Friday, September 23, 2011

Sustainable September IV

Whenever we read through the Book of Exodus in church and re=trace the story of the journey through the desert I am reminded of family car trips as a child.  Especially trips to Perth – we lived in Collie which I realise now isn’t all that far – but we kids would start grumbling about where the Collie turn-off enters the South-West Highway. We were hungry, we were thirsty, somebody inevitably had forgotten to go the toilet, and of course the all-time favourite, ‘are we there yet?’ I mean it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If we were there already we wouldn’t be driving through the bush.  I seem to remember dad teaching us kids to look out for the mile pegs.  Maybe that was his way of telling us to work it out for ourselves.

Of course grown-ups don’t grumble ... well, that’s not quite right, is it? We are a bit more sophisticated, we know the etiquette of grumbling, when it’s socially acceptable to grumble and when it’s best not to.  We grumble about the weather, about the government, about the cost of living ... and when we grumble about other people we do it politely behind their backs ... so actually, the story of the people of Israel grumbling as they follow God’s direction in what looks suspiciously like aimless circles through the desert is one that we can pretty easily relate to.  It’s the story of every one of us – trying to trust God, trying to see our lives as meaningful and purposeful, trying to believe we are being cared for and led – but most of the time pretty sure we’re lost.

The psalm for today is rather wonderful, I think, because it’s a psalm of praise and it focuses our attention on God’s providence – the ways that God provided for the people in the desert, and the ways that God provides for our needs always.  The psalmist reminds us that it was God who miraculously parted the waters so the people could escape from slavery, God who went before the people and led them with a fiery pillar by night and a cloud by day, God who provided food and water in the wasteland – in retrospect the 40 year meandering the desert is interpreted as a miracle of God’s gracious provision, and God making good on God’s promises.  It’s perhaps part of the religious genius of the Jewish people that they don’t forget that they grumbled and complained the whole time, and it reminds us that faith and spirituality are always a clash and a tension between our own hopes and fears.

Well, today is the last of our four weeks’ reflection on Sustainable September, and the theme of food, and the formation students who provided reflections on the weekly readings suggest that today, the theme is especially that of celebrating and giving thanks for God’s providence.  And so it must be, but – the tension between the memory of God’s providence and the fear that God will let us down, that is a consistent theme in the Exodus readings, is also a consistent thread in our own lives and in the world we live in.  What, for example does it mean – in what sense can it be claimed in a way that is not meaningless if not outright false and cruel – that God’s providence is a reality on the Horn of Africa, and that people there should be giving thanks for God’s care?  You see, if God’s compassion and care are not a universal reality but only apply to some people at some times, then what good is that?  How can any of us be thankful for God’s providence when in our own lives we face hard realities, or when in our own country we know that tens of thousands are homeless every night, that children go to school without breakfast while other Australians have obscene wealth?

It is right, I think, to look back on our lives and to reflect that, even though we might not have been able to see it at the time, God has been there for us in hard times, that we were given the gifts we needed, perhaps the gift of endurance and courage, or the gift of friendship.  This is right, and to learn to be thankful in hindsight even when at the time we keep asking God, ‘are we there yet?’, is a mark of spiritual growth.  But the hard question remains – where is God’s providence and compassion when women and men and children don’t ever reach the other side of the desert, and when the help they need doesn’t come?

I see an answer to this in today’s Gospel reading, which wryly describes another universal human experience.  Hypocrisy, of course, is saying one thing and doing another, and Jesus tells this story of the two brothers as a way of pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who gave lip service to the preaching of John the Baptist but didn’t put into practical action what they professed.  Hopefully, it comes as no surprise to hear that this too is a universal human characteristic, that we all practise hypocrisy in big and small ways.  In fact, next time anyone suggests to you that church is full of hypocrites, agree with them.  Tell them we have room for a few more.

