Friday, August 27, 2010

Pentecost +14C

One of my favourite pastimes is people-watching.  In fact, I suspect most of us like to indulge in this from time to time.  It helps if you’re in a busy public space, so there are heaps of people around and you can be anonymous.  If also helps if you’re not too obvious about it.

One of the things you notice when you’re watching people en masse is that there is a kind of crowd etiquette.  This was also found by professional people-watcher Kate Fox, who recently published a study of the behaviour of British racegoers, specifically the fashion-conscious set who go to the races not to watch the horses but to be seen themselves.  The races themselves, Fox found, were mainly of interest because they broke the afternoon up into short segments, giving the lunchers something to talk about, and an excuse to move on when they found themselves trapped with somebody less fascinating than themselves.  Fox also found that there were powerful unwritten rules at the races that governed who you had to be polite to (anybody better dressed than you) and who you must ignore (anybody who gets too excited about winning).  My understanding of Fox’s study is that the rituals of good behaviour she uncovered worked by ensuring that everybody stayed more or less within the boundaries of their own social class, the rules keep social interactions smooth and trouble-free because they provide a mechanism for sorting people into those who matter and the rest who don’t. [1]

Today we tune in to another lunch party.  Jesus has been invited to eat the Sabbath meal at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and he is being closely watched, presumably because he is starting to get the reputation for not always following the rules.  As one commentator remarks, Christians sometimes get a bit uncomfortable about the evidence of the gospels that Jesus was on friendly terms with his favourite sparring partners, the Pharisees.  In fact, Jesus and the Pharisees have a lot in common, and the disputes between them are generally a sort of friendly debate.  Jesus approves of the holiness and moral seriousness of the Pharisees, which eventually gives rise to the rabbinical tradition.  He just likes to push them a little further, to expose some of the contradictions.  To deliberately subvert the social etiquette, in other words.

The passage begins – or rather, it doesn’t begin – with some verses the lectionary writers leave out because they sound like a re-run of last week’s story.  The polite lunch is inconveniently interrupted by a man with dropsy, a painful swelling of the legs.  After asking his lunch companions what they think he should do – and getting no answer – Jesus cures the man and sends him on his way, observing that none of the guests would have failed to rescue a child or an animal that had fallen down a well, Sabbath or no Sabbath.  More silence, which means the unwritten rules have been violated.  People with swollen legs should not appear at dinner parties, and when they do, polite guests don’t make them the centre of attention.  Of course we tend to small children or guests who choke on chicken bones at Sabbath lunches, we just do it discreetly thank you.

Then Jesus starts people-watching.  We know he is an inveterate people-watcher, because he is a story-teller.  Jesus’ stories are the product of years spent in careful observation of ordinary people doing ordinary things, loving and squabbling and cheating, trying to get ahead and trying to get along with each other in the quite extraordinary process called ordinary life.  And he notices something that in ancient society, maybe only really happened at Pharisee lunch parties where the guests operated on the assumption that they had been invited because of their place in the religious scheme of things, and so automatically went to take the place that reflected their place in the hierarchy.  Actually this isn’t so remarkable.  I was at a meeting a few weeks ago where we all came in and sat around a table as we arrived.  One of my colleagues had just sat at the end of the table nearest the window when the Archbishop walked in.  My friend immediately excused himself and went and sat at the other end.  As the Arch sat down he said, ‘thank you – but of course, this isn’t the important end, that is’.  Without even thinking, we rank ourselves so as not to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves, and at one level, Jesus advice about taking the less important seats is just good social advice.  Not religious, just practical, particularly in the ancient world which was a whole lot more hierarchical than our Aussie society.  Your social place was everything, and making sure that you managed to keep your place on the ladder and not slip backwards could even be a question of survival, of ensuring the support of powerful patrons.  Losing face couldn’t just be shrugged off like most of us generally can in our modern individualistic culture. 

So at one level, Jesus is just giving practical advice for social climbers, better to play it safe and be shifted up a notch than the other way around.  It gets a bit more of a bite when he connects it with his comment in verse 11: ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’ – it’s a contradiction in terms, a paradox that we recognise as related to the central paradox of Jesus’ teaching: whoever wants to be first of all should make themselves last of all, and servant of all.  And we realise Jesus is not talking about etiquette, but about a fundamentally different view of reality.

