Saturday, January 21, 2012

Epiphany +3

Homer's wonderful rollicking tale, 'The Odyssey', tells the story of the hero Odysseus' attempts to find his way home after 10 years away at the Trojan wars.  Odysseus has to brave many dangers and resist a multitude of magical enchantments and seductions – all the while back home his wife Penelope is having her own problems with a gang of 108 suitors busily eating her out of house and home and sleeping on the living room carpet until they can persuade her to marry one of them.  The hero should have been back home in a couple of days flat, having been given a gift of a small leather bag containing all the winds that blow in the direction of home – except that the bag is opened by his drunken sailors while he sleeps, and the resulting storm sends them half way across the Mediterranean.

The point of the story – if indeed such a wonderful tale needs a point at all – is that sometimes we have to take some strange and unexpected detours to find our way home.  Odysseus is single-minded in his resolve to get back to his beloved home of Ithaca, and his faithful Penelope, and fantasises of the delights of hearth and home while resisting manfully the advances of sirens and goddesses.  A mortal lost and roaming among a pantheon of capricious and self-centred gods, Odysseus is super-human in his resolve, and that, perhaps, is the wonderful irony of it.

Written around about the same time as Homer was penning the Odyssey, the story of Jonah stars not a hero but an anti-hero.  Where Odysseus spends every ounce of his strength and courage trying to get home, Jonah spends his trying to run away.  Jonah is called by God to be a prophet to the city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, east across the desert – so he gets on a boat and heads west, aiming for Tarshish, which modern archaeology tells us could have been pretty much anywhere from North Africa to Spain or Cypress - but at any rate in the opposite direction to where he is supposed to be heading.  Jonah's adventures are every bit as colourful and improbable as Odysseus's, which for my money makes this a rollicking good read as well.

Jonah has been given a mission impossible.  Assyria at the time was the world's no. 1 superpower which over a period of some hundreds of years had been systematically giving Israel a hard time, for the simple reason that – economically and militarily unimpressive as it was – it happened to occupy a strip of desert that the Assyrian army more or less had to march through to get to anywhere that really mattered.  You might think of Jonah like an Afghani peasant from Kandahar province who gets the job of going to Washington to tell the American people to get out of their country.  Jonah's job is about as easy as you going to Sudan to ask the government there to stop its genocidal attacks on Christians in the south.  God says to Jonah to march through the desert and just tell them to stop, to have a good think about everything, or else.

So Jonah does the only reasonable thing, under the circumstances.  Maybe Jonah should be one of our patron saints, the patron saint of wannabe Christians.  Because the world does sometimes seem designed to make Jonahs out of us.  The world tells you, doesn't it – it's all very well to have high ideals but basically you can't make any difference in the big scheme of things.  That whatever you do the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, cheats always will prosper, the rule of might is right isn't going to change for anything you might do or say.  So just fall in line, go with the flow and you'll see you'll be a lot more comfortable.  Look out for no. 1 because nobody else is going to do it for you, buy that nice comfortable car you've had your eye on, get that large-screen TV, just spend your energy doing the best you can for yourself and your family.  Heck, it's hard enough just getting by!  Let someone else worry about Nineveh.  We hear God's call on our lives, telling us to get involved, to sacrifice something, to get out of our comfort zone, that the ones who are called to mission are us – but it's all too hard.  And with that contradiction between what God seems to be calling us to – and what the world makes into the easier path and the easier choices – well a lot of the time we just get on the boat with Jonah, and yes, that means that like Jonah we waste some time in the belly of the whale, which is to say, submerged and locked in, out of touch with our calling and our spirituality and our true direction.

