Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pentecost +5B

Have you ever wondered why it is that magazines that give us the so-called 'inside goss' about the lives of celebrities sell hundreds of thousands of copies, while thousands of way more interesting stories about ordinary men and women and children never get told?  Actually the word itself – celebrity – is a bit odd.  A celebrity is someone who – if we take the literal meaning of the word, we make a fuss over, a person in other words who is famous – for being famous.  And of course the best way to become a celebrity – isn't to study and work hard and find a cure for malaria or glaucoma, or to be a teacher who cares passionately about kids, or to volunteer at a homeless shelter or as a hospital visitor, or to do anything particularly worthwhile, actually – actually, the best way to become a celebrity is to have a really good agent who tells the rest of us how important and beautiful you are until we start buying magazines to check it out for ourselves. 

Seems these days we need to invent people to make a fuss over.  Take Lara Bingle, for example … Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that even in our so-called classless society there are people whose lives apparently matter, and other people whose lives don't seem to matter very much.

We're reading Mark, and already, into the fifth chapter, it's clear that Mark is very interested in this basic division of who matters and who doesn't matter.  It probably helps if you read it straight through at one sitting, rather than the few verses every Sunday, like we do in church.  In chapter four we would have read good news for Israel, as Jesus sets about his mission of healing and casting out demons – and then he crosses over into Gentile territory on the other side of the lake and exorcises the tormented demoniac of the Gerasenes – for some reason I can't figure out, the lectionary skips over that bit – later on, Mark is going to make the same point with two almost identical stories about mass picnics – the feeding of the 5,000 celebrates life for Israel and the feeding of the 4,000 in Gentile territory announces that the good news isn't just for Jewish folk.  Mark is about inclusiveness, the ultimate message of hope, in Jesus God is doing something new for anyone that has ears to hear and eyes to see.  The point is that human differences don't matter to God.

Today Mark keeps making the same point, and he weaves together two different stories that kind of reinforce each other.  Women get God's attention just as much as men.  You know, I hope that isn't news to you, one of the ways our society has moved forwards over the last few decades is that gender has become less of an excuse to keep some people under the thumb of other people, but it's still a live issue, and back in Jesus' day it was unheard of.  I've heard it said that pious Jewish men used to get up every morning and thank God that they weren't born Gentile or female.  Men mattered, women didn't.  Women and girls were more or less assets, if they could have children, or liabilities, if they couldn't.  I guess parents loved their little girl children, in today's story it's clear that Jairus does, but their value depended on how marriageable they were.

Today's story is about two women at opposite ends of almost every spectrum.  One of them isn't young – she has been haemorrhaging for 12 years, presumably suffering from a menstrual problem which, according to the purity laws in Leviticus, makes her unclean and untouchable.  In fact every menstruating woman was unclean and untouchable for a few days every month.  There was a basic contradiction, it seems, between holiness and femaleness.  If a man touches a menstruating woman, then that man will also become unclean and can't take part in any religious or social activities until he has ritually cleansed himself.  So this woman whose menstrual flow won't stop is an outcast, there is no place for her in this society or in its religion.  She mightn't even have been physically very sick, in the first place, but everyone she's looked to for help has just reinforced her exclusion and added to her burden of shame.  After 12 years of misery this no-longer young woman has no value for anybody.

The other woman – and at 12 years of age she is just at the age where her parents would have been starting to think about a husband for her – is of some value.  This little girl is just at the age where an advantageous marriage might cement some useful alliance for her already well-connected family.  Twelve years of promise hang in the balance – is this young woman going to enter into the years of marriage and childbearing or is it just a wistful might-have-been? 

The other remarkable thing Mark does in this story is to show us two people who are prepared to throw social conventions to the winds to get a result.  We might not expect Jairus, the leader of the local synagogue, to be very keen on being seen with this heretical rabble-rouser – but he comes because Jesus has got a reputation.  Jairus is clear on what really matters and what doesn't. 