But people-watcher Jesus isn’t finished yet, in fact he is just warming up in his observations.  How much of what we do is in the expectation that ultimately we are making things easier for ourselves?  We observe the rules of politeness because ultimately there is a pay-off.  We offer hospitality to people like us, people who follow the same social rules as we do, and who keep the wheels of polite society turning by inviting us back again.  Maybe it’s not manipulative, but it is playing it safe.  It’s the way we insulate ourselves, mostly unconsciously, against those whose difference makes them confronting – not just the poor and the crippled, as in Jesus’ example, but those who – so we tell ourselves, wouldn’t feel comfortable here anyway, or those who we actually don’t even notice as we walk past them – the young person with pink hair and an array of body-piercings, the woman in the hijab, the Aboriginal family, lesbians, gays and bikies, the loud and the boorish and the ... foreign.  This is normal, it is what sociologists refer to as stratification, it means that people gravitate towards others that they intuitively feel are similar enough to be non-threatening.  It’s part of how a society most of the time manages to get along OK despite the huge inequalities and injustices that see some people with opportunity and power, other people powerless and trapped.

But it’s not how things are in the kingdom of God.  And Jesus’ insistence that we should honour and invite those who can’t honour and invite us back comes, I think, from the recognition that that is exactly what God does for us.  Time and time again, Jesus talks about God’s scheme of things as a banquet, an invitation for women and men and children that is indiscriminate, wastefully generous, over-the-top – and outrageously undeserved.  Jesus, it appears, knows and loves the Wisdom passages of the Old Testament that talk of Wisdom as God’s invitation to eat and drink, to be in touch with what sustains us and to renew our connection with the whole created order.  And in the Wisdom literature, as in Jesus’ own stories and the example of his own life, the invitation of God is fundamentally an invitation to be transformed into the likeness of God’s generosity, and to become sources of life and healing for those around us.  There is no stratification, no hierarchy, except our own willingness to sit alongside the rest of the unlikely-looking guests.

This is good news for those of us who see ourselves as the polite set, the chicken and champagne lunchgoers who thought we belonged here anyway.  Why?  Because we get a dose of reality, a view of the world as God sees it, we receive the blessing of humility, the grace of being grounded in the humus, the good earth that gives us life.  It’s where the word comes from!  Putting aside our own pretensions of entitlement, we get an opportunity to become real, more like the people God created us to be, the opportunity to be a blessing to others.

Even better news if, deep down, you think you might have been one of those not invited, down in the stands with the riff-raff, not up in the glassed enclosure with the champagne set.  If you have been one of the majority of this earth who have learned the lesson that you are invisible, that your opinions don’t count and your needs are less important because you are the wrong gender, or the wrong colour, because you were born in the wrong place or because you don’t have a fancy education or a big enough bank account – if you are the bent-over woman or the man with the swollen leg – even better news because at this table you are entitled, you get an opportunity to become real and visible, more like the person God intended you to be, the opportunity to be a blessing to others.

Either way, Jesus is saying to us: get real!


[1] Kate Fox’s paper can be found at

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pentecost +13C

Sunday, in the house where I grew up, was a day of rest and gladness.  My dad, in particular, always used to welcome Sunday with a particular gladness, even though, as a hardworking minister, for him it was hardly a day of rest.  Dad even used to sing about it around the kitchen table, leaving me in no doubt then or now that he received Sundays as a welcome gift.  My perspective as a small boy was of course a little different.  If Sunday, I thought to myself, was such a day of rest and gladness, why did I have to go to church?  It’s a good question and one which the famous nineteenth century American poet and misfit Emily Dickinson also posed in her little poem that begins,

‘Some keep Sunday going to church,

I keep it staying at home

with a woodthrush for a chorister

and an orchard for a throne.
and ends with a salutary warning for preachers:

God preaches – a noted clergyman -

and the sermon is never long.

So instead of going to heaven at last

I’m going all along.

I wouldn’t, of course, want to encourage this sort of attitude too much!