As I might have mentioned before, I'm a baby boomer.  That used to be code for young – not so much nowadays, I find.  It used to be code for idealistic and radical, we were the protest generation – we had seen the world our parents had created and didn't like it, so we were going to change it.  We invented sex and civil rights and we built alternative communities and wore Che Guevara T-shirts.  Well, not me personally, I was never cool enough for that.  But of course now baby boomers run the world and we've become the comfortable generation.  Maybe we still listen to rock n roll on our iPods and have a faded Che Guevara poster in the garage. But somewhere along the line we traded in idealism and community for materialism and individualism.  We compromise.  Real life catches up with us.  We realise we can't solve the problems of the world and we get tired of our own self-righteousness, and we listen instead to the voice that tells us we can still have values at the same time as pursuing our own happiness and acquiring a few creature comforts.  We can be radical on the inside. Ironically, what happens is we settle for less freedom and less happiness.  Selfishness and materialism erode community and make it less possible to be ourselves.  It puts us more out of purpose. Jonah's way seems easier at first, but in the end we get thrown overboard and end up in the belly of the whale.

In Mark's Gospel this morning we read how Jesus calls his first disciples to leave everything and follow him.  These are small business-men, James and John working for their dad Zebedee.  They have homes, families, boats, maybe they owe money.  It's hard to imagine yourself in their shoes, what might have motivated them when Jesus says to them – leave all that.  Come with me, instead.  Things might not have been going well – what with climate change and the big trawlers overfishing the area maybe it's getting harder to earn a living.  Maybe Zebedee is a tyrant, maybe they're feeling stuck and trapped.

Except the Gospel doesn't say any of that.  Where Jonah takes three chapters arguing with God and running the other way, in Mark's Gospel Jesus says drop that and come – and in four verses they do.  Of course for the rest of the Gospel they are going to spend their whole time missing the point, squabbling and competing to be the most important and ultimately run away when things get tough.  But here Jesus says come – and they do.  I know I would want to think about it for a bit, talk it over with Alison.  Do wives and children get to come as well? Let's hope so.  James and John even seem to have brought their mum along, so we read later in the Gospel.  And of course we don't all get called to such a radical departure from our everyday lives.  But like Jonah and like Peter and Andrew and James and John we do all get called.  And when we get called the timing of our response is all-important.

What makes the difference?  What makes it possible for these ordinary working people to drop everything and change the direction of their lives, where Jonah and the rest of us argue and fuss and make excuses?  Of course, it is Jesus on the bank there.  Maybe we tell ourselves if we actually had Jesus standing there waving at us that would clarify things a bit.  It's the personal touch, isn't it?  Knowing that the call is personal and authentic, that the one calling is the One who created you in love and that the call is the invitation to become what you were always intended to be.  Hearing yourself addressed personally, at the deepest and most unmistakable level.

We do encounter Jesus, of course.  The logic of incarnation is the logic of angels, of the God who slips into the world alongside of you and who does address you personally when you're busy doing whatever else it is that you do.  We need each other to help us listen carefully, to discuss and argue and discern where the voice is in our lives and what it might be calling us to.  We need each other to trust one another as hearers of the Word, to encourage and believe in one another's ability to faithfully respond.  We need one another to challenge our self-serving excuses for doing nothing, and to give us that courage that can only come from being loved.  We need one another to help us to be disciples who follow, rather than sympathisers who nod approvingly.  The reason we call ourselves the 'body of Christ' is because we understand that in each other we do encounter the one who knows us, who loves us and calls us.  Sometimes we don't do a very good job of being Christ to one another, but of course we need to keep working on it.

Sometimes we have to take a few detours, resist a few sirens and overcome a few monsters in order to find our way home.  It takes wisdom and attentiveness to hear God calling us, and courage to respond.  Sometimes, even when we are trying to follow, we find ourselves going the wrong way.  But what we are called to, ultimately, is the journey home – to our true selves, to the one who made us.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

The father of the modern motor car is, of course, Henry Ford. Because it was Ford who worked out how to make them cheaply enough so that every worker – including his own – could aspire to own one.  And Ford's invention was the production line, a method of manufacturing that broke the car-making process down into a chain of simple steps and divided the workforce up into a line of piece-workers each of whom performed one simple task on the vehicle chassis before moving it along to the next. Ford's method meant thousands of identical vehicles pouring out of his factories in a steady stream, and at the same time replaced expert craftsmen with assembly line workers. Ford invented not just the mass-produced motor vehicle, but also created the market for them.  The mass production idea caught on, nowadays everything is mass-produced, from fast food to computers, and it is the job of the advertising industry to persuade us that we like what is being served up.