The truly remarkable action, though, is the action of the not-so-young woman.  Knowing full well that she wasn't allowed to touch any man, let alone an unrelated rabbi, she pushes through the crowd and touches him.  Mark doesn't even comment on the obvious consequence that this makes Jesus unclean – Jesus doesn't seem to have worried too much about that sort of thing.  And we're not told how the healing takes place, just that it does.  The male disciples who presumably are in control of who gets access to Jesus, try to minimise it – what do you mean, who touched you?  But she did touch him, and he knows it because it was no ordinary touch, it was the touch of somebody who needed something from him.  Notice how this is a two-fold healing?  As soon as she touches Jesus the bleeding stops, her faith that Jesus is the agent of God's healing power, her reaching out to God is enough.  But the real problem for his woman isn't the bleeding, it's the fact that she's isolated and shut out from everything that gives life and meaning – just to reach out and touch Jesus she has had to overcome the shame that would have been a constant part of her life – notice how even after she touches him she is ashamed and tries to hide herself - until Jesus sets her free by listening to her story, by accepting and inviting her into relationship with him – he calls her 'daughter' - by making this invisible woman visible again.  This example is very important for us – the healing that God wants to give to those who have been shamed and made to feel isolated does not just depend on their faith, but on our willingness to include them as part of a healing and transforming community.

There's a touch of black humour when Jesus finally arrives at the house where, in the meantime, the little girl has apparently died.  The grieving and the funeral rites are already underway and so Jesus' suggestion that things might not be as they seem is met with ridicule.  It's a situation that sounds a desperately sad echo in every parent who has ever lost a child.  How do you believe in resurrection when the evidence to the contrary is right in front of you?  I can't help thinking, as I read this story, of little Sofia Rodriguez- Urrutia Shu, brutally raped and murdered in our own city last week.  Like me, you might have found yourself thinking about the promise cut short in this little girl's brief life – all that might have lain ahead of her.  And yet Jesus takes this little girl by the hand and tells her to get up – and the Greek word used here for 'get up' – egeiro - is the same verb that later on in the gospel is also going to be used for Jesus' own resurrection – reminding us, I think, through this story that God's care and the promise of new life applies even after humanly speaking the situation is beyond hope.  Whether this little girl gets up and eats, or like Sofia passes from us into new life with God, the message is fairly plain – resurrection is God's loving intention for all human life.  Only have faith, Jesus tells Jairus and us too, and believe in God's care for the last and the least of his little ones.

Who matters, and who doesn't?  Mark's giving us some good news.  You don't have to belong to God's chosen people.  You don't have to be male.  You don't have to be useful.  You don't have to go through the right channels.  You don't have to be a celebrity or one of the smart set.  God's acceptance cuts through all that.  God's acceptance creates a future where there doesn't seem to be a future.  God's acceptance transforms isolation and shame into new life in community.  Resurrection is God's plan for human life.

Only have faith, and believe.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Pentecost 4B

Have you ever noticed that the good nights on TV are always the nights when you've got something else on? – just when your favourite soapie has got to some nail-biting climax is inevitably when you've got friends over – when you have got the chance to flop down in front of TV for the evening it's re-runs of the Inventors or bright-eyed eccentrics talking enthusiastically about Grecian urns or something.  For a while back there it seemed like whatever channel you switched on, whatever day of the week it was, it'd be one of the endless variety of Law and Orders – have you ever wondered what TV would be like if there was no crime and no medical emergencies?  Leaving aside the stuff that's just too awful to think about – Big Brother or Australian Idol for example – what is it about ordinary people that makes us want to watch shows about life-threatening illnesses or psychotic killers - for relaxation?

When I was a teenager there seemed to be a spate of box-office thrillers about random nastiness – movies like Jaws, or The Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno.  Psychologists tell us we humans have a fascination with what makes us feel unsafe – with the idea that evil or chaos is lurking just beneath the surface – and maybe we watch movies that play with the idea of random violence because it strikes a chord for us with the fear we all have that basically the world isn't safe, that tragedy does strike by sheer chance, that terrorists really could be plotting an attack in our neighbourhood, or that even our own bodies might just be waiting to come down with some obscure illness – and I guess part of the attraction of movies that plug into the anxiety that's part and parcel of modern life is that at the end, when the credits roll, we can remind ourselves that all that ugliness was just let's-pretend – the world we live in isn't as gritty and fearful as that, after all, at least our world is safer than that.