The key, I think, to our Gospel story this morning is the question, ‘how should human beings observe the Sabbath’?  This isn’t the only time this question arises in the Gospels – five times, in fact, Jesus gets into trouble for healing on the Sabbath, once for allowing his disciples to pinch heads of corn when they were supposed to be in the synagogue.  And in today’s story Jesus is directly confronted by the leader of the synagogue who suggests, more or less, that he is being deliberately confrontational.  Nobody objects to people being made well, he points out, but do it during business hours.

Sunday, of course, isn’t the Jewish Sabbath, set aside as the seventh day of creation, the day of rest based on the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis.  Sabbath retraces the drama of creation and the cycle of the natural world, and underscores the fact that human time is interwoven with the seasons of creation and ultimately with God’s own life.  Sunday, not the seventh but the eighth day of creation, the first day of God’s new creation in the resurrection of Christ, has got a relationship with the Jewish Sabbath, but as always, we need to respect the Jewish tradition in which Jesus stands.

Jesus responds to the synagogue leader’s challenge with an argument of his own, though it’s not actually a very convincing one.  Feeding and watering animals and humans even on the Sabbath is necessary to sustain life, the synagogue leader is perfectly right that Dr Jesus could have made an appointment with the bent-over lady for the following morning.  The real point isn’t that animals mattered more than humans in the Jewish system, or that Sabbath observance is somehow hypocritical.  Even in Jesus’ day, the rabbinic tradition understood Sabbath as a divine prerogative for restoration and healing for the whole created order, and we as Christians can and should learn from the holistic Jewish understanding of Sabbath.  As writer Richard Swanson points out, ‘This scene comes out of a world that remembered that Sabbath is different. Sabbath is not just a day of rest.  It is a day of promise … Sabbath is welcomed into the house as a queen would be welcomed. Sabbath provides a foretaste of the culmination of all things, a glimpse of God's dominion, a little slice of the messianic age dropped into the midst of regular time. Sabbath offers a remembrance of God's promise of peace and freedom for all of creation. It is a good thing, a gift from God…Sabbath had become a symbol of the resistance God's people offered to tyrants of every sort and every time…Sabbath is a day that lifts people's eyes to God's promise in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances’. [1]

The point, I think, is not that Jesus and the synagogue leader have different ideas on the Sabbath, but that they have different understandings of who God is.  They would have agreed with one another that we must love God with our whole heart and soul and strength, and that this needs to show itself in love for those around us. For the synagogue leader this means keeping the commandments. That makes sense. It’s based on an image of the God who created us and demands our obedience.  It’s an understanding of God that many Christians would also share, an understanding of God that says the most important thing is to get our beliefs right, to observe the right forms of worship. [2]

But what if God’s chief priority is not to be obeyed, but something else? What if God’s chief focus is love and care for people and for creation?  If this is the sort of God we imagine, then the focus of our response has to shift, we need to become less focussed on the keeping of commandments, right beliefs and the right forms of worship, and more concerned with God’s people and God’s creation.  If this is how we imagine God, then all the commandments and rules, guidelines and traditions, scriptures and beliefs are actually designed to get us to do one thing – which is to love in the same way that we understand God as loving.

We often talk about the aim of Christian living as becoming Christ-like, and I think that is it in a nut-shell.  We aim to grow into the model of human life that we see in Jesus.  But what all too often happens is not that Christians become more like Jesus, but more like what they imagine God to be.  If we imagine God to be unapproachable, authoritarian and self-obsessed, rigidly insistent that human beings keep to the letter of the Law and know their Bibles backwards, then we become narrow-minded, authoritarian and judgemental ourselves. 

But there’s another way of loving God.  Jesus is modelling in this story what seems to have been the underlying intuition and the basic message of his entire ministry.  In his actions he consistently shows us an image of God that he seems to believe matches the reality a whole lot better, that our understanding of God should not be modelled on the aloof king or the powerful, demanding father, but on the mother sweeping the floor to find a lost coin, or the father running down the road to meet a lost son.  God’s dignity and remoteness are traded in for intimacy and compassion.  And Jesus, who understands God like that, models a human life that grows from that understanding.

So, how to keep the Sabbath?  I find in this story an echo of another Sabbath, in chapter four of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus stands up in the synagogue and announces his mission plan by quoting Isaiah, ‘God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour’.  Jesus here is very clear that right worship and the keeping of commandments means making God’s priority of compassion and care also our priority.