It's ironic, of course, that 100 years down the track the mass production line is failing at that original inspired purpose.  Three years ago the government bailed out the Aussie car manufacturing industry to the tune of $6billion – that's about $100,000 for every person that it employs – and last week had to throw another $5billion at it.  An industry that can't stand on its own feet but can't be allowed to fail - because the one thing it has succeeded at marvellously is convincing us all we can't live without its products, even though we're apparently not prepared to pay full price for them.

Which brings me to psalm 139 which most Old Testament experts classify as a creation psalm.  The creation, that is, not of stars and planets but of you and me.  This work of creation is definitely not an assembly-line job but God's slow and ongoing work of fashioning us and bringing us into the fullness of our own identity, revealing the mystery of us and surrounding us with love.  The psalm reminds us that the growth of every human person is a sacred narrative, and as a never-to-be-repeated word of God, of immeasurable worth.

The first and second readings are call narratives – stories about how Samuel and Philip and Nathaniel hear God's call and respond to it.  Stories that remind us that God's voice is heard by each of us differently, in the unique circumstances of our everyday lives.  The young Samuel at first fails to recognise God's call – even though he is a priest in training this is a time when the priesthood has fallen into disrepute and corruption.  The old ways that Eli represents are failing and God's voice is no longer heard.  If you read earlier in the story you learn how even the gifts that are brought to the temple are misappropriated and the people are treated shamefully by the priests, Eli's sons.  It's a story about renewal and hope that particularly challenges those who aspire to lead God's people – the young Samuel alone can hear God's voice – but the old priest against whom God's judgement is pronounced is the one whose holiness and faithfulness alone can guide the young prophet in recognising and responding to it.  There's something in this story that challenges both the older generation of leaders who must learn to relinquish control to those who hear God's word afresh for a new generation – and the younger generation of church leaders who need to listen carefully to the traditions nurtured by their predecessors.  And the story of Nathaniel reminds us in a witty exchange of our own prejudices and the stereotypes that so often blind us – 'what?' says Nathaniel dismissively,  'A prophet from Nazareth?'  'Well', Jesus says, razor-sharp.  'A descendent of the arch-deceiver Jacob' – remember, the one whose name was changed to Israel? – 'a descendent of Jacob who at least says exactly what's on his mind'. Our stereotypes are what limit our ability to see clearly either who we are or who anybody else is.  And yet God's call on our lives cuts through all that.  Nathaniel, at least, rises above his prejudices, but he wants to know – 'how do you know me that well?'  Or more literally, 'where do you know me?' – because in the ancient world, where a person belongs tells you who they most truly are.  But in God's scheme of things, who you are and who you are called to be is not limited by the accidents of birth or circumstance, but revealed and made possible by God's creating and choosing of you.

Psalm 139 is of course the answer to Nathaniel's question, and maybe the answer to our own question as well, when we fail to see the uniqueness and the integrity not only of other people but all too often even of our own selves – for example when we behave as though the mystery and joy of human existence is an assembly line of consumer choices.  We are known by the one who creates us, and whose resonance with the deepest currents of our lives is also a call to become what we are created for.

Most of us know at times the sense of just not measuring up.  The sense of frustration and bewilderment that comes when we see our most cherished hopes and the things that we have worked for coming to nothing or slipping away from us.  The sense of compromise when we find ourselves settling for less - and being less - than we had dreamed.  And this psalm reminds us – not that we don't measure up – but that we do – that you are part of God's good creation, wonderfully created and growing into the fullness of your own God-given identity, and that you are loved beyond your own self-doubt and self-blame, beyond even your own ability to turn away from God's love.  It tells us that – no matter how old or how grown up you think we are – that you are not yet complete, that you are a work in progress and that what you are becoming is known only to God.  It tells us that no matter how lost you feel, God knows where you are and that in ways you can't fathom you are in God's protective care.  That no matter how worthless you feel, you are a unique work of God, that your worth comes from God's valuing and God's care of you.  You are not mass-produced.

