system. A healthy dose of road rage, for example, makes more sense than bottling it up and getting an ulcer. The film on gluttony seemed to suggest it was a medical complaint, but dwelt in loving detail on the unimaginably varied appetites of its main character in a celebration of passion and pleasure until he finally ate himself into an early grave. Even though every film had a twist in the tale, even as they came unstuck the characters just seemed to be doing what the rest of us secretly longed to do but didn't dare. Envy drove its protagonist into a lifestyle the rest of us could only-well-envy. The film on lust seemed to be suggesting that a healthy dose of libido was not just useful but essential.  There might just be a problem in overdoing it, but everyone was certainly having a lot of fun. The deadliest of the lot, pride, seemed to be telling us something along the lines that it's impossible to soar like an eagle when you're surrounded by turkeys. Pride, in fact came out looking more like the Queen of the virtues, an ethical version of lateral thinking, the modern virtue of assertiveness or self-esteem. A reviewer at the time noted that the films would appeal more to viewers for whom freedom was more fundamental than the traditional categories of virtue and vice.

So what's with the lists of dos and don'ts? Especially in Ephesians, which up until now has followed St Paul's line that the law of the Torah had failed rather miserably in keeping human beings in right relation with God. No more dos and don'ts, St Paul wrote fairly explicitly to the church in Rome, from now on it's about living in Christ. One fairly cynical commentator I read last week suggested that Ephesians, written 70 or 80 years after Jesus, and a generation after Paul, comes at a time when the original radical message of social inclusivity and compassion had started to lose its shock value. The church had settled in for the long haul, Christians were leading ordinary middle-class lives in polite Greco-Roman society, and the household code of Ephesians was simply aimed at affirming the status quo. A slightly more generous reading might be that we can't actually get the point of the new state of being, or the new relationship we have with each other in Christ, unless we also recognise the practical changes we need to make to synchronise the inner and outer selves. We can't actually live in the heady realm of theological speculation about the new lives we live in the risen Christ, and expect that to filter through automatically into the things we actually do. We need to get concrete, to think about the connection between what we do and we believe, to recognise the implicit beliefs that lie behind the things we actually do.

Modern preachers, and especially me, get a bit nervous at the idea of preaching about sin. For one thing if the congregation I'm preaching to hasn't already worked out that fornication and stealing, for example, aren't such a good idea, then it is unlikely that a wittily worded exhortation from me is going to make much of a difference. On the other hand, if, as seems more likely, the people I'm preaching to are already leading lives that are more disciplined and morally reflective than mine is, then it seems a trifle presumptuous. Ancient writers on the other hand, not just biblical writers either, loved nothing better than a good list of virtues and vices. The list of peccadillos in Ephesians is actually fairly standard fare, and we shouldn’t really read into it that the congregation at Ephesus were leading particularly exciting lives. But we do need to consider what the connection is between what we believe and what we do. And we don’t need to think about it too hard to find contemporary expressions of the ancient deadly sins: endemic war and terrorism, the clash of political and religious cultures, consumerism and over-consumption in Western countries while the two-thirds world lacks basic food and medical resources, the abuse of the environment that threatens the entire planet with global warming, inequitable access to water resources and the loss of natural habitat that drives species to extinction.

A book I'm reading at the moment, by theologian Sallie McFague, makes the point that the way we behave comes out of an implicit set of assumptions about what it means to be human. Maybe our underlying beliefs cause us to behave in certain ways, though more likely it's the ways that we behave that gradually form our unconscious attitudes and assumptions. But either way, McFague says, the supposedly value-free individualistic consumer society that we live in makes an implicit set of assumptions about what human beings are. The assumption is that each of us is our own moral universe.  That each of us is an individual in ourselves and for ourselves, that we are only accidentally and externally related to the world we live in, that the other human beings around us, all other living creatures and the earth itself are just resources that we relate to for our own purposes. That's been the common assumption both of capitalism and communism, and if we fail to  recognise that our lives are necessarily and organically connected not just to the lives of other human beings but to the life of the whole planet, then it stands to reason that we will act in ways that produce inequality, that we won’t see the problem with consuming more than our share of the planet's finite resources, and that we will put our own interests ahead of what is sustainable for all Earth's creatures.

