Friday, July 27, 2012

Pentecost +8 (preaching on Eph 2.11-22 which we missed last week when we celebrated St Mary Magdalene)

When I was about 12 years old, my friend and I watched an old war movie about an escape from a POW camp – I forget the name of the movie, they tunnel out – well, to my friend and me the idea of building a secret tunnel was just so exciting – heroic, dangerous, playing the Nazis for fools, all that.  Right then and there we decided that was what we wanted to do when we grew up.  Unfortunately, the war had been inconveniently over by then for about twenty years, so we decided we were going to go over to West Berlin and build a secret tunnel under the wall, we were going to become famous for rescuing hundreds, maybe thousands of people from East Germany.

But the reality turned out to be more dramatic, more exciting than our fantasy ever could have been.  Do you remember how the wall finally came down?  It was people from both sides of the wall – the German people knew the time had come when they could knock the wall down, and they began physically attacking it with whatever they could lay their hands on – remember how there was an anxious time when it looked as though the East German authorities might still try to put this peoples' movement down by force? – then at some point they must have realised it was unstoppable and the wall was torn down.

The point is, it was never about rescuing the people of East Germany – not just about the East German people being allowed in to share what they had in the West – but about the German people – all of them – becoming something new together.  Before the wall came down both communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany were separated by more than a physical wall – it was also a wall of hostility, and ideology, and unforgotten guilt – what had to happen, and what did happen in 1989, is that they came together in a historic act of reconciliation that made them into a new people, with a new capital, a new sense of identity, and a new confidence.  This is what reconciliation is about – both sides become part of something new, something more complete than either of them could be by themselves.

I'm reminded of a poem I learned at school by Robert Frost, that starts, 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall' – and tells the story of Frost and his neighbour setting about their annual springtime task of repairing the stone wall between Frost's apple orchard and his neighbour's pine plantation.  Whenever the poet asks why they need to keep rebuilding the fence after the winter ice has broken the stones apart, his neighbour just nods and says, 'Good fences make good neighbours'. 

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall …

The writer of the letter to the Ephesians knows just what Frost is talking about.  The whole theme of this letter is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles who – up to now – have seen themselves as mutually exclusive, divided not just by culture and language but by religion as well.  Like Frost, the letter to the Ephesians sees something in the basic nature of things that isn't too pleased by the human tendency to divide the world into us and them – Frost wonders if it's just the winter ice that breaks the ancient stones apart - but for the writer of the letter to the Ephesians it's God himself who's got a thing against walls.

This letter makes a couple of very basic – but hard to swallow - claims about what reconciliation means – for a start, the writer says – it's not just about giving other people some of what you've got.  Real reconciliation means being prepared to give up some of the things that you thought were really important, but that have turned out to be part of what keeps other people fenced out.  That makes reconciliation risky – you're going to have to be prepared to be changed by the experience in ways you can't predict. 

Remember the highly charged atmosphere here in Australia during the nineties when the Keating and Howard governments introduced native title legislation in response to the Mabo and Wik cases in which the High Court ruled that Aboriginal people retained common law title to the lands they had occupied since time immemorial? There was high expectation in some quarters and high anxiety in others as the implications were contemplated.  Maybe the sky really was going to fall in.  But the eventual legislation brought in something radically new but at the same time radically self-evident – that under some circumstances – for example on pastoral leases, the rights of different groups can coexist and even complement each other, that native title and pastoral leases can coexist.  Property law became less about exclusion and more about cooperation, and I think – though there is still a long way to travel – that these changes in Australian society will eventually mark the turning point in the long painful process of reconciliation – the building of one people with a shared vision of the future.  Reconciliation means both sides being transformed into something new.  Reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, in Ephesians, means both sides get transformed into something new called the 'body of Christ'.

The other major claim this letter makes, is that there's a basic connection between reconciliation between people – horizontal reconciliation, if you like, and reconciliation between people and God.  If you've got a whopping big wall between you and other people who incidentally are also made in God's image, then – guess what? – you've also got a whopping big wall between you and God.  That, I think, is another disturbing idea.  So long as we refuse to knock down the walls that divide us from other people, we're also keeping ourselves separate from God.  And the reason for that is because in Jesus we can see that God's love isn't just for Jewish folk, or even for religious folk, but for everyone equally.  In order to have peace with God – and we need to understand 'peace' in the Jewish sense of wholeness and flourishing – to have peace with God we have to be in the business of breaking down walls of discrimination and exclusion wherever we find them.

