Friday, June 25, 2010

Pentecost +5

I have to confess to being fascinated by political power struggles. We all saw it coming, it might be hard to put your finger on exactly when it was that the Australian public fell out of love with Kevin Rudd, but we knew we had to go. The heir apparent, Julia Gillard must have seen it coming too, but of course you don't get to be Prime Minister if people think you're disloyal, so if you really want the top job you have to pretend right up to the last possible moment that you don't, and then when the opportunity presents itself...

Gillard's victory speech was gracious and polished and professional, and I was astounded to see her just hours later on the midday news sitting in the Prime Minister's chair in Parliament, running the show as though she had been born to it. She picked up the mantle flawlessly.  A whole lot less comfortable to watch was Rudd's emotional farewell. I actually to think most career politicians on either side are motivated by a sense of public service, and whether or not you liked his style or approved of the way he had run the government, it was easy to see-now that was all too late-how passionate Rudd was about trying to make a difference.

What makes a good leader? How much of it is down to the skill and passion and integrity of the person in the top job, and how much of it comes down to the various ways in which we project onto them our own insecurities, fears and prejudices? What do we look for in a leader? It seems to me that the leader often stands a s a symbol for everything that’s right - or everything that’s wrong - about an era.  On the conservative side of politics they talk about the Menzies years as a sort of golden age - on the Labour side of politics it might be the Chifley years, or for those of us who can’t remember back that far, it’s the Hawke years.  A golden age when nothing could go wrong.  And the leaders that follow somehow get their legitimacy from how effectively they can lay claim to standing in the same tradition, how effectively they can remind us of the great leaders of the past.

I think today's story with its wonderful behind-the-scenes insight into the relationship of the two great prophets Elijah and Elisha, leads us into similar territory. Elijah and Elisha, perhaps the best known of the prophets who don't have books of the Bible named after them, belong to that long dreary period in the history of Israel after the escape from Egypt, the entry into Canaan and the defeat or at least integration of its inhabitants and their pagan culture. The period of the kings who, according to the Bible were all dreadful, apart from the great king David who was only dreadful sometimes, and king Solomon who was almost perfect except when he was being dreadful.  And over the last few weeks we’ve been following the exploits of Elijah - who the Bible ranks as being the greatest prophet ever, apart from Moses.  So much so that Elijah’s career almost seems modelled on Moses - Elijah builds his career on talking tough to king Ahab, one of the most dreadful of all the dreadful kings of Israel who oppresses the people and allows the cultic practices of his foreign wife, Jezebel.  Ahab, in other words, is a sort of mirror image of Pharaoh, and Elijah, like Moses before him, flees into the safety of the desert where he spends long years in exile.  There are of course other little reminders in the story that Elijah is just like Moses, such as the fact that he can roll up his mantle and flick it like a teatowel at the Jordan River, making the waters part so he can walk across on dry land.  But the main reason Elijah is like Moses is that he connects us with the great story of God’s people by reminding us that God’s priorities are never dictated to by the agendas of the powerful, or by the privilege of the wealthy.

The beginning of today's story seems to give away the punch-line right at the start by telling us straight off that God was just about to take Elijah up to heaven holus-bolus in a whirlwind. None of this troublesome necessity of having to die first, which might explain the fact that Elijah's story doesn't actually stop here.  The Jewish tradition being that Elijah would come back in much the same way that he departed gets carried over into the Christian tradition - for example in the disciples catching a glimpse of Elijah with Moses at the Transfiguration, the popular rumour reported in the Gospels that John the Baptist may just have been Elijah come back to finish the job, or the bystander at the crucifixion who thinks Jesus is calling out for Elijah to rescue him. Probably the most important connection for Christians though is that so many of Elijah's words and actions resemble those of Jesus, so that Jesus through his teaching and his healing made people remember the stories of Elijah.