Another clue is to notice the woman herself, who in this story is not named, and described only by the effect of what oppresses her – she is bent over.  It doesn’t actually matter from our perspective what her medical condition was, it might even have been the cumulative effect of years of carrying heavy burdens of water or firewood.  Being bent over means not being able to see the world or other people straight-on, it means being limited in perspective, looking down, not up, isolated and confined.  The point is, we get people like that in church.  Physically bent over, emotionally or morally bent over.  People come here, all the time, hoping that this might be a place of healing, a place where, somehow, they might be able to let go of everything that has kept them imprisoned and find again the capacity for joy, to become new-born, to get a second or a third or fourth chance, to live again.  And very, very often, they leave disappointed, having found not healing but clique-ishness and competitiveness and backbiting and silly insistence on the form rather than the substance of Christian faith.

The bent-over woman might also be you, because to tell the truth we are all in various ways bent over and in need, not only of God’s love, but for that love to be offered to us in concrete form through the actions of the person sitting next to us.  How many Christian men and women come to church year in, year out, without receiving the blessing of human love which actually is the only way we have of understanding the love of God?

The purpose of Sabbath rest is of course to be free to praise God, and so Jesus sets the woman free from what oppresses her and pushes her in on herself.  The gladness of resurrection, Sunday the day of re-creation, is nothing less than the transformation of the whole created order, the celebration of all living things made whole and new, reconnected with the truth of who they are – and so the business of Sunday is to make new, to restore and to make joyful all who have been bent over by oppression or grief, all who have lost their way, all who mourn their years of failure or wasted opportunity.  To bless one another with the rest and gladness of God.


[1] Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke.

[2] I am indebted for some of the following to Bill loader, who publishes his reflections on the Sunday Gospel at

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Have you ever wished there was a bit more detail in the New Testament about the really important things – like what Jesus got up to as a boy – what his grandparents’ names were, how Joseph and Mary got together – all the human interest stuff?  If so, you might be interested in some of the gospels and letters that didn’t make it into the Bible.

Most of them are actually appallingly bad – for example the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that tells about the first time six-year-old Jesus gets into trouble with the scribes for working on the Sabbath – by making toy pigeons out of clay and then making them fly away – this fairly fanciful version of Jesus’ childhood has him regularly working quite advanced miracles like helping his father in the carpenter’s shop by miraculously stretching pieces of wood that had accidentally been cut too short, reattaching people’s feet that had been cut off in industrial accidents – also there’s a slightly troubling episode of divine delinquency to do with mates who tease the young Messiah mysteriously dropping dead.

A slightly more coherent one is the 2nd century document, the Proto-Evangelium of James – again it tries to fill in the blanks about Jesus’ childhood but this one goes back a whole generation and tells us how Mary and Joseph get it together.  Even though it isn’t in the Bible, the Proto-Evangelium is the source for a lot of the anecdotal stuff, and the Church traditions – for example the one that says Mary’s mum’s name is Anna, who is barren and unhappy until one day she receives good news through an angel that she is going to conceive.  Like Hannah in the Old Testament, Anna is so pleased she decides to offer the baby to God by sending it to the temple to be brought up by the priests.  So Mary gets brought up in a sort of boarding school for Vestal Virgins where – according to the story - they are hand-fed by angels.  To make themselves useful while they are there, the girls set to work weaving tapestries for the temple.  The young Mary gets the job of weaving the purple and scarlet yarns for the veil that hangs in the sanctuary – this veil is a sort of curtain that hangs in front of the Holiest of Holies where nobody ever goes except the high priest, who once a year ventures in to stand in front of the ark of the covenant and make peace between God and the people of Israel. 

Well, when the Vestal Virgins turn twelve the priests quite naturally decide they don’t fancy the idea of sharing the temple with a group of teenage girls, so they tell them all it’s time to go home and get married.  I imagine most of the girls are probably quite relieved at the prospect.  But not Mary, who says her mum always wanted her to be a temple virgin and that’s what she plans to stay.  The priests are equally certain they don’t want girls of marriageable age hanging around the temple, so they pack her off back to mum and dad’s place in Nazareth with her scarlet and purple wool, telling her she can keep weaving the temple veil in her spare time until Joseph can get around to marrying her.