You might not think this is too outrageous, but if you were a first century Jew you'd be appalled.  Certainly Matthew would be turning in his grave, and Luke wouldn't be too impressed about it either.  Because the wall that this letter says we have to knock down, is exactly what defines Israel as a separate covenant people, that is, the Jewish commandments or Torah.  This is the Law that Jews believed was a gift from God designed to keep them living within the circle of a covenant relationship, but now the writer of this letter says it has become a barrier to others who are excluded from the circle, and so it is a wall that has to be broken down.  It's a big claim - basically what he's saying is that relationships matter more than holiness.  In the tradition of Paul, the writer claims that Christ's offering of himself on the cross brings the whole of human life into relationship with God.  Because the initiative has been taken by God, there's no longer any basis for holding on to rules that discriminate between some people who are in the circle, and others who are outside. 

So maybe, after all, we do have something to feel uneasy about.  Because if the whole basis for belonging to God's household is breaking down of all the dividing walls that keep people out, then it's going to be a bit of a problem for us if we create new ones.  It's going to be a bit of a problem for us if we become so protective of our own sacred and holy traditions that we fail to see where God might be working outside the Church.  We – Christians as a whole and Anglicans in particular – need to repent of our power struggles and our arguments about who's got the correct interpretation of scripture, we need to repent of our readiness to judge and exclude people on the basis of gender or sexuality.  Because when we hold onto this stuff we're trading the experience of God's radical inclusiveness, and a spirituality that celebrates God's presence in all creation, for a self-centred and loveless dogma.  We argue about whether people from other religions – or people with no religion at all - are right before God, when only God can possibly know that.  It's kind of arrogant, and when we read the letter to the Ephesians we are reminded how far we all are from God, until we understand that God's family includes everything and everyone that our human squabbles divide.
In verse 12 the writer deliberately uses a term that, in the ancient world, was a deep insult. You Gentiles, he says, who were without God in the world – the Greek word is atheoi, from which of course we get atheists.  Jews referred to everyone else as atheoi, and later the pagan sophisticates of the Greek-speaking world referred disparagingly to Christians as atheoi.  Confusingly enough, in 167 CE when the elderly bishop Polycarp was under sentence of death for refusing to renounce his faith, the Roman proconsul tried to find a way to spare him.  Just shout out so everyone can hear you, he suggested, away with the atheists!'.  Polycarp refused, and instead, pointing at the proconsul himself and gesturing at the crowd, shouted, away with the atheists!'.  Of course these days it seems that atheists are the smart set, and the insult is to be called a person of faith.  But the point is that religious labelling is hate-language whichever way it is directed.
Just forget whatever it was you thought was so precious or so right about your own position, says the writer to the Ephesians.  Can't you see it's your rightness that keeps making everyone else wrong?  Can't you see that your rightness itself becomes wrong, when you hold onto it so tightly that it locks other people out?  Good fences don't make good neighbours.  Good fences just keep us all out of God's household, where we belong together.
Take the risk of being wrong.  Take the risk of being found in bad company, of being on the wrong side of the fence, of affirming nothing but the rightness of God, who loves all people equally.
Amen.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Pentecost +7

I've heard it said that the way advertising – or at least effective advertising – works is by selling, not a product, but an image of the ideal self.  The product itself is important because sophisticated, intelligent, beautiful people use this, because the sort of people who drive this car or wear this particular brand of deodorant are attractive and discerning, and everyone they meet immediately recognises this about them.  The product itself is a code for success, actually you already need to be successful and smart and attractive even to be able to recognise how wonderful this product is, but guess what?? This product is YOU!!  You, in fact, are just the sort of person this product was designed for, and when you think about it, you wouldn't settle for anything less.

Something like that.  It works, because it sells you the secret self you've always yearned for.

Which brings me to the letter to the Ephesians.  Because this, in fact, is exactly what St Paul is doing in this morning's passage.  In, I hasten to add, a good way.