But what I most noticed about the story today is the relationship between Elijah and Elisha.  If Elijah represents the golden age, the great leader and the mighty deeds of the past, then the church of today is a bunch of Elishas.  Elijah is on a sort of farewell tour of the three great cultic centres of Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho, ending up at the Jordan, where he intends to cross at the exact same point that Moses died and was buried by God himself.  Elisha is following him from town to town even though - in the verses the lectionary writers left out - Elijah keeps telling him to go back.  And in each town the local guild of prophets come out and with exquisite insensitivity tell Elisha what he already knows: ‘your master is going to be taken away today’.  It’s not quite clear what Elisha is thinking - is he insisting on tagging along because he can’t bear to be parted, because he can’t think what else to do, or just to make sure he gets to be seen as Elijah’s legitimate heir?  Maybe all of the above, but he seems a bit lost.  And to reinforce his claim he asks Elijah for a double share of his power - in the same way as a first-born son would get a double share of his father’s estate.  Elijah tells him it is not his to grant - it belongs to God.  There seems to be some tension between them - Elisha was never really Elijah’s idea of a successor, even though God did seem to have chosen him.  Is he up to the job?  It seems that even Elisha himself isn’t 100% sure.  Following in the footsteps of the great Elijah is a pretty tall order.

In the end, Elisha passes the test, he sees Elijah being taken up in the whirlwind and he picks up the mantle, which now works for him just as it did for his master - he too can flick the waters of the Jordan and make them part in front of him just like Moses.  The fact that he still has a long way to go in becoming worthy of his calling is made clear just a couple of verses later - in another bit the lectionary writers decide we’d better not read in church - when Elisha uses his new-found powers to wreak petty vengeance on a group of small boys who are taunting him for being bald.

You see, Elisha stands for all of us who know it’s up to us but just aren’t sure if we’re up to the job - for all of us who remember when the church was really something, when the pews were packed and we had old Reverend What’s-his-name who put the fear of God into us.  But who seem to be living in lesser times and know deep down that we don’t quite measure up.  And it helps us take ourselves a little less seriously.

Our Gospel story echoes the same theme.  It’s even set in Samaria, the place where the great prophets of old, Elijah and Elisha, struggled against the dreadful kings of Israel.  And Jesus’ disciples want him to handle rejection they same way they’ve read about in the old stories of Elijah, by calling down a lightening bolt or two.  But even as Jesus sets them straight about religious zealotry, he models the spiritual wisdom of Elijah who found God in the experience of ‘sheer silence’.  It’s a reminder that we’re called to echo the integrity of the great mentors of the past, not necessarily their methods.

And then we encounter three people who want to be disciples of Jesus. One asks to follow but hasn’t quite counted the cost.  Another one hears Jesus’ call but can’t tear himself away from personal concerns. A third volunteers but also has more pressing matters to attend to first. And Jesus tells them you can’t be a true disciple if you keep looking back at what you’ve left behind. When you think about it, these three are no more wobbly and indecisive than any of us.  They’re just human.  In Elisha we see the basically reassuring message that being human is OK.  That it’s OK to feel inadequate, it’s OK to have doubts and to get the wrong end of the stick from time to time.  Because the power for the job doesn’t come from us, but from God.

We do follow in the footsteps of great Christians.  And I think one of the challenges for the Church today is that we’ve lost our nerve.  We keep looking back, and we’ve lost confidence in our own ability to be the Church of today and tomorrow.  But right there is also the key because we don’t actually have to be Elijah.  We don’t even have to be Elisha, who does eventually get the hang of being a man of God, we just have to be ourselves.  Luckily, we no longer have the pressure of being the socially respectable place to be.  Luckily, the Church is no longer one of the important conservative institutions of modern society.  Because now we can get back to being what Jesus wants us to be - foxes without holes and birds without nests, sure - not of ourselves, of our knowledge, our abilities or our resources - but only of God’s love.  It might take us a while yet to be worthy of our calling, to really model the reality of a community shaped by love and forgiveness, but the mantle has passed to us.


