Saturday, February 26, 2011

Epiphany 8A (Mtt 6.22-34)

Yesterday it was reported that Christchurch is a city under stress.  With anything up to one third of the buildings in the city centre facing demolition, over a quarter of the city still without power and up to a half of all households without water – with the death toll from last Tuesday’s earthquake at 145 and over 200 still unaccounted for – with residents forced to queue for basic necessities like food and gas for cooking – police have also reported an increase in domestic violence, drunk driving and petty theft.

I wonder if you’ve ever noticed how often, in the Gospels, Jesus says to his disciples, and to us – ‘don’t panic’?  Or ‘don’t be afraid’ ... ‘don’t worry’?  And today ... don’t worry about external things, focus on the things that matter.  God knows the things you need for your life, so don’t fuss.  Just be – just notice the beauty of God’s presence in your life, don’t wallow in the past or worry about the future, just notice the wonder of right now.

It seems St Matthew wrote his Gospel for a Christian community that was fairly comfortably off - like – let’s face it - us.  A community that of course had its share of anxiety and concerns, a community where maybe not everybody was particularly well off, but where – let’s say – everybody expects to eat today and has a bed to sleep in tonight, where everybody has access to clean water and power and medical care and education.  But I do wonder how today’s Gospel reading would be heard in a community that has been traumatised, for example, how are Christians in Christchurch this morning hearing Jesus’ advice to stop worrying and let God provide when they have lost loved ones and livelihoods and large parts of the city are still without water and power, and perhaps there are still human beings awaiting a rescue that might never come?  How would today’s Gospel be heard in Haiti where – more than a year after the earthquake that destroyed a quarter of a million lives, over 800,000 men, women and children are still living in refugee camps and dying from entirely preventable outbreaks of cholera?  Perhaps the message for those of us who – really – do have enough is to redirect our attention to the things that really matter, to be thankful for the ways our needs are provided for and to watch out that we don’t make a religion out of consumerism – getting what we want rather than being content with what we need.  But if that’s the message for us, then what is the message for those who truly don’t have enough – those for whom it seems chronic anxiety and worry is a constant companion?  If that is your situation, then Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel might not be easy to hear.  What does he mean, don’t worry? Life is nothing else except worry.

Actually, it seems to me that at a deeper level the message is exactly the same, for those of us who have enough, and for those who don’t.  Jesus, it seems to me, is saying something about the theory – a common assumption back in the first century and unfortunately not particularly uncommon even today – the theory that if you are doing well, that’s because God loves you, and if you aren’t doing so well, that’s because you’re a sinner, that’s because God isn’t too pleased with you.  And Jesus is saying, don’t make an idol out of externals.  If you have enough for your needs, be content.  If you are living through hard times, that’s not because God doesn’t love you – just look at the wildflowers that do nothing at all and yet are glorious.  Just look at the birds that land on the fence – they don’t fret or worry, they just tweet and carry on like birds and yet they are fed by the hand of God.  Actually the life of a common or garden sparrow is pretty hard, when you come to think of it.  They do keel over and die when there isn’t enough.  They do fall prey to cats and foxes.  But this is a variation on last week’s observation that all living creatures receive their sustenance from God.  The rain falls and the sun rises on sinner and righteous, on rich and poor, and on Kiwis and Aussies alike. 

So Jesus is encouraging his followers to avoid the sort of self-serving logic that equates virtue with success and vice with failure.  He is making a claim that God’s desire for human beings is that we all have enough, rather than using some complex calculus to work out how blessed or cursed we are.  ‘No one can serve two masters,’ he says. We’ve got to decide what our priorities and values are, and if we’re going to follow Jesus, then those priorities and values need to be focused wider than our own self-interest. Jesus is telling us to take a wider perspective than we’re used to.

When we look at it like this, the situation in Christchurch or in Haiti is – well – just as dire.  You can’t make human suffering go away magically by believing the right things.  And it still maybe doesn’t sound like really good news to the person who hasn’t got enough to feed their kids today.  But it does sound like encouragement not to be selfish.  If we have enough we should stop worrying about how to get everything we want and instead learn to think more about how to share with those who don’t have enough.  Clearly the message of today’s Gospel is to remind those of us who have enough that the care of the weakest and most vulnerable is the top priority for God.  And for those who truly don’t have enough – for whom it’s a daily anxiety to work out how to feed and clothe and house ourselves and those we love then – today’s Gospel reading is a reminder that God cares for the whole of creation, for lilies, for little birds and for you as well.