In the ancient world, one of the most powerful symbols of anxiety and disorder was the chaos of a storm at sea.  At sea, you were in the power of forces almost too big to imagine, the violence of wind and waves was so feared that creation itself was thought to be the result of divine forces holding back the unimaginable fury of watery chaos – as Yahweh reminds Job in our first reading, 'who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?'  - the fury of a storm was a battering at the doors of creation itself, the forces of chaos trying to reclaim the earth.  In the centre of the storm you were as good as lost – at the same time, as we read in Job, the ancients knew that the whirlwind was where you came face to face with the power of God who mysteriously was in control of the uncontrollable.

It's a sense of awe that we lose, a bit, in these days of weather charts with isobars and cute little sunny faces and rainclouds that tell you what tomorrow's going to be like.

It's a point, also, that seems to be lost on Jesus' disciples, in spite of all the hints of the past few weeks, the miraculous healing power that they have witnessed, the parables that, as Mark tells us, went over the heads of everybody else but Jesus privately explained to the disciples.  They should be getting the point by now!  And then they head out into the middle of the Sea of Galilee on an overnight trip, heading for the non-Jewish region on the far side of the Jordan. 

Mark seems to have a bit of fun with this story – according to my commentary there's an echo here of a similar trip involving another prophet called Jonah who went to sleep in the middle of a storm.  On that trip, too, the captain wakes up the passenger and accuses him of being too blasé – 'don't you even care?' – though in the Book of Jonah the captain at least knows the right procedure for dealing with storms at sea – pray as hard as you can, to as many gods as possible, and hope that one of your prayers gets through.  But the disciples don't ask Jesus for anything: 'Don't you care that we're getting swamped?'  'Have you even noticed?'

These guys are professional fishermen, they've been to-ing and fro-ing on the Sea of Galilee all their lives.  The Sea of Galilee apparently just does that – from zero to a raging fury in half a minute – so they should have known what could happen on a night trip from one side of the Sea to the other.  Maybe this one was worse than usual.

'Don't you even care, God?'  We know what they're talking about, don't we?  When you think about it, we've all been in that situation, when all of a sudden the storm that's always just in the back of our awareness blows up, the medical diagnosis or the financial disaster, the telephone rings with bad news and we look around to see Jesus right where he always is, serenely unconcerned. 'Don't you even care, God?  Why am I suffering like this?  Aren't you in control?'

The disciples don't ask Jesus to help – the implication is that they don't believe he really can, they just want to make sure he's panicking as hard as they are – notice how, despite all they've seen and heard, the remarkable events they've been part of, the disciples immediately revert to unbelief when they're overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control.  It happens, doesn't it?  Trusting God is OK while the boat is more or less upright, but when the situation gets out of hand we want something a bit more tangible?  Anxiety can make us think we're on our own.

Jesus doesn't talk to them.  Neither does he do the traditional thing, which is to pray for deliverance – instead he talks to the storm as though it was a demon.  A storm, after all, is just a storm, and in the worldview of the ancients that should be exactly where the power of the divine is most on display.  It becomes demonic when we give it the power to diminish who we are, when we allow it to cut us off from our awareness of what really gives us life.  Jesus shows that he has the power to cut through all that, to set us free from whatever has taken on the power of the demonic in our lives.  Mark, who typically shows the disciples as not getting the point – 'what sort of man is this?' - is more or less inviting us to fill in the blanks.  Of course, we're listening to the story from the other side of Easter, so we know what sort of man Jesus is – we know Jesus is the bearer of God's Spirit who challenges and transforms our deepest and most destructive demons, all that distorts our relationships with each other and with God.  All that prevents us from trusting in the future that God intends for us.  what is it in your life – what is it in our life as a church – that so overwhelms us that we give it the power of the demonic?  What is it that keeps us from trusting one another, and from trusting God? 