Friday, June 11, 2010

3rd Sunday after pentecost

Have you ever wished you didn’t blush so easily?  You commit some sort of social indiscretion - for example you call somebody by the wrong name or you make what’s commonly referred to as a Freudian slip - a slip of the tongue where you come out with the “wrong” word that reveals to all and sundry what’s really on your mind - and instead of being able to get away with it by keeping a straight face and carrying on as though nothing had happened - to your horror - you feel yourself blushing beetroot red - and you know for sure that everybody else knows that you know what you’ve done.

The good news is that scientists tell us that blushing serves a vital purpose, that the tell-tale signs of social embarrassment that can neither be faked nor hidden actually make all the difference in allowing all concerned to laugh it off.  Blushing sends the unmistakable signal, that ‘whoops, I made a mess of that - I know it, you know it - but really, I’m not generally like that - can we all just be friends?’.  And in all sorts of experiments carried out by social psychologists, whether or not somebody was blushing was the crucial factor in whether or not their faux pas could be forgiven.  So blush away, it just proves you’re human.

Our gospel reading gives a glimpse into a situation so embarrassing that we might almost wish we didn’t have to read about it.  Just imagine - the polite dinner party, the host a fair-minded religious person who maybe wants to show some support for this strange wandering rabbi, or who perhaps has just invited Jesus out of curiosity or to add a bit of colour to the dinner party - the tearful woman who arrives unannounced and uninvited to what would almost certainly have been an all-male gathering and proceeds to weep publicly all over the feet of the reclining dinner guest and wipe her tears off his feet with her long, unbound hair.  It is simply inappropriate - it would be highly inappropriate by our fairly relaxed social standards in the 21st century - it would have been absolutely shocking in the rigid social world of the 1st century where women were preferably neither seen nor heard, and even talking to an unrelated man let alone touching him in such an intimate way would have been nothing short of scandalous.

We’re meant, I think, to feel uncomfortable.  We’re meant to notice, and to feel uncomfortable about, the almost sexual overtones of the woman’s actions.  And we’re also meant, I think, to feel uncomfortable about the fact that in this little story there isn’t a single character we can positively relate to, none of the characters have a point of view that we can share without squirming.  But it’s the point of view of both Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman that we need to think about.

There’s a long history of Christian interpretation of this story that not only emphasises Luke’s throwaway line that this woman is a sinner, but presumes her sinfulness has got something to do with sexual impropriety - if she is a prostitute, then that makes her sinfulness even more shocking, even less like the regular sort of sinfulness that we acknowledge in ourselves. It’s an assumption that helps us make sense of the unbound hair and the perfumed ointment and the over-familiarity with which she treats Jesus -  but the Bible itself doesn’t support that assumption, or the assumption of Pope Gregory the Great that this woman is actually Mary Magdalene, who is introduced in the very next episode.  The point is, of course, that the woman is anonymous and her sin, whether great or small, whether real or imagined, was what isolated her from every other human being in her small community.  When we make assumptions about who she was or what her sin might have been, we fall straight into the same trap as Simon the Pharisee, the trap of self-righteousness which prevents us from seeing her actions for what they really are.

And Jesus’ response to Simon’s unspoken words, the words swirling around the inside of Simon’s head which would have been clearly enough written in the discomfort on his face - Jesus’ response is aimed at getting Simon to see straight.  Simon is embarrassed and blushing, presumably, because this dreadful and probably immoral woman has blown away the facade of politeness and respectability on which his dinner party was based.  His embarrassment acknowledges that the polite fiction of respectability is no longer going to work.  Jesus, however, doesn’t help his host to save face - he makes him squirm even more but in doing so, he helps Simon to see both himself and his uninvited guest more clearly.  As he so often does, Jesus makes his point by telling a story.  It’s not one of his more cryptic parables, and it gets both Simon and us asking ourselves some awkward questions.  In our slightly titillating fixation on the woman’s sinfulness, how aware are we of how much we ourselves need forgiveness?  How aware are we of the forgiveness we have withheld from others, or the forgiveness we have withheld from ourselves?  In our judgmental distancing of ourselves from the woman’s over-the-top display of emotion, are we in fact drawing attention to our own lovelessness, our own failure to practice what we preach?