History tells us – doesn’t it? – that God doesn’t prevent disaster.  Not natural disaster, like floods and cyclones and earthquakes that tear through communities and destroy life and livelihoods and hopes.  Not human disaster, like economic meltdowns and unemployment or crime or political violence or war.  These things are a part of history, and part of the landscape of the world we live in, and if Jesus is telling us that God loves all of God’s creatures, even the weak and insignificant or oblivious – then the message for those of us who want to adopt Jesus’ values and priorities seems to be that we need to be part of the solution.  That the care of the weak and insignificant needs to be our priority, too.  And even further than that – Jesus’ message is that whatever happens in the world around us, or in our own lives, we are never alone.  That the God who created us, is with us and loves us.  The God whose love for all living things is revealed in the intricate design of our bodies, the DNA of tiny insignificant creatures like garden snails that is as intricate and as perfectly adapted as the complex structure of the human brain – the cycle of life and death, of rainfall and growth and reproduction that reveals - either, as the atheists claim, a stunning indifference and moral void at the heart of everything, or else God’s personal and loving care of all that God has made.

The Sermon on the Mount – of which today’s reading is a little chunk – is the most subversive document ever written.  It contradicts the values of Empire, and the values of individualism and capitalism and the State-centred values of communism.  It contradicts the self-serving ideologies of racism and sexism.  In different places and different circumstances, it has been banned.  And it’s a set of marching orders for anyone who wants to follow Jesus.  There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world; this was true in Jesus’ century, just as it’s true in ours. Jesus’ teaching in the face of all that is wrong with the world is consistent: have faith, and do something about the bad stuff by putting the priorities of God into practice.

Today’s gospel is part of a larger message, and part of Jesus’ challenge to his hearers and to us: life in the kingdom of God has different values from life in the empire, or life in a profit-based society. Life in the kingdom of God includes the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. Life in the kingdom of God includes our privilege and duty to bear light to the darkest parts of the world, to salt the world with mercy and justice. Today’s gospel, if we don’t hear it in this context, must sound unrealistic to someone who is suffering. In the larger context of this entire teaching, however, Jesus is reminding his followers – and us – of God’s profound love for everything and everyone God has created, and encouraging his followers – us! – to focus on the kingdom of God.

In the context of our everyday lives, it’s easy enough to reassure ourselves that this doesn’t actually apply to us.  We still feel we need to worry about the basics – ‘God knows I’m not doing it easy!’ And as a parish – Church councils worry about budgets and the care of buildings and meeting the Rector’s stipend.  But in the light of the Sermon on the Mount we can’t avoid asking ourselves, ‘how, today, am I serving the kingdom of God?  How am I demonstrating Jesus’ values and priorities that all human beings should know God’s mercy and grace?  Is it really up to me?’



Friday, February 25, 2011

Marriage of Trisha Scinocco and Rod Humphries

St Paul, who wrote the letter from which the reading that Rod and Trish chose for their wedding today, loved making lists.  It wasn’t just his own personal hobby, it was one of the intellectual fashions of the first century, and so in all of the letters he contributed to what we now call the New Testament, lists figure pretty prominently.  Lists of virtues, lists of vices (which to tell the absolute truth look a whole lot more fun) lists of the fruits and the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit .. lists of the ideal qualities for saints ...and in the wonderful passage about love that we read this morning, yet another list of everything that love is, and much that it isn’t.

So because I think St Paul is generally spot-on, and in particular because he is so spot-on in this reading about love that there isn’t much I can add to it ... I decided to write a list of my own.  I hasten to add that this is a wisdom that, for my own part, I am still working on!  A list that in my own case is still incomplete, a work in progress ... a list imperfectly understood and incompletely practised ... but here for what it’s worth is my list of the virtues of married life. 

First in my list, is happiness.  You might think no, you don’t have to work on happiness, happiness is just what happens to you when you marry the right person, but I think it’s more complex than that.  Happiness isn’t a by-product of good fortune, it’s a virtue that requires years of patient practice.  Happiness is where you find it, not always where you look for it.  Cultivate happiness by doing worthwhile things together, by setting your sights on goals that matter, by practising courtesy and restraint and generosity toward one another and toward others.  And remember that your partner can’t make you happy – happiness is elusive unless you make a conscious decision to choose it and to practice it, but it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to one another.