Psychologists tell us a few things about the credibility gap between what we say we believe and what we actually demonstrate by our actions.  They call it dissonance, the psychic discomfort that results from the tension between our beliefs and our actions, and what we do to relieve it.  In fact, they point out, we don’t generally come to act in a certain way because of what we believe, but the other way around.  We put in place belief structures to support what we are doing, in order to relieve the feeling of dissonance.  In other words, when we learn to act in a certain way, then belief follows.  We learn about faithfulness by being faithful.  We learn about compassion by practising acts of kindness.  Perhaps it goes both ways – sometimes our beliefs lead our actions, but when we do act in a way that is consistent with our beliefs, then our faith grows in strength.  I believe it is important to give money for disaster and famine relief.  I believe it is important to reach out to those in our community who need help.  But if I’m not acting on that belief, if what I actually do for others is half-hearted or grudging then my belief becomes muted and fuzzy and uncertain.  I start to put escape clauses in my beliefs – for example that some people don’t deserve help ... I’d like to do something but it’s all too much, too far away ... yes, but charity begins at home ... That’s dissonance.

So the two sons are both us.  The son that says no, but obeys his father’s request; and the son that says yes, but does nothing.  Both of these patterns are characteristic of all of us at times.  As always, we need to take Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees on board, because it always applies pretty well to us.  But the one thing I wanted to point out in today’s context – is that both sons are invited to work in the vineyard.

Of course the owner of the vineyard represents God, and the vineyard is God’s purpose and God’s mission in the world, a mission of healing and reconciliation and provision for human need.  And the point is that we are invited to work in this vineyard.  Our faith is not a spectator sport, but a circle of belief and action, a practical spirituality of care.  We learn to recognise and be thankful for God’s gracious provision in our own lives, by becoming agents of God’s providence in the lives of others.  The only way for us to overcome the dissonance of claiming God’s compassion and care in situations of human despair and tragedy – is to be involved.

Actually, very few human tragedies are random or politically neutral.  In most cases even so-called natural disasters are compounded by human inequality, political failure, greed, heedlessness and lack of concern.  The famines that rock east Africa with dreary predictability are not what used to be called acts of God, not even just random weather events, but the outcome of centuries-long exploitation of poorer nations by First World economic interests that have resulted in economic disruption, climate change, political enfeeblement and of course endemic poverty that strip populations of resilience to variations in the natural cycle.  The same might be said of poverty and social problems in wealthy nations like our own – there is a systematic logic by which the wealth of some results in the impoverishment of others.  God’s providential care is universal – the inequality is in us, and the solution also lies in our response to God’s invitation to practise the spirituality of compassion.

But what is our response going to be?


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sustainable September III

I remember – hmm, many years ago – living in a shared house as a student.  There were five of us, as I recall, three boys and two girls – in a rambling old house which for most of us was probably the first place we had lived since leaving home.  So there was a lot of trial and error – when I first moved in I quickly realised I didn’t know how to cook – at all – but was still expected to take my turn.  My first attempt was fried rice – how could I go wrong with that, I thought? I didn’t realise you weren’t supposed to use a whole bottle of oil ...

Anyway after we had been sharing house for a few months, the two girls raised a grievance.  We males thought everything was fine ... but the girls said, this isn’t fair.  We are all putting in the same amount for rent, the same amount to cover electricity and so on, the same amount for food.  So, we thought – what’s wrong with that?  Except, they pointed out, you eat twice as much as us.  We shouldn’t have to put in for food we’re not eating.  We did try pointing out that growing young men can’t help being hungry, that we were all on the same income, and that, well, they could eat more if they wanted – but eventually had to concede the point. 

It was maybe the first time I learned that justice, like charity, starts at home.  Also, that justice isn’t always simple.  I mulled over it for a while after that – quietly, mind you – was the right thing that we should all pay for exactly what we were consuming, or was the right thing that we should all contribute equally?  There are different ways of working out what was right, I realised.