Jesus’ excruciating point-by-point contrast of Simon’s behaviour with the actions of the sinful woman illustrates perfectly what my commentary tells me is the whole point of St Luke’s gospel - that when Jesus comes into the world as a guest he doesn’t receive any hospitality from the ones who should have recognised and welcomed him – instead it is the outsiders, like this woman who is known publicly as a sinner – who welcome Jesus and in return receive from him welcome and acceptance.  But the most devastating point it makes is a whole lot closer to home - how well do we show the hospitality of God to those for whom just coming through the door into the closed shop of our community takes all the courage they have?  Because the point is not really how sinful this woman was, but how excluded she was.  Her physical posture, as Luke describes it, shows us that she is excluded, overcome with awareness of her own unacceptability - not only is she weeping, but bending over Jesus feet she hides her face.  She has so internalised the judgement of her community that she seeks to become invisible.  The dreadful thing about this is that people like this woman invade not only Simon’s dinner party but our own as well.  People so overcome by shame, by lack of self-esteem, by the unforgiveness of others or their own inability to forgive themselves, that they don’t always behave appropriately - but so drawn by the message that in Jesus, God’s unconditional love can be experienced - that they come here anyway, hoping to be welcomed.  People who all too often - because their antennae are so attuned to the signals of rejection, and because as God’s people we are more like Simon the Pharisee than we like to think - leave feeling even emptier than before.  Unfortunately the one thing that puts more people off God than anything else - is God’s other people.  How well do we show the welcome and hospitality of God?

The point is not how sinful she was, but how excluded she was, and how simply and completely Jesus sets that exclusion aside.  There’s another common misinterpretation of this passage – and that’s the idea that Jesus forgives this woman because she shows such extravagant love.  Because actually Jesus uses the past tense – he tells Simon that her sins have already been forgiven, and that is why she loves so much – when you think about it, that’s the only way it makes sense, because Jesus is telling the parable to interpret the woman’s actions – she has heard of Jesus’ message of God’s unconditional love and acceptance, she knows she is forgiven, that she is good enough for God, and for that reason she has the courage to demonstrate her love.  So Jesus is not offering her forgiveness, but declaring what God has already done for her, and he is pointing to the fact that genuine forgiveness is known by its effects.  Simon, who thinks he has already made the grade, that he has earned his good reputation and his acceptability to God – Simon doesn’t seem to feel in need of forgiveness, and neither does he demonstrate compassion.  His thoughts, which the gospel writer somehow records for us, reveal a person whose self-righteousness has made him judgmental - towards the woman and towards Jesus.  Actually, judgmentalism is about making ourselves feel better by interpreting the behaviour or the motivations of others negatively.  It is the opposite of love, the opposite of compassion, and it creates an environment in which forgiveness can neither be offered or received.

Of course, both Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman are us.  Each of us carries memories of rejection, of being shamed by our own sin or scarred by the sin of others.  We’re all too aware of the self-contradictions of our own lives, of the double-bind that only God’s grace can make us into the people we know we’re meant to be.  We’re also aware of the irony that we, who have experienced the totally unearned gift of grace, still fail to show love and understanding to others.  That, like Simon the Pharisee, we forget our own flaws and contradictions and use the veneer of religious respectability to distance ourselves from those whose suffering is too raw or whose need is too powerful. 

Both Simon and the inconvenient woman are left blushing by Jesus’ exposure of their contradictions.  Her face turns red as she realises the grace that overcomes shame and rejection.  His face turns red as he realises his own failure to love is shamed by the hospitality of God.  And, having the grace to blush - the grace, that is, to acknowledge the embarrassment of having been shown to be thoroughly human, both of them receive the gift of divine grace - another chance to get over themselves.