And then, there’s love.  Trish and Rod, I think it’s fairly obvious that you’re in love.  But from what I can see, your love for one another is something you haven’t given lightly, and as I’ve had the privilege of hearing and sharing your story, I’ve got a glimpse of how you’ve grown together in trust and in friendship, how you’ve learned to respect and honour each other.  You know, our culture teaches us to look at love and relationships through rose-coloured glasses – that everything’s going to be OK if you’re in love, the future’s going to just look after itself.  I’m not so sure about that.

The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote this to a young couple who were planning to get married —'It is not love that sustains your marriage, but marriage that sustains your love'.  I believe that to be profoundly true, because marriage is what the church calls a covenant.  You sometimes hear people talking about a marriage “contract”, as though it was a sort of legal transaction, but I reckon that’s a long way wide of the mark.  In a contract, you make a promise and maybe you exchange something of value.  But in a covenant, you don’t exchange anything. You just give yourself.  That’s the difference.  A covenant says, "I am yours and you are mine."  Marriage is a covenant, and it’s grounded in a bigger covenant – the covenant between God and God’s people. There is something both powerful and enduring in a covenant made before God and before one another. That’s why the church says you don’t enter marriage lightly or without preparation.  Entering a covenant relationship means saying to one another, ‘for the rest of my life, you are going to be remembered in me’.

Then, I think, there’s acceptance, the grace of not putting conditions on one another.  To practice this virtue we need to remind ourselves that God loves us before we’re even remotely loveable.  This way of loving another person not because they’ve done something or changed in some way that we wanted them to, but just because we do love them – this sort of unconditional love that we learn from the way God loves us – becomes in the end the one safe place in the beloved’s life that actually transforms them profoundly because they’re accepted just as they are.  This is a major virtue for married saints.

And then there’s forgiveness.  Did you ever read that silly and patently untrue aphorism – ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry?’ Because when it comes down to it we do let each other down, all the time, and we let each other down in big ways as well as small ways, and the people we let down the most are the ones we love the most.  We betray the love we receive and we forget the love that we owe.  Forgiveness is never cheap, it doesn’t mean being a doormat, and there is often a great personal cost.  It can be hard to practise forgiveness, both the giving of it and the receiving of it, but it does get easier because each time we forgive, or accept forgiveness, we learn a little more about the sort of love that dares to imagine a future that is not limited by past failure or regret, and that transforms timidness and selfishness into expansiveness and courage.

The next one is wisdom.  In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, Wisdom is personified as God’s right hand girl in the act of Creation, subtle and fluid and un-pin-down-able but indispensable to rulers and lovers alike.  Not to be confused with intelligence or knowledge, true wisdom is a virtue acquired through years of discernment and patient observation.  Here’s a head start – the two of you are different!  Males and females think differently, our bodies and minds, our feelings and logics are different.  Devote yourselves to the wisdom of learning the ways of one another, expect your beloved to surprise and delight you, rejoice in the ways she or he confounds your expectations – be a patient scientist of the mystery and the secret strengths of one another, and be ready to relearn from one another much that you thought you already knew.

And last on my list is the humble but foundational virtue of kindness, the grace of never taking one another for granted, of being careful with the raw and tender places in one another’s lives.  Trish and Rod, I’ve seen you practicing this, just during the couple of months I’ve known you, and I have seen your care of one another.  Remember that the flaws and the ancient hurts your partner carries are holy wounds, places of growth and healing, and places of potential for new growth where the activity of God’s Holy Spirit is most clearly visible.  Tread carefully in one another’s pasts, protect and nurture one another, encourage one another to grow in confidence and grace.



Saturday, February 19, 2011

Epiphany 7A

I recently read an article that examined how the small American town of West Chester survived the Great Depression of the early 1930s.  This little farming community was hit hard by falling commodity prices, which ironically meant that at the very same time many of its own inhabitants were without enough to eat, local farmers were forced into bankruptcy, prematurely slaughtering their animals and ploughing cornfields into the ground because they couldn’t sell their produce.  The writer of the paper identified some of the main strategies this community relied on, and I was intrigued to discover both a sense of self-sacrifice that led people to share the little they had with those worse off than themselves, as well as a marked inequality even amongst the destitute – as black residents were forced into even more desperate strategies than their white neighbours, such as the hunting of rodents.