Our gospel reading this morning reminds us that God’s idea of justice is different from ours.  Industrial relations experts must hate this reading.  Bosses and unionists alike, we’ve all got the same logic, that you should be paid for what you’ve done, and yes – the boss thinks that should be as little as he or she can afford, the unionist thinks that should be as much as he or she can bargain for.  But the person who contributes more – hours, or skill, or whatever – should be paid more.  That seems only right.  Except – that God doesn’t see it that way.  The boss in this reading – who certainly represents God’s perspective, pays the going rate to the labourers who put in a full day’s work – one denarius was supposed to be enough to feed a family for a day, so the day rate for a labourer was enough to meet the basic human needs of those who depended on his income.  And those who come in at the end of the day get the same pay – one denarius, enough to feed a family.  Which tells you what God’s perspective is – the meeting of human need – from God’s point of view it is good that human beings have enough, not that some have more than enough, even if they have worked for it.

And you see the same perspective shines through in our reading from the Book of Exodus.  The people are complaining because they are hungry, travelling through the parched, unfamiliar desert.  They are disoriented, the ways they have learned through the generations of providing for themselves in the settled if oppressive land of Egypt don’t work out here in the desert.  And they complain – with some reason, you might think – the tour guides don’t seem to have thought through the logistics of this journey very well.  And God – fairly typically in these stories – gets a bit cranky with them for not trusting that their needs will be met.  The whole Exodus journey, it seems to me, is about learning that even when we travel through strange and unsettling experiences God is with us, that God knows our needs and that we will be provided for in ways that – in retrospect at least – are wonderful and surprising. So God meets the need of the people by sending a nightly feast of quails – you’d think he could have sent a slightly bigger bird that wasn’t so fiddly to pluck and clean but there you are – and a morning precipitation of some starchy substance that could pass for bread.  A bit later in the story we learn that they call this stuff manna, and that it tasted like coriander seed and honey.

But here’s the point – you have to work for this stuff, it doesn’t arrive in nice warm fluffy loaves but in a fine sprinkle all over the rocky ground of the desert, so you have to painstakingly gather it up and knead it into a dough and bake it.  And Moses gives them an instruction – just gather enough for today – one omer-full per person in your household.  Except on the day before the Sabbath, when you can gather two omer-fulls and keep some for the next day.  Predictably, some people work harder than others, some people slack off – some people gather heaps more than the allowance and others don’t manage to scrape together enough to keep body and soul together.  But – verse 18 tells us – they all have enough – at the end of the day when they measure it – yes – turns out no matter how successful they seem to have been through the day they have one omer-full for each person in the household.  God’s provision is adequate, God’s priority is for human beings to have enough, but not too much.  This manna can’t be stored – if you try to hoard it, it turns rotten and wormy – you end up with just enough to meet the needs of today.

I think both these stories ask us to think about what gives us security.  If you’re like me, you put stuff away just in case you might need it one day.  Little, useful things that – well let’s face it you never do use them and they just clutter the shed.  We try to make ourselves feel secure with things – some things we need, like houses to live in and food to eat and clothes and cars and books – and things we don’t need like - extra houses and food and clothes and cars and way too many books.  We work hard and invest and take out insurance and worry about our superannuation – but deep down we know that our real security is not in things at all but in relationships that give meaning and depth and dignity and purpose to our lives.  A friend whose funeral I attended yesterday died way too young – at 49 – and yet speaker after speaker commented that his was a life worth living, and Andrew certainly found his own security and his fulfilment in the hearts of those he lived for.  God’s intention is for us to have enough of the material things that enable us to live with dignity, but both these readings suggest we had better not get too attached.

The other point is that – always, in stories that tell us what God’s perspective is – is the hidden question: how can you live in a way that is consistent with that, a way that gives God’s priorities a bit of a nudge?  We live in a world where we do have bank accounts and houses that hopefully have a few of the good things of life in them, and freezers that keep our food so it doesn’t turn rotten and wormy tomorrow morning.  What does this nomad story tell us about the way we should be living, and about the kingdom of God values we should be living by?  Both stories put human need first, even above human deserving, and so should we.  Each household has just enough – and  - maybe – the miracle of just distribution comes about through the miracle of people noticing and responding to the needs of others.  It’s the old point, isn’t it? that God’s blessings aren’t blessings at all unless they are shared. 