But here things get a bit strange.  Back at home, Mary dutifully picks up the scarlet wool and starts spinning, but then she feels thirsty and goes outside to draw a bucket of water from the well.  As she’s pulling up the bucket she hears a voice coming out of nowhere saying, ‘hello, favoured one!  You’re shining with God’s beauty!  Of all women, you are the most blessed!’  You know, and I know, that this is Gabriel, making his entrance, but Mary doesn’t know that, and she can’t see anything, so she goes back – quite flustered - and decides to have a go with the purple wool.  This time, Gabriel decides to be visible, and he says to her, ‘Mary, you’ve got nothing to fear, you’ve made quite an impression on God, and you’re about to conceive the child of God’s Word.  Nothing is impossible with God!’  And after that, the story unfolds more or less as we know it in the Gospel of Luke.  Mary says, ‘Let it be with me just as you say’.

Setting this story around a visit to the well to fetch water is almost certainly meant to get us thinking about all the other chance meetings by wells in the Old Testament – like Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and his wife-to-be Zipporah – as well as Jesus himself at the well with the woman of Samaria, which I think is the only story in the whole Bible where a chance meeting at a well doesn’t lead to a proposal of marriage – but maybe the point is that always in the Bible we see that the well is a place of refreshment and a place for great turning points in the history of God’s people.  Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us that Jesus promises the Samaritan woman that the water he gives will become a well of refreshment springing up in the believer’s heart, and suggests that the image of the well itself represents the bubbling freshness of God that always lies just beneath the surface, ready to spring up again and again from the depths. [1]  Mary, who in this story stands for the whole history of God’s people, the centuries-long exchange of promise and faithfulness, becomes the first person in history who explicitly believes in the fulfilment of God’s promise through Jesus – and from this point on Mary’s own womb is going to become the well from which springs the river of life.

But there is another great symbol lurking in this story, as Archbishop Williams points out – a more challenging one.  Because what Mary has been occupied in weaving is that great symbol of holy fear, the veil that hangs in front of the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant, the curtain that stands for the unbridgeable gulf separating sinful humanity and God.  Yet as Mary works she is interrupted – God, it seems, has done what human beings can’t do, and has stepped through the veil from the heavenward side!  God parts the curtain of everything that keeps us isolated and alienated from God, the curtain of fear and guilt – and is only able to do so because this one human creature is sufficiently unafraid, sufficiently attentive - sufficiently in love - to let God in without reservation.  And what this means for you and me, is that that now, when we look at God, we don’t just see the unknowable, terrifying emptiness of infinity, but the vulnerability and helplessness of a baby on a young mother’s lap.

You might already have picked up the most poignant connection of all, in this image of the veil that Mary is weaving.  And it’s the echo of Good Friday, the echo of Jesus’ last cry as he hangs on the cross, and as the gospel writer tells us the veil that hangs in the temple is torn in two from top to bottom.  What it means is that what separates us from God has been ripped apart - in daring to claim his oneness in love with the Father, all the way to death and beyond, Jesus has made a way for us to follow, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, through the curtain, through his own body.  Just as Mary is interrupted, spinning the curtain, so the whole history of the world is interrupted by the cry of Jesus from the cross – everything that we try to put between ourselves and God is torn apart by God’s own initiative and Mary’s wholehearted consent.

I wonder, what curtains do we put up ourselves?  Where do we waste energy, and where do we put up barriers in between ourselves and the life-giving water that God wants to give us?  Because, make no doubt about it, it’s a very human thing to do.  We resist what gives us life.  You see the big conflicts that tear our world apart, and you think, why can’t we trust one another?  Why is it that we are more energised by ideologies and national identity that only give us a partial answer to what it means to be human, than by the challenge of reconciliation and the recognition of common humanity?  And you see it in the lives of families torn apart by the half-forgotten memory of some disagreement, what should be a place of love and unconditional acceptance becomes an arena for competition and point-scoring.  I think it comes from the place of shame, from the deep-down sense of inadequacy that means we’d rather hang onto our hurts than risk rejection by reaching out to the person we are alienated from.  And it can be like that in our religious life too.  The encounter with God can be challenging: when you really think about it the weekly encounter with the God we meet in the Eucharist, and the daily encounter with God in the life of prayer and Christian action challenges us to dare more, and to love more, than we ever dreamed.  Ripping down the curtain means refusing to retreat into a religion of dull convention or private spirituality, it means refusing to settle for the religion of habit that mistakes the form for the substance.  Ripping down the curtain means saying, over and over again, yes! when God asks us to agree to be transformed, to be changed in ways we can’t predict by God’s silence and by God’s humanity.  Ripping down the curtain means saying yes to the utterly astonishing proposition that God wants to take on flesh in our own lives, that we will finally see humanity – including our own humanity – as God intended it to be.