And yet we too miss the point, if we just hear this story as an impressive way of Jesus revealing his secret identity – the disciples haven't worked it out yet, but like TV viewers who see Clark Kent pulling off his glasses in the telephone booth, we've got the privileged information.  But we also know what it's like to be in situations where we haven't got any control, we know what it's like to be swamped and afraid.  We know what it's like to be in a place where only God can be any help.  This isn't just an all-too familiar story for us, it's the story of our own lives.  We know what it's like to say, 'Don't you even care that we're being swamped?' – and to hear God's silence in return.  How easy do we find it to trust that God is in control of the storms that rage in our lives?  It's not as easy as just switching off the television set after another black episode of Law and Order.  What haunts our dreams doesn't fall silent so easily. 

The Gospel writer knows this.  Mark is writing to a Christian community living through war and fear and persecution, a community in the last quarter of the first century that doesn't actually know whether it has a future.  He's a realist, but he also knows that we've read through to the end of the story.  When Jesus rebukes the chaos of wind and water, we hear a powerful message of hope from a man who, we know all too well, is going to cry out in despair on a Roman cross.  A man who knows that the centre of the whirlwind is right where we are going to encounter the God of wind and storm.  The God who comes to share our boat with us.  This isn't a gospel of cheap tricks, it's a gospel of costly grace.  'Don't you even care?' – we ask God, for the umpteenth time.

And we hear in return, 'Be still.  Be at peace'.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Pentecost 2 (Annual Meeting)

This last week we have been treated to the spectacle that was the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration, enacted in various locations under the inevitable and all too British canopy of the grey drizzle of a London summer day.  As – I must confess – one who can't quite see the point of a monarchy, let alone a foreign one, there were some aspects I found bemusing, not least the quasi-religious language of the whole thing.  And yet – there is certainly much to thank God for in the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, for her long faithfulness through decades of war and peace, and for the attitude of humble service to nation and Commonwealth that she so clearly displays.

Clearly on display, also, was the relationship between the English Church and the Crown – a relationship that is grounded in the history of the Church of England as the Church established by Parliament with the monarch as its head.  For Australian Anglicans this can be a little difficult to understand, since our own relationship with the symbols and institutions of government is thankfully less explicit.  But it does perhaps lead us to reflect on the ways in which politics and faith intersect, both in the life of the nation and in the life of the Church.

In our first reading this morning, Samuel the aging prophet is under pressure.  The people are tired of theocracy – which is to say a society led by priests, and who can blame them? – and they want a proper fair dinkum secular government, a king like all the nations around them have.  Samuel has been a reformer - since replacing the corrupt leadership of Eli with his odious sons all those years ago, Samuel has epitomised the faithful self-giving service that should be representative of clergy everywhere.  But the people want a king.

This is not quite democracy, of course, and Samuel rather labours the point, describing for them in laborious detail the self-serving and autocratic ways of kings, and reminding them gently that kings like to go to war, and that the ones who ultimately pay the price of that – are the people.  But God and Samuel give in gracefully, and the kingship settles on Saul – who of course wonderfully fulfils all Samuel's predictions.

I promised myself as I sat down to write this sermon that it would be my shortest ever, since we today are engaged in the business of selecting our own government for the year ahead, and so it shall.  We Anglicans, with the complicated structure of our relationships between Church Councils and parish priests, Synods and bishops, of all people should get the irony of the chequered political history of ancient Israel -as king after king is consecrated, gets seduced by his own power and the dangerous game of international politics, and governs as well as he can with the clergy sniping at him from the sidelines.  Even the great king David goes off the rails, which shows how quickly things can go bad when our political games become self-serving.  David fails at his main ambition, the building of a world-class Temple, a job which needs to be finished by his son Solomon, a lesser king but a cleverer politician.  The worst king of the lot is the last one, King Manassah, who gets the blame in the Book of Kings for the defeat by Babylon and the long period of exile.

Who'd be a king? At the risk of making it sound a bit grander than it is, who'd be a warden? Or a member of Church Council?  You couldn't pay me enough, except – oh wait – they don't get paid, do they?