In speaking about food we have reflected on some big picture problems in our world, the famine in North Africa, for example, that indicts our own extravagance and wastefulness.  The environmental challenges of climate change, that also force us to think about using less and wasting less.  But it’s easy to get overwhelmed when we look at big picture issues.  Yes, I can give money to the World Vision famine appeal, and giving as much as possible to appeals like this is important and really helps – in Haiti for example Australians gave way more out of their private generosity than our government donated.  And yet – it still feels overwhelming and perhaps, like me, you sometimes get the feeling that it doesn’t much matter what you do, you can’t solve the problems of the world.

Which is why we need to look around our own neighbourhood.  Right back in the 70s, aid agencies had come up with the slogan, ‘think global, act local’, and it’s not a bad reminder that there is plenty to do around here, and that it is within our capability.

LINC, for example.  Our own Cannington contact point for people who need a hand – the lady who needs someone to do some shopping for her, or some cleaning or just someone to talk to.  The elderly man who needs a home-cooked dinner once in a while.  And local Christians – ordinary people like us from seven local churches – some of them young, some old – who give some of their time to help, to make sure that people in their own neighbourhood have enough. You’ve heard me talk about LINC before – Love in the Name of Christ – we’ve had Lester Morris from LINC come to talk to us – and you know that I’d like to add our church’s name to the list of local churches who are prepared to help.  It’s not overwhelming, it’s just a few hours out of your month. If you want to think about volunteering for LINC, talk to me about it.  This sort of thing, it seems to me, is the truest test of what Christian community is about.

At the end of the day, it’s about recognising what God has done for us, and deciding that we want to be a part of that.  That God’s idea of justice is ours as well.

And that in itself is a miracle.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sustainability September II - Romans 14.1-21

There is a rule of thumb in the news industry, which says that something that happens in your own back yard is ten times as news-worthy as something that happens somewhere else; something that happens in a country that’s just like ours and amongst people who are just like us is a hundred times as news-worthy as something that happens in a country that is poor and far away, where there are no modern telecommunications and people live lives that are too different for us to understand or really care about.  And so it is that, bad as these things are, bushfires in Victoria or floods in Queensland, a hurricane that brings down power poles in New York make news while more terrible, slow-motion and entirely preventable humanitarian disasters in impoverished and inaccessible corners of the world unfold silently.

In the Horn of Africa, that’s the top right hand corner where the bit that sticks out defines where the Indian Ocean meets the Gulf of Aden, disaster struck this year a few months ago during the late northern spring.  The countries that make up this region are Sudan – which has been embroiled in bitter ethnic and religious conflict for the last 20 years – Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti – home to about 165 million people who live in conditions that by Western standards appear medieval.  Terrorism and piracy thrive, and Western aid agencies were driven out last year by the brutal Islamist group, Al Shabab, which controls the southern third of Somalia that is the epicentre of this year’s devastating drought and subsequent crop failure.  Two months ago, the United Nations declared the Horn of Africa area a famine zone, which is not just a label – it means that malnutrition has affected one third of the population, and that every single day 2 out of every ten thousand people day of starvation.  International aid – direct supplies of food as well as money – has been slow and insufficient, and the problems in distributing it have been understandably immense.  Hundreds of thousands of victims have gathered in massive refugee camps in Ethiopia where families are guaranteed of food only for the first six days after their arrival – and as of this week the United Nations estimates that 3 million are in urgent need of aid, with over ten million at risk.  Seven hundred and fifty thousand are thought to be facing death within a few weeks.  This is the worst famine for 60 years in a part of the world that has known regular disasters for a century or more.

But we hear little about it on the nightly news. 

Well, we are thinking about food, this month, and our reading from Romans poses us some uncomfortable questions.  Perhaps we need to know a little about the context of the reading – 1 Corinthians, chapter 8, discusses the same issue - a situation in which, across most of the ancient world, butcher’s shops as we know them today didn’t exist.  For most urban dwellers, the weekly grocery shop included a trip to the local temple of one or other of the bewildering array of gods, where animals that had been slaughtered as sacrifices were then sold for food.  So St Paul is not considering here the virtues of a vegetarian versus a non-vegetarian diet, he is discussing the ethical dilemma for Christians, that for them to eat meat generally meant eating meat that has been offered to idols.  For myself, he says, in the letter to the Corinthians, this is not a huge problem – given that the gods to which this meat has been offered are not gods at all, then I can eat it without any ethical problem.  But for the sake of others – if this might give offence especially to new Christians who haven’t thought it through and arrived at the same conclusion as me – then I will refrain from eating meat.  So he is a vegetarian by default, and as a long-term vegetarian myself, I think why the heck not?  Considering ancient food-handling methods, he’s probably a lot better off.