[1] This sermon is based on Rowan Williams’ book, Ponder these things: praying with icons of the Virgin’, (2002, Mulgrave, Vic., John Garratt Publishing).  See especially chapter four, ‘Weaving Scarlet and Purple – a legend of Mary’, pp. 57-70.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Pentecost +11C

In the recent TV series, Life on Mars, detective Sam Tyler gets shot by a drug dealer and wakes up in 1973.  Once a cop, always a cop, I guess – so he finds himself still working at the same inner-city police station in Manchester in a CID squad led by a boozy, on-the-take DCI who gets results the good old-fashioned way using violence, corruption and gut instinct.  Has Sam gone mad?  Is he in a coma?  Has he really travelled back in time?  What can he do to get back to 2006?  Sam is suffering from the worst-possible case of culture shock, bewildering cops and robbers alike in 1973 with his new-fangled 21st century ideas, getting the occasional cryptic message from 2006, all the while looking for clues, trying to work out what he’s here for, what he has to do in order to get home.  Meanwhile his romantic interest in 1973, uniformed police officer Annie Cartwright, gradually comes to realise that it’s a choice between believing Sam is off his rocker, or that she herself is a figment of his imagination.

Welcome to the world of the letter to the Hebrews.  To be fair, it’s not just the writer of Hebrews who works on the assumption that the world we live in is just a pale imitation of reality, a sort of maze we wander around in while we try to figure out how to get home.  Some Christians live like that, even today.  But we need to start at the beginning, and we’re going to need to help of St Augustine to make sense of it all.

Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading this morning that where our treasure is, our hearts will follow.  He isn’t just being poetic, this is straightforward, practical advice.  Your treasure is what you invest in, where you put your energy, what you commit yourself to; and Jesus is telling us that what we do with passion and energy and commitment, we come to love.  You might think it should be the other way around – that what you love, you work for – but Jesus is too good a psychologist.  He knows that what builds love is work and energy and commitment.  What you take seriously, what you’re prepared to spend your time and energy and resources on, that’s what you’ll come to love.  It means that love doesn’t just happen, we choose it by deciding what we’re prepared to give ourselves to.

So where do we put our energy – in this world or the next?  Where do we save up the sort of currency that doesn’t get nibbled away by the inflation of disappointment and failure and wasted good intentions?  What lasts?  Which world is our true heart’s home and how do we learn to invest in it?

This is a real question for Christians who, from time to time, feel that they’ve lost their way, wonder whether their lives are really headed somewhere, whether their faith is ultimately just a dead end, or who just feel spiritually run down.  And the writer of Hebrews starts today’s passage with this wonderful, elliptical definition: ‘faith’, he tells us, ‘is the assurance of things unseen’.  All the way through his letter he has been reassuring his community who apparently are facing persecution or disappointment with the promise that there is something more secure, more enduring and infinitely more worth having than everything that their faithfulness has cost them.  And he makes the big claim that the perspective of God is wider than the perspective of the here and now, that there is something more permanent that we are heading towards that makes it all worthwhile.  Maybe as 21st century Christians we can relate to this - most of us, after all, grew up in a Church that was the hub of the community, the socially respectable place to be in a world that for the most part listened to what the Church had to say.  But somewhere along the way the pattern changed, we started to feel - not persecution, exactly, but the dull frustration of belonging to a Church relegated to the sidelines, an irrelevant Church, a Church that has to recalibrate its message in order to be heard at all in a culture that is tuned to a different wavelength.  And Hebrews says, if you feel you don’t quite belong, that’s because you don’t.  Your true home isn’t here.  Your true travelling companions are the ancient heroes of faith who stuck with confidence to what they believed and remained faithful to it.