Saturday, June 05, 2010

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Studying history at school I was always fascinated by the political intrigues and the power of the royal courts of Europe.  It sort of surprises me now that it was thought that important to teach primary school kids in Western Australia about the kings and queens of England, but there you are.  I think at the time the feeling was that Australia didn’t have any history of its own worth mentioning.  We also learned – I seem to recollect, about the Spartans and the Trojans and Helen whose face launched a thousand ships.  The point is that the teaching of history focused on important men and women, the fateful decisions of generals and queens that set the wheels of big events in motions.  It wasn’t till much later in life that I learned of a different approach to the study of history, the approach that tries to find out how ordinary people lived and what they thought, how their lives were affected by droughts and wars and new technology.  Nowadays, of course, historians go out of their way to see things from the perspective of long-forgotten ordinary folk, devising all sorts of imaginative methods of understanding how people lived and what was important to them.

Jesus, of course, believed that this reversal of perspective was one of the hallmarks of the reign of God, the paying of attention to small things and powerless people.  Even in the Bible, it’s a reversal that we sometimes have to look hard to begin to see.  Our story today in the Old Testament Book of Kings begins with a petulant, self-centred king, an unpopular foreign queen and a false god.  Ahab the king, who the Bible tells us is even worse than most of the other kings of Israel, and his wife Jezebel, who has imported the Canaanite cult of Baal-worship, have got seriously out of step with the needs and the religion of their own people, and the great prophet Elijah pronounces God’s judgement.  As if to emphasise the powerlessness of the so-called god of rain and storm and fertility, Elijah tells Ahab it will not rain again until he announces it by the will of YHWH.  So Elijah is on the run from a cranky, insecure king, and we are told that God cares for him in the desert, leading him to a water-hole and having ravens bring him food.

When even these provisions fail, God sends Elijah to – of all places – Sidon, the same place queen Jezebel originally came from.  Which is where our passage this morning starts, with God giving Elijah what seems like an impossibly cruel command, to ask for food and water from a dying woman who is preparing with her son to eat the last food they will ever see, a woman of Sidon who presumably like the maligned queen Jezebel is also a worshipper of Baal.  It’s the sort of inverse parallel we see all the time in the Bible – a powerful pagan queen sets out from Sidon to Israel and brings misery; a prophet arrives from Israel in pagan Sidon and receives mercy from a dying widow.  Zarephath in Sidon is in Phoenician territory on the Mediterranean sea, the home of the culturally and technologically sophisticated sea-faring peoples that the Old Testament calls Philistines.  We hear some more about this part of the world in the gospels.

It is this same area, for example, where Jesus goes in the seventh chapter of Mark’s Gospel and has his own perspective challenged, his own capacity for compassion opened up by the need of the Syro-Phoenician woman who reminds him that even the dogs under the table share the children’s food.  And when in Luke’s Gospel, in the fourth chapter, Jesus is challenged by the people of his own home town who can’t believe that God is working through him, he reminds them of the widow of Zarapheth by way of pointing out that God’s love and faithfulness are so often revealed in in places we might thing God should reject, amongst people we might think God should be dismissing as unimportant.

Like Jesus, Elijah’s good news was particularly good news for the poor and marginalised, not the powerful and arrogant.  Like Jesus, Elijah begins with that always-reassuring good news: ‘don’t be afraid’.  Actually, this is just about always the first thing we hear from angels and from prophets - and of course from Jesus: ‘don’t be afraid’.  Don’t live in fear.  No matter how things look, there is grace at work.  The widow, trying to prepare herself and her son for a lingering death from hunger and thirst, suddenly is faced with a more powerful reality.  It’s God’s initiative, of course, the miraculous replenishing of the little bit of flour, the last few drops of oil and the mouthful of water – God is at work supplying the pagan widow’s needs just as surely as God provides for Elijah’s needs in the desert when he is led to a billabong and crows bring him scraps of food.  It’s the perspective of God that is crucial - but both God’s purposes and the infinitesimally small mercies of prophets, wild birds and a dying tribeswoman are all important at each step in pointing toward life, not death.  Every creature in this story shares; power is exercised through small and insignificant activities, meagre resources, and words of reassurance and hope.  God’s purposes depend on this sort of interaction that from the top-down perspective of history appears insignificant. 