Not only that, McFague says, but the church has colluded with that implicit set of assumptions. If our underlying assumption about God is that God is remote, unaffected and uninvolved with creation, that salvation for some human beings consists of eternal life in the next world, instead of seeing salvation as flourishing for all creatures in the here and now, if we believe in that sort of God, then it stands to reason that we don't pay as much attention as we should to God’s creation. We simply don’t see ourselves as interrelated and interdependent with all Earth’s creatures.  But McFague says that when we understand that our lives are connected inextricably with one another's lives, and with the life of the whole planet, and when we understand that God's life is bound up with the life of the whole creation, then we start to understand Christian life as being about justice and sustainability. McFague says we need an incarnational spirituality, which means we need to understand God as being present in creation from the very start, and she uses the metaphor of giving birth to describe the intimate connection between God and the world. It's a connection that becomes explicit when God chooses to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

And this, I think, is where the list of vices in Ephesians is grounded. Because, says Ephesians, you are members of each other. That's verse 25.  You can’t separate off your life from the rest of creation and live it as an individual because all that you have, and everything that you are, comes from a common source which is God.  And because ultimately your flourishing, and the flourishing of all Earth’s creatures, human beings, other living creatures and the living systems of our common home are interconnected.

The view of Ephesians, and McFague’s view, is that when we accept the limitations of living as a blessing to others, when we learn to see the flourishing of others as a blessing, then we ourselves are set free.  Compassion and generosity become part of our way of life, and the Holy Spirit gets to flow through us – like a river system that has been cleared so that the water of life is able to flow around the cycle as it should.  The opposite is what Ephesians calls grieving the Spirit, locking up the water of life in a stagnant pool.

Ultimately, Ephesians tells us, ethical conduct is grounded in imitating God.  How’s that for aiming high?  But we need to be really clear what it is about God that we should be imitating – a love that gives itself to the life of others and sustains the life of all creation.  A love that willingly accepts the limits implied by the overriding desire to be a blessing to others. 


Saturday, August 01, 2009

Pentecost +9

Many years ago, I started a new job. Naturally, when I'd been interviewed for the job, I had exaggerated ever so slightly about my experience and abilities. My enthusiasm for the role hadn't been overstated, I genuinely did want the extra money that went with it-but I might have gilded the lily a little bit about my prior experience. Within a week or two, I found myself seriously floundering and wondering whether I had what it took. When I confided in a friend, he gave me some timeless advice that has stayed with me ever since-"Evan", he told me, "fake it till you make it".

Strangely enough, being a fake is looked down on in some circles.  My dictionary defines hypocrisy as the sin of proclaiming one thing while doing something different. Giving lipservice, in other words, to an ideal that you don't live up to. Pretending to be better than you are. There is a school of thought, as I'm sure you know, that churches are full of hypocrites-and I'm sure you also know the standard response to use whenever somebody suggests that to you: "well, I'm sure we can always use one more". Being a hypocrite is basically the same thing as being a fake, and what I'd like to suggest today is that we need a bit more of it.

The other week, when I preached on Ephesians,  I spent some time talking about the cosmic perspective the letter takes. The whole universe, Ephesians suggests, is literally centred on the risen Christ and God’s universe-long project is to gradually draw it all together into union with Christ as its final fulfilment. Ephesians has an equally cosmic perspective on the church as the down-payment, the catalyst for, and also - thank you very much - the means by which all this is going to happen.  No pressure or anything.

And, in today’s reading, we move from generalities to specifics.  Prick up your ears, because Ephesians over the next couple of weeks is going to tell us how to go about all this.  Except of course, that the whole thing is clearly impossible.

Because the very first thing this passage says, in the very first verse, Ephesians says to us, “be worthy of the calling” – be worthy of the vocation, in other words, “to which you have been called”.  The main concern of this part of the letter is unity, and Ephesians is telling us that each one of us has an essential vocation, a calling which is uniquely ours to make sure that the whole church is functioning as it should.  In verse one Ephesians tells us that each of us has a vocation and in verse seven we hear that each one of us has a grace, or a gift of service that’s meant not just for our own edification, or our own benefit, but specifically so that the church can be built up into what Christ intends it to be from the very beginning.

This word, “vocation”, which of course comes from the Latin root which means “to be called”, doesn’t just refer to a job, to the things we do.  None of us has a vocation to drive a bus or sing a solo or write a book.  What vocation points us to is the commitments and the vision that shapes what our lives are about.  Vocation is what gives coherence and purpose to our lives, what gives us integrity and courage and zest.  To discover your vocation means that your life resonates with God’s purposes, vocation is the fullest response you can make to the call to live in partnership with God.