The psalmist speaks of taking refuge in darkness, and so reminds us that our own lives are hidden from us.  Not only our future but much of our everyday life – our motivations, the sources of our deepest desires and fears, our prejudices, our decision-making – psychologists tell us we are unconscious of most of what drives us – but the darkness of human life is not fearful because it is known and inhabited by the God who created us in love.  How our lives are unfolding and where our lives are headed is not fearful, because our unfolding and becoming is the direction in which God is still creating us and we can trust that God's purposes for our lives are good. 

We are all called, I think, and the voice that calls us comes out of our personal darkness – the part of our lives that is hidden from us.  And we respond like Samuel – perhaps perceiving the call but not knowing what it means or where it comes from, needing the counsel of others to discern whether the voice we hear is that of God or some echo of our own repressed desire or fear.  Or like Nathaniel – closing down the invitation because we know better, because it comes in a form that doesn't fit our preconceptions, and needing the wisdom of others to gently challenge us and dislodge us from our certainties.  But we are all called, and what we are called to is growth.  To grow into who we most truly are, to become more authentically and more graciously ourselves.  Don't think you are too old to have to grow – that is a particularly limiting and false stereotype!  Don't think you have already heard the voice and responded to all it has to say – because if that is what you think then you most assuredly haven't!  Don't think you've never heard that voice, that it speaks to other people perhaps, but not to you – because that could be true only if you had not been created and shaped by divine love.

We are all called, as Samuel was, to the prophetic role of hearing and speaking the truth, and of role of interpreting and honouring the past faithfulness of God's people as a way of discerning the ways in which God might be leading us into the future.  We are all called, as Nathaniel was, to put aside our own preconceptions of what is or isn't possible and follow the one who reliably shows us God's knowledge of us.  Our sense of being called grows from understanding the uniqueness of who we are formed to be, and the ways in which we still need to grow into that.  To live faithfully is to allow our sense of being called to shape our actions and our choices in our everyday life.  And fundamentally, to be God's people is to listen together, actively and with expectation, for God's calling.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Baptism of Jesus

One of the great ironies of living in Perth is that we are floating on an underground sea of fresh water – the Yarragadee deep aquifer that runs all the way down the coastal plain from Geraldton to the south coast – an underground envelope of water that in some places is up to two kilometres thick.  As one of the driest cities in the driest State – we are sitting on about 1,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water – in technical terms about 2,000 Sydney Harbour's full.  It's a wonderful but at the same time frustratingly fragile resource that seems to be best utilised as a sort of bank account – a trial currently underway is investigating the feasibility of injecting excess groundwater into the deep aquifer during the winter months in order to allow a sustainable drawdown during summer. 

Water, of course, is life.  All livings things that we know of depend on water, and our planet home is a cosmic rarity because it lies just at the right distance from the Sun to allow liquid water to slosh around on the surface.  Human beings can only live in places where there is enough water – the paradox of global warming funnily enough is that on the one hand with the rise of sea levels coastal communities may be inundated while at the same time agriculture will be threatened by not enough of the stuff falling out of the sky.  Human beings obsess about water.  It is the stuff of life and refreshment - in almost every religion of the world, running water is a symbol of spirituality – but at the same time when we look at images of the devastation brought by cyclones and monsoons like the flooding that has swept away whole villages in the Philippines over the last few weeks we are reminded that water also represents danger.

In the Bible, water has the same sort of ambivalent reputation.  If I ask you to think of a Bible story about water the first few that come to mind are probably Noah's Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, or the adventures of Jonah – dramatic and violent images – then maybe the waters of creation or the crossing of the Jordan.  When you think about it these are all stories about new and difficult beginnings, difficult transitions that result in new life, like the experience of birth itself when the waters that surround the unborn child in the womb need to break so that she can emerge into the wide world.  And it's this image in particular, I think, that might be one of the best metaphors for baptism.

At first glance today's story – the baptism of Jesus – looks peaceful enough.  It's an attractive picture idealised by dozens of artists – Jesus dipping his long, neatly brushed and shampooed hair under the water or submitting to John pouring a few handfuls over him, hearing God overhead claiming him as his own son and the flutter of a dove's wings, the Holy Spirit descending on him.  A domestic scene that seems to fit with the trickle of a few drops of water on a baby's head in church.  Yet when we look at the actual passage in Mark's Gospel a bit more closely it starts to look a little less cozy.