But, how does this apply to us?  How does it help us to think about the connection between our own consumption and the famine in the Horn of Africa, or in general the connection between our own consumption and the living and non-living systems of our fragile planet home?  St Paul is certainly not making the argument that frustrated parents have tried since time immemorial: “eat your greens, people are starving in Africa you know?”  His argument is more subtle, and it pivots on one thing: the giving of offence.  The word Paul uses – both here and in the letter to the Corinthians is skandalon – a stumbling block.  That we should not scandalise others by our lack of thought.

A way of unpacking the argument in this passage that you hear from time to time, is that St Paul is making it all relative.  Nothing is clean or unclean unless you think it is, everything is kosher unless somebody else objects to it, and so we should live and let live, accept everybody’s different ideas about these things, refrain from judgement, and maybe make a few concessions for the sake of avoiding arguments.  You see, I think this is way wide of the mark, I don’t think that is the effect or the intention of St Paul’s argument at all.  If it was, we would have a wishy-washy faith indeed, and we do not. 

Of course there are some things, for example about how we worship, the different styles of worship and different understandings in the Church of what God is like, that have the potential to divide Christians, and here we need to learn how to be clear about our own beliefs and actions, to understand how what we say and do is grounded in our beliefs about God and perhaps to be ready to give an account of that, while at the same time loving as sisters and brothers those who hold different views with equal integrity.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter whether I am right or wrong about this doctrine, or this particular style of celebrating the sacraments – it doesn’t matter whether I am wrong or right, what matters is that God is right, and that I am loved by God, and that how I live grows out of my understanding and experience of God’s love.

Which means that the inclusion and love that should characterise Christian community isn’t an excuse for anything goes.  It matters what I say, it matters what I do, and specifically St Paul’s argument is that the decisions I make about how I live do not just involve my own preferences but need to be based on an awareness of how my actions affect others and bear consequences for others.  Food, of course, is one of the most personal, domestic areas of our lives – we eat at home, we eat with friends and family – and yet St Paul is saying that even in this personal sphere of our lives our choices are not just a private matter, if by that we mean that we can just suit ourselves.  In how we live, in what we consume or spend on ourselves versus what we give for the need of others, even in what we eat, we owe a duty to reflect on how others are affected by our choices.

And they are affected.  Those who suffer in the third world are acutely aware of the wasteful and immoral self-indulgence of citizens of the first world.  We give offence when we spend money extravagantly, beyond what we really need, while millions lack even the bare minimum to preserve life.  We give offence, in our wealthy country, when we suffer diseases of over-consumption.  The crux of St Paul’s argument is that we must balance our own desires and preferences against the needs of others – not just in terms of food but in all of our expenditure – that we should live humbly and show mercy, that we should show solidarity with those who suffer by giving out of what – let’s face it, for every single one of us in our wealthy country – is an abundance.

Other choices also present themselves, and some of these can be complex.  It matters – did you know? – what coffee you buy, because the major coffee companies historically have kept poor farmers in third world countries from receiving a fair share of the profits.  But the good news is that even at the big supermarkets, you can buy Fair Trade coffee that gives third world communities a fair go.  Our first world overconsumption of meat is also a justice issue, with meat production disproportionately using scarce water resources and tying up valuable land, and accounting for 20% of our country’s greenhouse gases.  The same amount of land and water that can grow a kilogram of meat protein can grow ten kilograms of protein in the form of grains and legumes.  In a hungry, thirsty world, our choices matter, and our choices affect others.  The decision to grow your own vegetables is a political decision, because it reduces your indirect use of fossil fuel and water, your contribution to global warming.  Refraining from buying exotic food that is out of season, and so has to be flown here from somewhere else in the world is also a political decision, because what food scientists call food-miles are a direct contribution to global pollution and warming.  While we can’t take everything into account, and while Christians who think deeply about these issues might still arrive at different conclusions, St Paul’s argument suggests a way of living that recognises first the care and concern we should have for others and for the future of our fragile planet home.  That by how we live we should reflect God’s care and concern for all creation.