A couple of things before we start – firstly that most scholars agree that not all the letters that bear Paul's name were actually written by him, and Ephesians is one of the borderline cases.  For a start the language – the vocabulary and syntax – are just a bit different, and the ideas are just a bit different from the undisputed letters like Romans and Corinthians.  It might have been Paul, writing at a different time and in a different mood, or it might have been the next generation, one of Pauls' disciples or students writing in his name – which wasn't cheating, in the ancient world, this was standard practise if you wanted to honour the great thinker by ascribing to him what he would have said if he was still around.  And the other thing scholars argue about is whether this letter was really just intended for the Ephesian church – after all it is written in very general terms and there are no specific issues like we find in the letters to Corinth – or whether it was a sort of general circular letter in Paul's name intended to be read in all the churches.  In which case, it is also to us.

Ephesians is a 'big picture' letter, its themes are cosmic and universal.  The issues and challenges it speaks about are timeless and just as applicable to us as to the ancient church – how to live in the world of politics and domination, the competing and powerful messages of the culture around us, our own temptation to divide the world into 'us' and 'them', and our restless drive to understand what it all means – our own lives and the universe we live in.

St Paul, as one of our own contemporary Aussie advertisements used to say, is excited.  After the fairly standard opening greeting, the rest of it – verses 3 to 14 that we read this morning, just tumbles out, in one long garbled sentence.  His mind is rushing on faster than his pen can keep up. Even in our English translation, when the editors have divided it into proper grammatical sentences, you get the impression of a grand sweep of ideas, one flowing into another in a great long swoosh, describing nothing less than everything, the whole of time and space and then at the very end of the sentence, where we read up to this morning – you can almost hear him pause to draw breath – 'and you too.  You – who have come to believe – you are part of all this.  You fit into this vision of creation'.  St Paul is giving us a vision of ourselves, a vision that is way too big for petty divisions and small thinking, and he is saying – 'this is who you are. This is how you need to live'. And this one long sentence summarises the whole of the rest of the letter which is about inclusiveness, the inclusion of all people, of Gentiles and Jews – in this universe-long plan of God to bring together all of creation into unity in Christ.

We bless God, Paul tells us, because God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing – we praise God in other words because God blesses us with the spiritual basis to live with integrity and wholeness. And Paul puts these blessings into a context – in the heavenly places – in which God has also chosen us to live in Christ.  He seems to have in mind a sort of location or context for our lives - not the physical heavens, not the sky, but perhaps the sphere of spiritual power that underlies the universe and within which our own lives unfold.  To say it a bit differently - we have received God's blessing where life matters most, at the very centre of our own being and the life of all creation.

And then a metaphor from family life – from the profound to the familiar.  We have been adopted.  We are not left to fend for ourselves but we have been adopted into God's own family through the faithfulness and love of Christ.  Paul tells us that God's desire is that we should be lovers – that we should fall into love with the sort of love that we see demonstrated by Jesus. Paul pads that out a bit, telling us that Jesus' death is an atonement, it puts us right with God through the forgiveness of our sins, as an act of divine love.  But then while we struggle to comprehend that – and it is a doctrine that theologians today continue to argue and puzzle over, Paul draws an even wider circle.

In all humility, Paul calls it a mystery, but you get the sense that his mind is absorbed in a vision too grand for words.  Not just us, but all things are intended to be drawn together, the whole of the created order comes to its fulfilment in Christ.  The whole of the universe, galaxies and stars and planets, rock and twig, bird, beast and flower, the whole lot - and you and me – the whole thing holds together and has a direction and a purpose, and comes together at the end of all things in Christ.  He is speaking, of course, poetically and symbolically rather than scientifically – we might rephrase this a bit by saying that it is God's love that is the basis for the whole of creation, and it is in God's love made known in Jesus that the whole of creation finds its meaning and destination.

It is a mystery.  You might have heard me speak before of the Higgs boson, the theoretical particle that physicists for decades now have believed must exist in order to make sense of the laws of physics that we more or less take for granted because if they didn't work then everything would fall apart.  In fact I spoke of this just last Christmas, when I likened the search for the Higgs boson to the spiritual search for what makes sense of our own lives.  And just last week we heard that scientists have confirmed the existence of this mysterious particle through experiments conducted deep under the Swiss Alps in the large halon collider.  Physics, it seems, moves ever closer to poetry and the language of mysticism, hypothesising and now confirming the existence of what they called the God-particle which draws all things together.  This discovery, of course, opens up a whole new range of further questions and mysteries for scientists, but the point is just this – that as the quest to understand the physical universe moves forward what we begin to realise is that everything that is, is connected, that our own lives are set in the context of everything that is, and that the origins and final destination even of the universe itself are lost in mystery.