Like elsewhere throughout the world, unemployed men in West Chester went door-to-door, begging for odd jobs, and often worked simply for the food they needed to keep their families alive.  Even government projects designed to soak up the massive unemployment often paid unemployed men in food rather than cash.  Agencies such as the Salvation Army ran soup kitchens and bread lines, local families pooled together for the support of orphaned children, and sent food and desperately needed cash to other parts of the country that they deemed worse off than themselves.

I was reminded of this by our first reading, from the Book of Leviticus, that focuses on the relationships between people that hold a community together.  In this early period of the history of Israel there were of course no dole queues, no Medicare safety net or age pensions, and the social glue that held the community together and provided safety and security was only what could be found in the network of obligations that held people together within kinship structures and cultic practice.  But Leviticus goes further, and describes a foundational obligation that goes way beyond the boundaries of family or religion, a fundamental obligation that holds human beings together because of who we are as creatures made in the image of God.

‘Be holy’, God says in this passage.  ‘Because I, The Lord your God, am holy’.  ‘Be perfect’, Jesus tells his followers, including us, in today’s Gospel reading, ‘even as your Father in heaven is perfect’.  In other words, as creatures made in the divine image, our lives are supposed to reveal the divine pattern on which we are constructed.  It’s a common ancient supposition.  That the true parentage of something or somebody can be discerned because the child resembles the parent – and so to turn it on its head - what you reveal in your life, in your actions as well as your words, shows who you take after and reveals your true parentage.  If, as we claim, we are God’s sons and daughters, then our lives are supposed to reveal God’s holiness. 

But then Leviticus does something radical, takes a further step that echoes down through the centuries until it is picked up by a rabble-rousing first century Jewish rabbi who uses it to re-interpret the Law for a generation who have lost their roots, a generation who have got used to seeing the Law more as a tool by which the ruling classes, the scribes and Pharisees, can lock in their own privilege.  And Jesus picks up this vital clue from that dullest and most unreadable of all the Old Testament books, the Book of Leviticus that – unlike the priestly class – assumes that God’s holiness is not a question of being ‘set apart’ or ‘unique’ – not a question of avoiding ritual contamination by coming into contact with the poor and the grubby – but that sees God’s holiness, and ours, as being about relationship and intimacy, as being about the preparedness to go beyond our own self-interest and to see our own well-being as somehow connected with the well-being of others.  A way of seeing the holiness of God, and the holiness of God’s people, as revealed in our willingness to practise compassion even for those who are defined by their difference and their foreignness. 

‘When you harvest your field or pick the ripe fruit from your orchard’, God says, ‘leave some.  Make sure you leave some behind for the poor, and for aliens who you might think should have no rights at all.’  You see what this is doing?  Not only providing for the most immediate needs of those who have nothing, but also providing the dignity of work, a second harvest.  And why are we commanded to do this?  ‘Because I, the Lord your God, am holy’.  In the self-understanding of ancient Israel, so close to the spirituality of Australian aboriginals, the land does not belong to the person who pays money for it, the land belongs to God, and the produce belongs to God – and the lives of the people who live within the land are connected to the land and defined by relationship to God and to each other.  God’s perspective does not recognise our property rights, or the artificial boundaries by which we decree that some people belong here and others don’t, or that some people may have dignity and that others can’t. 

Leviticus assumes – and Jesus assumes – that holiness is about economics.  What you have isn’t yours to do with as you like.  You are to recognise the claim that others have not only on your possessions, but the claim that the destitute and the alien have on the intangible commodities of dignity and humanity.  I wonder what this would look like if it was actually practised in our Australian society?  For a start, it means that the decisions we make in business or in our own finances are always personal – the decision to spend money on ourselves, or in business the decision to down-size or sell a poorly-performing asset is personal, because it presupposes that our own interests are more important than the interests of others.  Biblical ethics on the other hand presupposes that the bottom line has to be balanced by the well-being of others, that the primary criterion for how we handle our goods and our money is the flourishing of community and the care of the most vulnerable.  And Biblical ethics assumes – an assumption I might say that we all too often implicitly reject – that our own well-being lies not in how much we keep for ourselves, or in how much others do for us, but in how much we work for the well-being of others.