For a start, Mark tells us, the sky is torn open – hardly reassuring!  In the original Greek it's a violent verb schizo – that is only used in one other place in the Gospel, to describe the veil of the Temple that is torn apart at the moment of Jesus' death.  If in Jesus God is coming into the world of men and women, according to Mark it is an invasion with violent echoes.  I'm reminded as I read this of the passage in Isaiah that we read each year at the beginning of Advent – 'oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down' (64.1).  In the visual image of the Spirit of God as a dove descending over the surface of the water disturbed by the immersion of Jesus we get another echo – this time of the moment of creation itself that Genesis imagines as a watery chaos over which the Spirit of God hovers.  This is a powerful image of God's presence – through ripped open skies and troubled waters, that shows us God's presence in Jesus as the first instant of a new creation.  The dramatic nature of the scene imagined like this is just the right setting for God's most uncouth prophet, John the Baptist, presiding over the sacrament in the muddy river dressed in animal skins after breakfasting on grasshoppers.  The baptism of Jesus as Mark describes it is earthy and mucky and a bit disturbing, a good counterbalance to our modern fantasy of a religion that is nice and polite and reassuring.  Jesus in Mark's Gospel is an uncompromising prophet of the here and now, not a dreamy messenger of the hereafter.

Believe it or not the Church needs the mucky, dangerous image of baptism more than it needs the nice one!  One of the problems it seems to me of modern Christianity is that it all too easily gets to be an escape from reality.  We fall too easily into the trap of thinking the sacred or the holy are in some different dimension, some spiritual world – and then trying to connect with that spiritual dimension in our worship instead of the world of everyday reality – the world of material poverty and inequality, the world of disease and mud and heartache but also – wonderfully! – of physical love and laughter and delight.  The world in other words that we actually live in.  The actual physical and deeply imperfect world that God commits to in what Matthew and Luke showcase as the birth of Jesus, and Mark describes vividly as the scene of Jesus' baptism and adoption as God's own Son.  We get echoes of it in our Church baptisms – we after all use real water, children and adults sometimes cry, we dry them with towels and smear them with real oil.  But we need to be reminded not to make our Church rituals so nice and spiritual that we forget the physical realities of our lives that we are inviting God's holy Spirit to invade.

And one of the earthy, muddy realities that we all too often forget is embodied by that wild and grumpy character, John, who harangued and unsettled and baptised men and women – for repentance.  For a deep change in their lives.  John was an anti-Temple prophet – there was already an institutional system for the forgiveness of sins but here John was short-cutting it, offering forgiveness holus-bolus with dire warnings that it's is not about form but about substance, about the deep change that comes from recognition of who we are and who God is.  Repentance is about seeing the truth about our lives as they are, about recognising the many ways in which we collude with or benefit from social systems that are unjust, recognising too our failure to confront evil in the world around us and selfishness in ourselves, recognising our tendencies to be manipulative or self-serving and our failure to love those around us, recognising not just the things we have done wrong but the disorientation of our lives. 

And baptism connects these moments – the about-face that is repentance is not possible without a deep reconnection with the well-springs of who we truly are and what we are created to be.  We can't actually live in a way that is life-giving and refreshing without getting in touch with the hidden springs that feed us.  Really, the deep aquifer that lies beneath the surface of our city is a wonderful metaphor for the spiritual realities of our lives that are so often hidden from us.  The Spirit is of course the depth dimension of human life, the deep flow that connects our individual lives with the One who gave us life.  A reservoir that nourishes us if we learn to tap into its springs, a tsunami that can destroy those who ignore its warning signs.  The surface of our lives – our work and home life and all that keeps us busy and growing, the relationships in which we learn to live beyond our own self-interest – our cares and concerns for our community and our world – all this is sustained and re-oriented by our ability to pay attention to the movement of the Spirit within us.  Our lives are not compartmentalised, without reflection and prayer and wonder we soon enough find ourselves running dry, contracting, unable to live generously or with joy.  The Church often fails, I think, to sufficiently emphasise or to offer signposts to the life of the Spirit.  But to be Christian is to follow Jesus not just in faith and compassion but in spirituality, in learning to live from the centre of our own life which is the spirit that connects us with God's own life.