Like Israel, the Church lives in the real world where building projects get stalled, where external circumstances need to be negotiated and where dollars count.  We need good government, we even need the complicated relationship and occasional tension between clergy and lay leaders.  We need men and women who understand leadership as faithful and self-giving service, who know that to lead means to learn and to grow, to listen and reflect in community.  As we are currently faced with the opportunities and challenges of a major parish development project we need men and women with intelligence and competence, and the grace of humility.  It's a tall order, actually, but it's just us.  The men and women we need are here, already among us, and it is by God's leading, and God's grace, that the gifts of leadership emerge within us as we serve together.

When Samuel prays for guidance in today's reading, God explains – perhaps a trifle peevishly – 'it's not you who the people are rejecting as king, it's me'.  And this of course is the crux of it.  Our institutions of governance – whether the Synod of the Diocese or the Council of a parish church – are as good as our awareness that it is the Holy Spirit of God who leads and inspires us, God's priorities that challenge us and the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is our ultimate and only goal.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Trinity Sunday

Welcome to Trinity Sunday – the one day in the Church year that is dedicated not to a person, or an event or a Bible reading but to a doctrine – also to Mabo Day, the day that celebrates the famous High Court win 20 years ago of common sense of the doctrine of terra nullius – the legal fiction that the land was empty before Europeans decided they wanted it.  Eddie Mabo was the visionary who insisted that his community who had lived on the island of Mer for thousands of years were more important than any legal fiction, and in a sense Mabo Day is the day in which we recognise the reality that it is only in community that we can understand who we are and where we belong.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible – although there are some tantalising hints – some building blocks of thought about God from which the doctrine of the Trinity was built in the third and fourth centuries:  For example in the very first book of the Bible, in Genesis God refers to Godself as 'we' and the Hebrew name for God Elohim is grammatically plural – later in the literature of Proverbs and the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon Wisdom seen as God's companion in the act of creation, and the image of God that animates and inspires human life.

And this is where the theologians come in.  Because Trinity Sunday really focuses on a single question: what is God like? And how does this three-in-one image of God shed some light on the question – but maybe the doctrine of the Trinity also leads us to think a bit more about theologians - about people who think about God.  What sort of faith do we need or want?  What is the use of intellectual speculation about God?  Do we need to understand any more than that God who created us is a mystery, but that at the heart of the mystery is love?  A colleague remarked a couple of years ago that he was planning a very short sermon on Trinity Sunday – 'who here understands the idea of the Trinity?', he was planning to ask.  'Not me – let us pray'.

The story is told of St Augustine, St. Augustine, one of the most brilliant theologians in the history of the church, who was struggling to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.  As he took a walk on the beach he saw a little boy running down to the ocean with a seashell, filling it with water, rushing back and pouring it into a hole he had made in the sand. "What are you doing?" Augustine asked him. "Oh, I am trying to empty the ocean into this hole," the boy told him.  As Augustine continued his walk it suddenly came to him that this was exactly what he had been trying to do. Trying to fully understand God, even in a doctrine like the Trinity, is like trying to place the ocean in a hole in the sand. It can't be done. The Trinity is a tantalising metaphor about an impenetrable mystery. No matter how large the hole we build in the sand, no matter how grand the theory, it can never express everything that God is.

The way the doctrine was worked out in the fourth century certainly tells us as much about the politics of compromise as it does about God.  Just the names of the various factions is mind-numbing enough, particularly when you have to study it for an exam.  The end result, which we recite in the words of the Nicene Creed, was one of those committee statements that tries to say all of the things that everybody agreed on and stamp out all of the ideas that everybody eventually agreed were wrong.  It's almost impossible to say what it means without committing some sort of obscure heresy, but here goes:  God the Father is accompanied by God the Son from the very beginning.  The Son comes from the Father but is not part of creation – in fact the Son is indistinguishable from the Father in every way except that fact that the Father comes first.  And the Holy Spirit comes out of the relationship between the Father and the Son, in fact you could say the Spirit is the love that unites the Father and the Son.  The crux of it of course is who we think Jesus is.  Right from the start, Christians struggled to find ways of talking about Jesus that didn't veer off, on the one hand, into saying that Jesus was just a good man, that he taught about God and showed us how to love God but in the end is just one of us and so can't really do much for us; or one the other hand, into saying that Jesus is just God slumming it, so to speak, dressed up as a human being so as to get the point across to us – but when it comes down to it, so far above us in his divinity that he really doesn't go through what we go through in trying to be human.  So the doctrine of the Trinity tries to say what can be said about Jesus being both fully divine and fully human, and tries to explain also, how it is that we experience something of God's nature within our own lives.  We understand God as the one who creates us, as the ground of our being.  And we enter into relationship with God through Jesus who discloses to us what God's character is like; and we experience God as a spiritual reality in our everyday lives.  It's a useful image, but let's not get too hung up on drawing triangles and trying to get just the right form of words to explain it.