Leviticus, in other words – Leviticus and the rabble-rousing rabbi – teaches us that holiness is about learning to practice the economics of love.  Loving your neighbour as yourself, and learning who your neighbour is.  We might have aliens, but God does not.  We might have enemies, but God does not.  God’s care is utterly wasteful, utterly indiscriminate, even sending the blessings of sunshine and rain without distinguishing between those who deserve them and those who don’t.  The perfection of God is the perfection not of splendid isolation but of relationship and involvement, the perfection of getting the hands dirty, of weeping with the sad and of sharing with the have-nots.  To be perfect like God is perfect means to notice the kinship and the connection we have most especially with those who are utterly alien because of their difference or their exclusion.  To notice that our own connectedness with God and with each other depends on our practicing the building of bridges to those who – even in our own community or our own congregation – are not noticed or not included.

No doubt you have heard the observation that love is not first and foremost a noun, but a verb.  Not something you have, but something you do.  In which case we might ask ourselves – how have I done it, lately? How have I loved – not just the ones who resemble me and who swerve my own interests – but the ones who least resemble me and who are farthest from my self-interest?  Who in my life are the aliens, the barely noticeable people who challenge me silently because of their need and who disturb me because of their different-ness?  How, lately, have I loved them?

Or as a congregation – how have we reached out, lately, to those in need in our community?  How have we broken down the barriers of exclusion, how have we made ourselves less comfortable so that others may feel included?  How have we loved?


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Epipany 6A (marriage of Ruth Mwangi and Shane Harman)

A long, long time ago, a friend gave me a violin. You might think this was a very generous gift, and indeed it was. I'd mentioned that I'd love to learn to play, and my friend said to me "Well, I thought that once, too. And somebody gave me this old violin. The only condition was, when I got sick of it I had to give it away to someone else for nothing. So if you want it, it is yours. Just - when you find out you can't play - that's when, not if - when you find that you can't play, it have to give away to someone else for nothing."

So I found a good teacher, at least I thought she was a good teacher because when she played my old violin it sounded like liquid honey. She started teaching me - giving me exercises, teaching me how to hold the violin between the shoulder and the chin, how to position my fingers on the strings, how to hold the bow correctly - and 101 other things. My family was very understanding as I recall. I imagine I sounded like a cat having its tail trodden on, trying to remember all the rules and put them all into practice at the same time - counting the notes, trying to hold the violin, the bow, gripping the neck of the violin just right… After a few months - or was it just a few weeks? - as my friend predicted I got sick of it and I asked my teacher how I could ever learn to play anything with so many rules to remember. And she said, "Don’t you get it? The rules are just there to help you to hear the music. When you learn to listen, the rules remember themselves."  Shortly after that, the violin went to a new owner, with the same condition ... I sometimes wonder where it is now, and whether it ever found an owner who persevered long enough to really hear the music it was capable of.

Sometimes Christians think that Jesus came to replace the law of Moses with the law of love. But St Matthew, who of all the gospel writers most emphasises the fact that Jesus is consistent with the law of Moses and the most ancient traditions of the people of Israel, in today's gospel, has Jesus reminding us that the law of Moses and the law of love are one and the same thing. And Jesus teaching in today's gospel reading spells it out in no uncertain terms - that we can't claim to love on the inside if our behaviour on the outside is inconsistent. This is one of those "when the rubber hits the road" Bible readings that reminds us that love is not a private emotion or a warm fuzzy feeling but the hard and sometimes costly way of forgiveness and compassion. In fact it's one of those Bible readings that, when we read it closely, might have us squirming a bit as we are forced to admit - even if only to ourselves - that there are times we simply don't live up to the standard Jesus sets.

A friend pointed out to me the other day the irony that we have this reading in the church today - when tomorrow is St Valentine's Day. Apparently, in Australia, on average every adult spends over $100 every year on Valentine's Day stuff, including cards, flowers, chocolates and meals in restaurants.  I’m not entirely sure who’s spending my share.  In the United States, one billion dollars is going to be spent tomorrow – in a single day - just on chocolates!  Considering the cost of ending global food insecurity in the world’s poorest nations has been estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation as just $30 billion a year, that’s quite a chunk.  It's cute of course, and it is also important, to remind the ones you love, and perhaps especially the one you're married to, that you're still in love - but I sometimes wonder whether what our society tells us about Valentine's Day and what the Bible tells us about love are one and the same thing. It seems the romantic mythology of our culture teaches us that love is mostly about how much somebody else can affirm us and make us feel complete – the Bible on the other hand teaches us that real love takes us way beyond our own self-interest, that real love is not private and self-centred but public and sometimes confronting.  The public face of love, of course, is justice.  So it’s a fair point – wouldn’t it be good if the next time there was a public appeal for victims of flood or fire or famine – wouldn’t it be good if we could give as big a love offering then as we give ourselves just on Valentines Day?