Baptism, I think, is fundamentally a reconnection with who we are and the possibility of who we might become.  It reminds us how we should live, and it reconnects us with what makes that possible, with the source of all life that lies at the heart of our own. 


Friday, January 06, 2012

Funeral of Megan Pietras

Megan was an angel.  Not this Christmas, the one before.  A flightless angel, as all children who act in nativity plays are, but an angel nonetheless - with a white dress and a halo and gossamer wings - pushed across the grass rather bumpily and at top speed by a fellow angel to announce the good news of Jesus' birth to a group of startled-looking shepherds and a crowd of about 2,000 gathered at the City of Canning's annual Carols by Candlelight Service.  It was one of those scene-stealing moments.

Angels of course are God's telegram service – messengers who I suspect are all too often flightless and prone to various terrestrial limitations - who nevertheless fulfill their divine function of reminding us what the good news is.  And the good news that Megan reminded us of – not just that night but always, I believe – is that the love that let's face it is the fundamental message of Christmas – that love received and love given really does have the power to transcend human suffering and limitation.

It is obvious that Megan suffered, despite the best and most gentle care of her family, the most loving attention of nursing and medical staff and all who had responsibility for her needs.  As her body grew the restrictions of her condition became more painful and frustrating and the task of those who cared for her more difficult and demanding.  The reality is that all too often our best and most loving care is powerless to heal or take away the burden of suffering from one we love.  Megan's death when it came was a blessing for her, a slipping away from pain into the sweetness of sleep.  And yet her life also, I believe, was blessed.  And her life was a blessing to others.

Megan's life was profoundly enriched by the love she received – from her family, from her carers, from members of this parish.  The numbers here today attest simply that Megan was loved beyond the demands of professional care, for the patient and beautiful girl that she was.  Love that cannot alter the fact or take away the impact of disability – nevertheless transforms and transcends its limitations.  Megan loved to be included, loved to be spoken to and touched – she knew the power of her own smile and often withheld it from me until I cajoled it out of her.  I often thought the children of our parish didn't even see Megan's physical condition as a reason not to include her.  Every activity in the Kidz Zone included Megan -whether it was craft or colouring in or making something unspeakable out of play-dough.  If Megan wasn't there, the kids would want to know why not.  Megan's life was enriched and extended by the fact that others believed in her and included her.

But if Megan was blessed by those who loved her, she was in more ways than she could possibly know - a blessing.  I can only wonder how you experienced her, but for myself I can say that she taught me something about the narrowness of my own perspective.  As a parish she taught us what it means to be inclusive and to think about the needs of others.  She challenged us to think for ourselves about the gospel – about Jesus' own example of compassion and inclusiveness and about the ways we put that - or fail to put it - into practice.  Megan challenged us by her patience and her gentleness, her ability to smile and to acknowledge us when our conversation all too often excluded her.

I chose for our Gospel reading this morning the story of Jesus raising from the dead a little girl, the daughter of one of the religious leaders.  You might think this odd, that Megan has fallen asleep not to be awoken again, but I think the story is telling us that resurrection is God's intention for every one of us.  The ancient world wasn't like our 21st century society – children were not idealised or thought to be especially important.  Presumably parents loved their children but so many died and the death of yet another one wouldn't normally cause a great commotion.  Girls were of even less account than boys.  And yet this little girl's father loves her enough to make a ridiculous request, to search out and plead with the local religious crackpot – not a good look for a respectable clergyman.  And so Jesus takes her by the hand, this little girl who in the culture of her time was of no account - and calls her back from the sleep of death – little girl, wake up. 

Today, Megan has been as gently raised from the sleep of death.  Really, we don't know anything about the life beyond this one except this – that the love that created Megan and that surrounded her in life also receives and welcomes her in death.  That God's love continues to work its loving purposes in her, to set her free from pain and suffering, and to complete her in joy.  This is the message of Jesus' own resurrection, and the hope by which we now commend Megan to God's loving care.