St Paul has taken us to the edges of human understanding.  But then he brings us back.  And you too, he tells us, are an integral part of this.  You have a share, you have inherited a front row seat in the grand mystery of creation.  The master advertising guru, St Paul has revealed a vision of our own selves that is bigger than, let's face it, our sometimes small and narrow lives would ever have led us to suspect.  This is who you are, he is telling us, participants in, perhaps even the centrepiece of, a cosmic drama of inclusiveness.

He's sold us.  We want this, we want a vision of our own selves that affirms, not only that we are going somewhere, but that everything in all of creation matters because the destination of all things is Christ.  This is a vision of our own lives that says we matter, that we are intended from the very beginning and enticed all through our lives into the heart of love that lies at the centre of everything that is.  Yes, I'll buy that version of myself.

But.

There's always a but, and St Paul is just starting to get to his.  The next few weeks, in lectionary time, we start to unpack the consequences for us of accepting this wonderful interpretation of what it means to be created in God's love but for now – just notice the pronouns that St Paul has started to use, at the end of today's reading.  'We', he tells us – 'we who were the first to believe'.  And the  - 'you also' – 'you who believed when you heard the word of truth'.  Yes, 'we' are the author himself and Jewish Christians, the first to hear and believe. 'You' – are us, the rest of us, Gentile Christians whose faith is second order, who have come to faith by hearing and believing the word brought to us through the faithfulness of others.  'We' – the people of God's original covenant – have always had a place, if we chose to take it up.  The good news is that this cosmic vision of a universe underpinned by love is too all-encompassing to leave anything out.  Both 'we' and 'you' now share a common inheritance.  And the theme of the letter to the Ephesians is set.

If who we are – Aussie, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Iranian, Zimbabwean, Nigerian, Eritrean – if the essence of who we are is built into the design of a universe that follows the logic of inclusiveness and cohesion – then our petty divisions collapse.  Our divided languages and cultures don't matter – we have experienced this, right here, in our parish, haven't we? What unites us is bigger than everything we invent to divide ourselves from each other.  You see it now? St Paul has sold us a vision of ourselves that has to lead to a way of living that is more generous and inclusive.  Tune in again next week!

Friday, July 06, 2012

Pentecost +6B

The classic Monty Python comedy, The Life of Brian, begins in Palestine in the year zero when Brian's mum takes a wrong turn on the way to the maternity hospital and ends up forced to give birth in a stable, next door to a rowdy family also having a baby amidst a crowd of shepherds and suspicious-looking cashed-up foreigners who initially mistake Brian for the other one.  Years later, and to his great annoyance, Brian is still being mistaken for Jesus. By everyone, that is, except his mum, who isn't buying it.  In one scene Brian appears at the doorway of his home in suburban Jerusalem to be greeted by an adoring crowd calling out hallelujah, and 'save us', and 'Gawd 'elp us', which when you think about it comes to much the same thing until Brian's mum back in the kitchen decides enough is enough and comes out with the broom to chase them all away. 'e's not the messiah', she tells them firmly, 'e's just a very naughty boy'.

So, how do you get taken seriously?  How do you convince the home crowd? Our readings this morning invite us to think about leadership and the way God calls and works through particular people.  At first glance the Old Testament and Gospel readings look like totally different outcomes – the people enthusiastically endorsing David as their king, Jesus' own family and neighbours who can't take him seriously as a spiritual leader.

The chunk we read from 2 Samuel this morning might make it seem as though David had everybody's approval, that his coronation is just the next inevitable thing after Samuel anointed him many years before and about three weeks ago in our lectionary.  But that's just because we've skipped over all the gory bits in the middle, the divisions and betrayals, the wars with external and internal enemies.  And so we come in, so to speak, at the end when everybody that's left acknowledges David and remembers how he led Israel even during the troubled final years of the reign of King Saul.  The most important verse is the last one – David grows in stature and power because God is with him.  He isn't finished with making mistakes and ignoring good advice, or with conflict and dispute, but the Bible reminds us that it is as he walks with God that he will grow in maturity and charisma and grace.