Vocation is more than what you do, but it includes everything you do – the uses to which you put your leisure time for renewal and restoration – the life you live in public, your care for the common good and your priority for justice and compassion – your life within the community of worship, your participation in the prayer and study of the church. 

The paradox of vocation is that the way we come to discover the deepest and truest patterns of our own lives as individuals is by paying less attention to ourselves, and more attention to the life of the community in which we have our context.  Here’s the impossible bit.  “Do that”, Ephesians tells us, “live into your vocation in humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love”.  You see – maybe it’s just me, but I rather suspect not – these are the very things that we find next to impossible.  The reality is that we get cranky, we get impatient, we get anxious and jealous and all the other things we’d rather not admit to.  As Mahatma Ghandi once commented rather acidly, Christianity was always a good idea that’s never actually been put into practice.

So we’ll have to fake it till we make it. Let’s pretend to be gentle with one another. Pretend to be patient. Pretend to love each other, pretend that the unity Ephesians promises as the gift of the holy spirit is already here and now. If you're not perfect, and I sure as heck know I'm not perfect, the only choice we’ve got is to take Ephesians at its word that God's Holy Spirit working on us can be trusted to transform the pretence into the reality. Let's be hypocrites, proclaiming as reality something we know full well that we fall short of, because what is impossible for us really is possible for God.

Luckily for us, the credibility gap that we’re all too aware of in our own lives, is exactly what the writer of Ephesians has in mind. The unity that the church is called to embody is a reflection of God's gift of reconciliation in Jesus. Which means that the initiative is not ours, but God's. And the writer emphasises that by repeating, over and over again the same word, "one". One body, one spirit, one hope - one faith, one baptism, one God.  We’re being formed into one body, and the disconnect for us between our experience of disunity and the promise that we are to become the sacrament of unity for the whole of God's creation-that credibility gap is where the Holy Spirit is working like crazy on us. The idea of unity in Ephesians isn't something defensive and inward-looking, like circling the wagons in a B grade Western, but it's the sort of unity that is open and expansive, oriented towards the future and towards the whole of creation that is to be brought to fulfillment.

So we have a model of the sort of unity the church should reflect. However Ephesians makes it clear that the perfection of the church is incomplete, a painful realisation of falling short of what were called to be. Becoming Christian is not a once and for all event, it's not "set and forget" but a gradual growth towards maturity in which we get to see our own disunity, our failure to understand or take one another's point of view, even our selfishness, through the perspective of the fullness of Christ. It is a three steps forward and two steps backwards process. But Ephesians says that as individuals and as the church we have been given the gifts we need in order to grow. That's reassuring, were not just left to recognise how short we fall of the ideal, but we have everything we need. The literal meaning of the word is Ephesians uses is that the church is gradually growing into its own body, like growing into a shirt that is too big for you. The Greek word that Ephesians uses for the "full stature" of Christ is the same word that our Bible translates as maturity. As the church, we’re meant to see ourselves as a growing body which exists for the sole purpose of filling the entire universe with God's love. So we’re meant to be in motion, not passive recipients of God's love but the moving vehicle through which God's love is meant to be driven through the whole of creation. We are not just embraced by God's love, but empowered and equipped by it.

Ephesians, of course is not the only place in the New Testament where we see a list of gifts of the Holy Spirit. Lots of people prefer the list we get in the first letter to the Corinthian church, wisdom and knowledge, healing the working of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits or ecstatic speech. The sort of evidence of the working of God's holy spirit that breaks out spontaneously, and I guess the point there is that the whole church shares in the gifts of God's holy spirit, and that together we need to recognise them and respond to them when they erupt amongst us. Here in Ephesians the emphasis seems to be more on how the church gets run, the sorts of gifts we need in the leadership of the church. It sounds less exciting. It's the business end of the church, we need Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

But the main thing to notice is that these professional-sounding roles exist for the sole purpose of building up all the saints-in the good old-fashioned sense of the word which means every one of us here, not just super Christians-of building up all the saints for the work of ministry which is not just for professionals, certainly not just for parish priests - building up every single one of us to live our God-given vocation.

“Grow up!”, Ephesians is challenging us.  How much are you really sharing your lives with one another?  How much are you participating in the life and the work of the church?  How inclusive are you?  How much do you value and welcome the energy and the contributions of newcomers, of those who are different?  Are you a collection of individuals looking to be fed, or are you a church?

Let’s fake it till we make it.