Don't get me wrong, romantic love needs to be worked at - and the relationships that hold us together in families where children are nurtured and where men and women find the affirmation and the courage they need to grow in confidence and integrity are the life experience in which most of us are best able to learn what God’s self-emptying love looks like in practice. So it might actually be important for Shane and Ruth to remember that their anniversary falls the day before St Valentine's Day, and for them to take the time every year to remind each other of why and how much they are in love.  And it might be good for them – and indeed for all of us – to remind ourselves that love doesn’t just grow by itself, that it needs to be fed and nurtured and that it has rules.

This is where we get back to the perseverance stuff.  To the practising of scales and the learning of grammar and the observance of the wisdom of generations who have gone before us. Love doesn't just happen, we don't learn to love our life partner just because one day we said “I do” in church, we don't learn to love God just by enduring a weekly sermon, and we don't learn to love God's people without learning the grammar of self-sacrifice and service. Real love, in other words, isn't just about saying "I love you", but about learning to live in a way that is consistent with what we claim.

But like the rules of the violin, it seems to me, the rules of love are also designed for one thing, and one thing only – to get us to the point where we can really hear with the heart. As a priest, occasionally - very occasionally - I get asked "is it right for me to do this?" "Is such and such right or wrong?" And it can be a hard question to answer. Because of course the sort of religion that insists on black-and-white answers to questions, and one single correct response to every situation, is wishful thinking, if not childish. Like the rules of the violin, the rules of love need to be reflected on, to be practised with understanding and sensitivity until we can learn to apply them in new and novel situations.

It seems to me that Jesus’ teachings were designed to challenge the way in which the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had replaced religion based on an interior relationship with God with external legalism and ritual obedience. Unfortunately ever since, there has been a movement in the church to replace Jesus focus’ on the covenant of the heart with a whole new set of rules. In today's reading, Jesus is telling us that the interior relationship of the heart and the rules of love are inseparable. Both need to be worked at.

The writer Madeleine l’Engel made some observations in one of her books about her own long marriage, which I often pass on to couples planning to be married, and which I think might be helpful for all of us to remember the day before Valentines Day.  She reminds us that to love somebody is to take a risk, and that always when we love we are unfaithful to one another, in big ways and in small ways, and that to stay in love is to learn the hard lessons of trust and forgiveness.  In words that remind me of Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel reading today, Madeleine l’Engel writes,

"No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I've been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover. And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I've learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won't stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed." 


Saturday, February 05, 2011

Epiphany +5

As a teenager – growing up in the 1970s – I was on the tail-end of the generation that social scientists call the baby boomers.  Less kindly, we sometimes get called the ‘me’ generation.  Apparently the whole course of our lives has been dominated by the search for self.  We don’t want to be part of the herd.  We see ourselves as the rebellious generation, the generation that invented sex, loud music and left-wing politics.  In an individualistic society, it’s we baby boomers who lead the way in the obsession to define ourselves as individuals.  Certainly, I remember as a teenager being terribly concerned about ‘being me’ – and not being too sure how to go about it – but clear on the fact that the alternative was to be defined by who parents or authority figures told me I was, what institutions like school or church thought was best – to go along with the herd – in a world where authorities and institutions seemed to have been exposed as pretty hollow.  I did teenage angst pretty well, as I recall.

Over the last four Sundays in the readings from the gospel, we have been hearing the story of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  He first comes on the scene when he’s baptised by John the Baptist. Then when John is killed Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum where he chooses his disciples.  Last Sunday we heard Matthew’s version of the beatitudes – Jesus’ opening statement that defines what the rest of his ministry is going to be about.  This Sunday he begins to teach – to instruct us in the business of being disciples.

And what he says is music to a baby boomer’s ears - be what you are.  Be true to who you are and what you are.  If you’re salt, then don’t lose the flavour of salt.  If you’re a lamp then don’t put a lid over the top of yourself so no one can see your light.  Don’t be bland.  Don’t be invisible.  Add taste.  Give light.  Be who you are.  If you want to be a disciple, you have to be yourself, you have to be authentic – that’s the crux of it.