Friday, September 09, 2011

Wedding homily for Ing Ing Bong and hideaki Tachibana

Some of you might know the children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.  It’s quite an old story, from a generation before my time, and I first heard about it from a very old husband and wife who were celebrating a milestone in their marriage.  They wanted to read a section of the story to their family and friends to say something about what they had discovered in their marriage.  It goes like this:

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

Well, Ing and Hideaki are bright and beautiful, especially today - they are not at all shabby, and they still have all their own teeth and hair – but of course, part of what we pray for them today is that in due course they too will become a very old married couple surrounded by grandchildren and celebrating the long years of their life together.  As we rejoice with them we share their hope of the future that lies ahead of them, the home they will make together and the family that we pray will grow up around them. 

Ing and Hideaki chose the Bible readings we heard this morning, and being thoughtful people they choose them carefully and well.  St Paul, in his letter to the Colossian church, is full of down to earth advice for what it means to live together as Christian men and women who want their own lives and relationships to reflect the fact that they belong to Christ, and in this passage he gives us a list of what have become known as the humane virtues.  It’s an old-fashioned sounding word, isn’t it? virtue? but it carries the connotation of something worth having, something worth working for, something that forms us, gradually, over a lifetime – and like the writer of the Velveteen Rabbit, St Paul knows that the only way to become real is to be loved into it.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit, St Paul too, it seems to me, knows that the process of being loved into maturity involves hurts as well as joys, but that it makes us beautiful in a way that only lovers fully understand.

Virtues are not like do’s and don’ts – they are less prescriptive, more fluid and graceful, they teach us who we are and they hold out a vision to us of what we might become.  It is a vital truth that we are formed by what we pay attention to, and so the wisdom of the ancients suggests that we grow best by reflecting on the qualities that foster loving relationship, build endurance and purpose and restraint.

And so to St Paul’s list of virtues.  There are ten of them counting singing, which you might not think a proper virtue, but I do, because when we sing we breathe, our minds and hearts and bodies all work together, we pay more attention to what we are expressing, and when we sing together, then that’s even better because we attend to one another in order to stay in time and in tune.  There should be singing in a marriage.

But St Paul starts with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.  I love the word, compassion, the meaning comes from the Latin, to feel and suffer with somebody else.  It’s a stronger word than pity or even sympathy, it means to enter into the suffering of somebody else as an act of solidarity, not from afar but up close and personal.  When you have compassion for somebody, there is something at stake for you, personally.  To be kind means to consider the effect of what you say and do on the one you love, to cushion life’s disappointments and to put aside your own concerns to share your partner’s joy at life’s successes without jealousy.  Humility and meekness sound like they belong together, I guess – humility comes from the Latin humus, the earth.  It means to be willing to be vulnerable, to put aside that hard shell that most of us wear in our public lives to protect us from getting hurt by others.  To be prepared to be in one another’s shadows sometimes, to look for ways of building one another up, rather than seeking after your own gain.  Dare to be silly, to let your partner see the not quite grown-up part of yourself that you normally keep hidden. 

Patience – I think it means that when you have decided to love somebody, you are prepared to wait and keep believing that they will grow into the best version of themselves.  We all fumble, I think, to become who we most truly are, we maybe have some idea of what we should be, but those who love us best have no doubt, and it is your lover’s faith in you that gives you the courage to grow with integrity.

Have you noticed that all St Paul’s virtues are about relationship?  There can be no Christian spirituality in isolation, it seems to me, and on entering into marriage today you entrust your growth to one another and you promise to be tender with one another’s hopes and dreams.  Bear with one another – be tolerant, in other words, of one another’s frailties – it means to understand your partner, to learn your lover’s strengths and weaknesses –and forgive one another.  Constantly.