And the story, I think, reminds us of three things that are at the heart of the Gospel.  And the first of these powerful signs is grace.  The woman who has nothing is asked the impossible by a stranger who has no right to be there, a refugee who walks out of the desert and not only asks that she share her last handful of flour but that she feed him first, before she feeds herself and her son.  This is a despairing and heart-wrenching moment, she is being asked more than should be asked at such a moment, and we should not too quickly put this down to a test of faith or even a commitment to hope.  It is hard to even know what faith and hope would mean in such a circumstance.  Perhaps the best word for the point at which the widow of Zarephath finds herself is ‘desolation’, a word that means, ‘emptiness’.  It’s a word that suggests what happens next for her, because sometimes it’s only when there is nothing left, when you are totally empty, that there is room for grace to be experienced.  All too often, it seems, we fill ourselves up with stuff that isn’t really anything, with irrelevance and noise and distractions, with our won agendas, with stuff that prevents us from actually noticing our own emptiness and need – for forgiveness or self-worth or companionship – we fill ourselves up so much with stuff that we can’t open up our selves, who we are, to God’s grace that surrounds us every day in the small mercies of wild birds and widows and prophets.  The widow of Zarephath is empty, she is present to herself and to Elijah, and she has room in her heart for an encounter that brings grace.

Perhaps, even in this desperate state, it is simply the shared expectation of her culture that hospitality to strangers is an imperative impossible to ignore.  But at any rate she divides up the handful of flour and begins to make bread, prepared to share the last few moments of her life with a stranger and a foreigner.  In doing so, she reminds us of the second powerful message of the Gospel, which is to dare to imagine a different history, a different future.  In the middle of the Book of Kings’ rather grim account of wars and kings and infidelities, the widow of Zarephath makes a ridiculously small amount of bread as though it could possibly make a difference, as though it mattered what she did in the middle of a heartless drought in the desert.  It is of course a sacramental action, an action of the imagination and a commitment to the possibility that hope could come from hopelessness, that life could come from death, that the world could be otherwise than the evidence of our senses tells us that it is.  And it challenges us.  How often do we dare to act on the belief of an otherwise future, how often do we put into practice in our own lives Jesus’ own enactment of a dangerous, healing, liberating ‘otherwise-ness’?  In her desolation, the widow hears the invitation of grace; because, really, she has run out of options, she divides the last of her flour and pours out the last mouthful of water in a Eucharist of solidarity with all who dare to hope for a future that is otherwise - a future where hungry folk eat, where strangers fleeing oppression and violence are met with hospitality, not razor wire, a future that can only become possible if we choose to live it into existence.

And the third Gospel message?  Is of course that it is not kings and queens at all who move history, not celebrities or politicians or mining companies or even armies who define the future.  The Baal-worshipper of Sidon who allows God’s version of history to peep through turns out to be the one without a name - in the book of kings it is the poor widow, not the mighty queen, who moves the world.  And so in this story we hear an echo of the Magnificat, the song of Mary, who rejoices that the goodness of God is revealed, and the purposes of God are given flesh and blood in the lives of the poor.  Which of course is good news, that we are known and loved by God, our struggles and our moments of despair are met with the compassion of God – and it is also a challenge – it is our actions, our noticing of the invitation of God’s grace, our courage to live by the vision of the future that Jesus shows us that give reality to the promises of God in our world.  The buck stops here.