There's another approach that I think might be even more useful.  Two observations that this strange theory about God allows us to make, that I think are very useful.  The first observation we can make is this: that the God we worship is a self-emptying God – that God's nature is always to be in a relationship of self-giving love – we know this firstly from the relationship between the Father and the Son, that the Son receives the fullness of everything that the Father is, and the Holy Spirit which is the Son's gift of love back to the Father.  And this self-emptying love is also what we see in the act of creation, God's outpouring of God's Self in love for what God has created.  What this means is that God wants nothing more than for us to notice, for us to love God back a little bit. 

In the book, "The Colour Purple", by Alice Walker, we meet a footloose character named Shug, who has some strong theological opinions.  Shug explains how, in her way of thinking, what gets God most upset is when you walk pass a field blooming with the colour purple and fail to notice how beautiful it is.

 This is what she says:

"People think that pleasing God is all that God cares about.

But any fool in the world can see that God is always trying to please us back.

Making little surprises and springing them on us when we least expect.

God just wants to be loved."

If Mabo Day reminds us that we are not just individuals but that we live in community, the ménage a trois of the Trinity tells us that God is not self-sufficient either.  God needs us just as much as we need God.  And when we find ourselves in relationship with this Trinitarian God whose nature is to be other-orientated, we find that we are invited, not just into a one-on-one affair, but into a community.  God is not private, God is not a lonely, eccentric, rather batty old hermit, but a community of love.  When we are drawn into a relationship with this God, we, too, find we are enticed into community.  That in spite of ourselves, we are drawn to transcend our self-preoccupation – that, loving God, we find we are drawn deeper and deeper into loving others, that we fall more and more deeply in love with God's world.

The second observation that I think might be useful, is this:  that the image of God as a Trinity of Persons is not static, not stationary, but in motion.  St Bonaventure's way of understanding the Trinity was to draw on yet another mental picture which he called the Fountain Fullness – a bit like one of those stacks of champagne glasses you see at well-catered weddings, where the top glass runs over and fills the glasses on the next level down, then they overflow and so on.  The Father's self-emptying love flows into the Son and is returned to the Father through the Spirit, then the whole lot overflows into the act of creation, which like Shug's colour purple becomes an extravagant expression of God's own Self.  This is an altogether exuberant image of God – a God who just can't stand still, a God who creates and who loves just for the heck of it, a God who invites us to join in the cycle of creation by noticing the thrill of the Spirit that is within us and all around us.   And I think the Bible writers pick up on this when they use metaphors for the Spirit like fire and rushing wind.  God's Holy Spirit is not just the spirituality of the warm inner glow, not just the comforter but the One who inspires, the One who challenges and the One who disturbs.  Like the wind that ruffles the surface of a still pond, it is God's Holy Spirit who invigorates us and moves us.  When we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit we don't know the outcome.  We don't know which dormant places in our lives will be disturbed, where our life will open up into new challenges and new loves.  We take a risk, and we trust ourselves to the God who grows with us and in us.

When the Mabo decision was handed down, 20 years ago today, it wasn't clear where it would all end.  It was certainly the beginning of a new era not only in Australian law but in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.  There was uncertainty, even in some quarters fear of where it would take us.  The Spirit works like that, pushing us out of our comfort zones, unbalancing us and forcing us to move in new directions.  Thank God for that! Mabo was the beginning of something wonderful, opening us as Australians to a new basis for mutual relationship and respect.  It is a journey that has a long way to go, that in some ways is still only at its beginning, but a journey that is well worth celebrating.