Forgiveness, it seems to me, is how human beings learn to practice the way of resurrection.  Like resurrection, forgiveness creates a new future when selfishness and betrayal destroy the trust we have in one another.  Like resurrection, forgiveness transforms death into new life.  Forgiveness transforms the ashes of failure, disappointment and disillusionment into the humus that strengthens and reinvigorates your love.  Practice forgiveness – inevitably, you will need it, learn to ask for and offer forgiveness, and to receive it with gratitude.

Grow in wisdom, St Pauls suggests, teach and instruct one another.  Marriage isn’t just about hearts and bodies, it needs the resilience and perspicacity and imagination of minds that continue to enquire and grow.  Be intelligent lovers.  Read and reflect on the Scripture together daily, learn together from the world around you, complement and complete one another in wisdom and grace.

And be thankful.  As you grow together in love, know that what you are growing into is the very heart of God who is love, and that the love you share is the fundamental dynamic of creation.  The love that changes and deepens and forms you through your life together is the love that brings the universe into being, the love that we see made flesh and blood in the life of our Lord Jesus, and which alone has the power to make us – eventually - real.



Saturday, September 03, 2011

Sustainable September 1 - wedding of Pui Hmar and Phil Morris

I’m often curious to know how customs that we take for granted actually got started.  The handshake, for example – who first decided that grasping somebody’s hand and shaking it up and down a few times – hopefully without one of those vice-like grips that leaves its victim feeling pulverised – is a way of communicating friendship? As a priest, I’m called on from time to time – and today in particular – to marry people, and I like to think I know a little bit about it, but of course everything I really know I have learned from brides, generally during last-minute rehearsals – ‘actually, Father, that’s not the right way of doing it .... the flower girl’s supposed to do that ...’.  I mean, how do brides know these things?  I remember a while ago being at a registry office wedding – that’s the competition, of course - and feeling a bit superior to find that the public servant marrying the blissful young couple was actually stealing his best lines from the Prayer Book.  But of course marriage has been around a whole lot longer than the Church, and later on I discovered that some of the Church’s oldest customs about marriage were originally stolen from the pagan traditions of Roman society.

The wedding breakfast, for example, which is what the reception always used to be called, even when it took place in the evening.  As a boy, I used to think it was called a breakfast because there was always a toast.  But if you go back far enough – in fact if you go back to the second century, the Church historian Tertullian tells us after the joining of hands, and the exchange of rings, and the kiss – all essential elements of the ancient Roman marriage rites – the newly married couple take as their first meal together the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  So Pui and Phil’s wedding this morning follows the most ancient customs of the Church, though as you might suspect an even earlier form of the wedding breakfast was a slightly more riotous celebration.

But I wanted to talk about this meal, the feast that is central to both ancient and modern wedding customs and that is grounded in the Eucharistic meal of the Church.  In fact we have been especially invited to think about food this morning, and to pray about food, as we begin to follow the Sustainable September reflections offered this year by Anglican EcoCare.  Food, of course, is one of the most basic human requirements, and one of the fundamental connections between our human lives and the ecology of the Earth.  Food is at the heart of Jesus’ own teaching, and in reflecting on food we are led to think about how we live as individuals and as a community, the miracle of God’s provision for us and the mutual responsibility and care we have for one another and for the whole living environment.  Food, or the lack of it, challenges every aspect of our existence – we suffer, at least here in our wealthy country, when we get too much of a good thing, while elsewhere men and women and children die for the lack it.  Our earliest relationships are formed around food, through what we take for ourselves and what we offer to others we learn about self-care and generosity, through our choices about what to eat we learn the virtues of restraint and self-limitation.  No wonder Jesus taught his friends through stories and object lessons about the growing and sharing of food.