But how?  For the ‘me’ generation, being yourself mostly meant being self-centred – the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I did it my way’ pretty well sums up the attraction of living in a way where we chart our own course, refusing to get sucked into other people’s priorities and seeing through every attempt to make us conform.  When it comes down to it, it’s a pretty lonely sort of vision of what life is about.  But what does it mean for a would-be disciple – what’s the connection between living faithfully and living in a way that’s authentic to who you are?  What does it mean for the church – does putting our light on a bushel stand just mean drawing attention to ourselves, or is there something more basic in it than that?  How might we lose our flavour?  Is that just a warning against being insipid, or is there something more basic in it?

The First Reading gives us a hint.  The prophet tells God’s people that God has a complaint against them – God knows they’re not totally insincere – God knows their prayers and their fasting are real.  Things aren’t going so well for God’s people, international politics and deals between the great powers are making life hard for the people of Israel.  But God doesn’t seem to be listening.  And the prophet says, God has a complaint against you.  Your prayers and your fasting don’t mean anything because they are inconsistent with what’s on the inside.  There’s a credibility gap between what you’re saying and what you’re doing.  First, clear that up – if you’re God’s people you have to live like you mean it – live faithfully with one another, share your bread with the hungry. Give shelter to the homeless and protection to people who are being exploited.   That’s how to be authentic, when what you’re doing agrees with what you’re saying and what you’re asking God for.  Before we ever get to petition there has to be confession, and before we ever get to confession, there has to be honesty, and a basic acknowledgment of the realities and the contradictions of our situation.  If as God’s people we think we have some complaints, if we think we’re drifting or we long for the good old days when the church was full and we were seen to be relevant, then, Isaiah says, the first thing to do is to look around to see where we ourselves can be agents of transformation and bringers of light to others.  Are there people around us whose lives and whose circumstances stand as evidence that not everyone is welcome, that not everyone has the same opportunity, that not everyone gets a fair deal in our community?  Isaiah says that whether or not we’re people of light depends on what we do out there, not on what we do in here.

Isaiah connects ‘being me’ with ‘being connected’ to the world we live in.  That’s what Jesus does too.  Look at the metaphors he uses – the saltiness of salt is only of value because it brings out the flavour of the food you put it on – you don’t eat salt by itself but you put it on food and it transforms the blandness of the food into an interesting flavour – so Jesus is not just telling us to be salty, but to be salt for the world – in other words to be a catalyst for transformation, about living in such a way that those around us are enabled to live transformed lives.  Jesus doesn’t tell us to be people of light just because a light shining in the darkness is beautiful – Jesus doesn’t tell us to make sure our light is visible so that it can be seen, but so that other things can be seen for what they are – the whole idea of light is not that it can be seen but that it illuminates the world around it.  Being who we are – being true to our own God-given identity, means being connected to the world we live in and it means living in a way that brings transformation and a way that brings light to those around us.  Who we are and what we say about God has to match how we live.  Sometimes we are not very good at that.

This is very different from the idea of individuality that we get from the culture we live in.  Jesus says being me means being integrated with others – but too often in our world being me means refusing to acknowledge the deep connection between our own lives and the lives of others, assuming that we are free to chart our course any way we want – deep down I think this sort of individualism is based on fear that the world might turn out to be meaningless, on the need to convince ourselves that no matter what happens around us we at least are going to be OK because we are in control.  There’s a spiritual version of this as well, and it results in us saying well, we can be faithful as Christians and we know where God is in our lives even though in the world around us things are going to pot and people are living lives that are empty and directionless – and our life together as a parish community can become a sort of safe haven – but Jesus is saying that’s not what being a disciple is about.  If you want to be a disciple you can’t keep the light private and safe under a jar because the light is meant to light the way for other people – if you put the light in a jar it doesn’t show the way for anyone else, and it won’t shine for you either because it gets starved of air.  The light of the spirit is only going to shine if we expose it to the fresh air and the new ideas of the world around us.

The fallacy of individualism is in the assumption that we create ourselves in any way we choose.  But the scriptures assume the opposite.  The scriptures assume that every human being is created with a unrepeatable, deep, interior shape.  Being me means being who God created me to be.  Becoming me means learning that the basic shape of human existence is the image of God, and learning to live in such a way that who I am matches what I do.  Sometimes we have to relearn it.

Being the church means being a community of disciples, learning to live as a community of salt and of light.  Learning that who we are is connected with what we are called to be and how we are called to live – as changed people we are called to be agents of change in the world we live in – as people whose lives have been illuminated we are called to illuminate the dark places of our world.  And as we learn to bring who we are into focus with how we live - we may find ourselves become finally the people God always intended us to be.