And our passage gives the example of Abraham, always a good example if you are talking about the sort of faith that takes risks, that dares to trust even though the outcome can’t be seen.  And Hebrews reminds us Abraham sets out on the strength of God’s promise of a bright future, then gives the story a bit of a twist by saying that the promise Abraham was travelling towards was not earthly descendents or the physical land of Canaan but a heavenly city, the city of God or the temple of God of which earthly cities and temples are just pale copies.  Well, of course, at one level the writer of Hebrews is just making this up.  If you read Genesis, Abraham packs up and leaves Mesopotamia on the promise of real descendents, real grazing land and a bit of elbow room.  There’s nothing in Genesis to even remotely suggest that Abraham would have even known what this heavenly city was supposed to be about.  God’s blessings in Genesis are always connected with good earthy realities in the lives of men and women.  The writer of Hebrews is simply using what we politely refer to as poetic licence.

On the other hand, he’s got a point.  Abraham, he’s saying, is driven by something he can’t articulate or explain.  That beneath the hard-headed decisions of our lives there is a longing for something without which we are never quite complete and never quite arrive.  That what drives Abraham’s life and ours as well is the need to be where God is.  And that the pioneers of our faith have recognised this and responded to it, that they have dared to travel by the invisible compass of faith, and that, in a sense, unless we allow ourselves to be pulled by the deep-down ache for what we can’t name but know as the promise of our own completion – unless we are prepared to make that fearful and open-ended journey of faith then we lose our moorings, preoccupied with what doesn’t really matter and pushed around by the external circumstances of our lives.

It’s true enough, but then Hebrews pushes a step further, with half an eye, it seems, on the fashionable philosophy of the day that says the real world is not this one.  Created things are just shadows of what is really real, just copies of which the reality is in heaven.  Abraham, the writer of Hebrews insists, refuses to settle for the pale imitation of God’s promises in the here and now, because he knows he is just passing through and doesn’t really belong here, and that his true home and his true goal is in heaven.  (Although of course the real Abraham of Genesis was more than happy to settle for actual cattle and land and descendents).  And Hebrews suggests that God approves of Abraham, basically, because Abraham doesn’t get distracted by all this not-quite-real stuff that he is travelling through.

Which, basically, is where it starts to get a bit scary.  Because it leads to a sort of Christianity that says, look, this world is just a practice one, not for keeps so we don’t have to really look after it or worry too much what happens in it.  A sort of Christianity that withdraws from the problems of the real world, and that refuses to speak out against injustice or human activities that destroy the natural environment.  A sort of over-spiritualised Christianity, in other words, that is not much help to real people in intolerable circumstances, and that also fails to see the joy and beauty in God’s creation.  The sort of Christianity that deprives us of the opportunity, not only to experience the simple joys and pleasures of life in the real world, but for compassion and deep engagement with the world we live in.  The sort of Christianity, in other words, that doesn’t look anything like Jesus of the Nazareth.

Which brings me to St Augustine, who, 250 or so years later, pointed out something so simple that it needed a lifetime of thought and prayer to realise.  ‘Well’, he says – more or less – ‘if the created world is only let’s pretend and the only really real world is in the mind of God that’s perfectly OK.  Because the Word of God – the creative self-expression of God that sets creation going – is also Jesus who is born and lives in this world and that’s what makes it real and holy’. [1] Creation – which from the very beginning is the Word of God in flesh and blood – is joined to God’s own life because God chooses to step inside, to live and die and rise again in order to communicate that here and now and nowhere else is where human creatures get to be sacraments of salvation.  Which makes the here and now pretty special, and serves to remind us that every single day is a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to enact God’s love.

But how do you invest in it?  Sam Tyler, it seems to me, never does quite work out which of his two realities is the real one, but he eventually works out that the one he has to take the risk of being real in himself, is the one where Annie is.  You make your decision, and you store up your treasure because the only alternative is to be disconnected.  Choosing not to put your money where your mouth is, means choosing not to be real yourself.  But how?  Coming where it does in Luke’s Gospel, just after the parable of the rich fool, the answer is obvious.  Build up your treasure by giving it away.  What are you giving yourself to?  That’s where your heart really is.


[1] A very loose interpretation of the position Augustine takes in de ideis,  concerning middle Platonism’s doctrine of divine ‘ideas’.