The first reading today from the Book of Exodus is the ground zero moment in the understanding of the people of Israel in what it meant for them to be God’s people, and indeed in what it meant for them to be a people joined together through relationships of mutual responsibility.  It’s a strange meal, a lamb roasted whole and consumed in a single sitting.  Nothing is allowed to be left over, and nobody is allowed to miss out.  It’s also an extravagant meal – for ancient peoples, even nomadic herders, the diet was mostly vegetarian because animals and their by-products were simply too precious for everyday consumption.  The Old Testament stories of slaughtering fatted calves and yearling sheep invariably reflect occasions of over the top hospitality or celebration.  But this is a meal for the journey, a meal that is also a sacrifice of the first-fruits - the best and most valuable, eaten in a hurry, symbolising the burning of bridges and commitment to the way ahead, the flight from slavery into freedom, the uncertainty and hardship of the desert where only God can provide for them.

So the Passover meal, which remains to this day central to the identity and self-understanding of Jewish people, is a meal for people who know they haven’t got a Plan B.  As a meal, it says two things: firstly, it says, ‘we belong together’.  The people who eat the Passover together, remember their shared history and commit themselves to travelling together, to living together in hope towards what has been promised.  The modern Seder, the Passover meal of Judaism, reflects on the meaning of the foods as it remembers the history of God’s faithfulness and the journey that has taken God’s people through suffering and through joy – together.  The second thing this meal says, as the community sacrifices its precious firstborn yearlings that in other times would be the guarantee of food security and economic prosperity, sharing everything they have and keeping nothing back, is that who we are is grounded in God’s faithfulness and God’s promises.  It is a radical commitment to the future, to looking beyond the uncertainty of the here and now and trusting in the one who is the ground and source of all human faithfulness.

This is the meal which, according to three of the four Gospels, Jesus eats with his disciples on the night before he dies, and which he reinterprets for them in identifying the broken bread as his own body, the wine they share as his own life poured out in solidarity.  As the central experience of our Christian faith, the never-ending meal of the Eucharist re-enacts for us the mystery and paradox that in the broken-ness and dying of Jesus we are healed and offered new life.  This also is a meal that must be consumed at a single sitting, and that excludes no-one – a meal of fragments and crumbs that reverses our own history of self-fragmentation, that unites us as one people and joins us to God’s own life.  It, also, is a meal for people who have no Plan B because Jesus, as always, is not content to impress us with his other-worldliness, but by sharing our humanity invites us to share in the mystery.

As St Augustine puts it, this is the meal that consumes us, because as we share it, little by little, the paradox rubs off on us.  We gradually come to understand ourselves as people of radical hospitality and wasteful generosity, as people who become most alive when we live for those around us, who find the greatest fulfilment in giving of ourselves – in other words, as people whose DNA has been transformed through the logic of resurrection which is the logic of self-giving, of dying to self, the logic of forgiving love which is the only way to believe in the possibility of a future set free from bondage to past failure or injustice or regret.

It is of course the best possible wedding breakfast, because it sets the pattern for Phil and Pui’s lives together, a pattern of hospitality and self-giving love, a pattern of believing in the future and of believing in the goodness of one another that makes it possible for each of you to be the best you can be.  This is a wedding breakfast for lovers who have no Plan B, for lovers who plan on burning their bridges and trusting in one another, trusting in the goodness and the faithfulness of God, committing themselves wholeheartedly to living together into the fulfilment of God’s promises for their lives.

It is of course a symbolic meal – very symbolic, when you consider the meagreness of the wafer and the sip of wine – yet what it symbolises is God’s generosity and the promise of our own.  [9.30am And so we pray for Pui and Phil a marriage characterised by generosity and hospitality, a kitchen table that always has room for one more, a home that is open enough to let in sunshine and optimism and friendship, a marriage built of meals and laughter and memories, and faithfulness and trust sufficient to get across life’s deserts.]

The meal that heals our brokenness and fills our emptiness transforms us into people who care about the brokenness and emptiness of others, people who care about the literal hunger of others.  The meal that forms us as Jesus’ disciples transforms us into men and women who are affected by the paradoxes of human wastefulness and greed that cause others to go hungry, by the threat of climate change that most affects the poorest communities of our world.  The meal transforms us into people who recognise God’s providence, and who long that all may be satisfied.