On the other hand we already know that God is with Jesus, and by this stage in Mark's Gospel it should be obvious even to the people of Nazareth, the tiny village of perhaps 120 people in which Jesus grew up.  Jesus has just returned home for a bit of R&R after a spectacularly successful tour of the local region.  His reputation is starting to grow, surely they have heard of the amazing healings and the demons driven out and a little girl restored to life? Remember this is in the ancient world where for the peasant population there was no health care at all, except for the comfort their own knowledge of binding wounds and setting bones and the vaguely medicinal properties of local herbs might bring.  This is the sort of reputation that made wandering holy men of the time into the equivalent of today's mega pop-stars.  Jesus' reputation as a healer and as a teller of stories, especially in this early part of his ministry, was spreading like wildfire.

When you think about it, though, none of us are easily impressed by the kid that used to play in the same street as us, who went away and came back a great guru of something or other.  We maybe give lip-service to the local boy or girl made good, but we can't quite get over the feeling that we knew them when.  'Him? My girl used to babysit for his mum.  A right little so-and-so he was.'

And yet, Jesus is treated with the courtesy that is given to every visiting adult male – he is invited to open the Torah and to speak in the local synagogue.  And he does so, reading from the scriptures and teaching succinctly, with authority.  The first thing is maybe to wonder where he has acquired the learning – the Gospels don't tell us anything about Jesus being trained as a rabbi, although there are tantalising hints of an apprenticeship served perhaps under John the Baptist or in the Essene community in the wilderness.  This, after all, is a community of almost universal illiteracy where most Jewish men would have learned to recite, though not to read, from the scriptures.  Some commentators interpret what happens next not as rejection but as the sort of respectful push and shove dialogue fairly typical in the ancient world.  He gets engaged in argument.  And why not?  A certain amount of healthy argument is all to the good in a faith community.  But whether or not that's how it starts, it quickly turns to offended reaction – 'this is just Mary's boy' – a fairly devastating put-down actually, implying either that Jesus' paternity is questionable or that his father is not worth remembering.  'Who does he think he is?'

And it seems that Jesus is just as offended by them as they are by him.  It's interesting to note that this is the very last time in Mark's Gospel that Jesus ever sets foot in a synagogue, let alone tries to teach there.  What happens next is that he changes tack, sending out his disciples two by two, in the manner of wandering holy men of the time, into the towns and villages, taking the good news of God's forgiveness and love directly to where the people congregate, in the fields and by the shores of the lake, in the market place, in pubs and on street corners.  He makes them dependent, as he is himself from then on, on the hospitality of those they encounter.  And of course it's a stroke of genius.  You don't change the world by trying to change its institutions or talk to the respectable and the well-off.  You change it by preaching hope to people who have no hope, bringing good news to those for whom life is mostly about bad news.  This is the bit of Jesus ministry we, the Church, don't seem to be able get our head around.  We talk to ourselves, mostly, we find it hard to get out and tell the good news to the people who most need to hear it.

But we also need to ask ourselves, how ready are we to hear the good news from the new kid, the upstart, the one with the brash new idea about what God might be wanting us to do?  Ah, she's young, or he's a new Christian, full of enthusiasm – don't worry, they'll settle down after they've been in the pews another ten or twenty years.  Except, like Jesus, they might not hang around.  They might go somewhere else with the good news.  We're actually blessed, in this Diocese, and this State, with some fine young Christian leaders, and I've been fortunate in my work with Anglican EcoCare over the last couple of years to meet and hear from some of them. Young women and men in their twenties with wisdom and fresh thinking and a deep spirituality.  And perhaps a dash of frustration that Church leaders don't seem to be listening.

God, of course, doesn't respect hierarchies.  How many times in the history of God's people does God choose the youngest – like David – the one considered so young and unimportant that his dad leaves him out on the hillside with the flocks when Samuel the prophet wants to interview his sons for the top job?  We need to learn to recognise when God is speaking to us, not to allow our own preconceptions of who is important and who isn't, who is worth listening to and who isn't, to get in the way of hearing and responding to the good news God wants us to hear.

It's not surprising that Jesus redefines for his followers who and what family is.  Nazareth, after all, was that small.  A significant proportion of this little village would have been Jesus' own extended birth family.  In this incident Jesus is rejected, not by the high and mighty but by those who should have known and loved him best of all.  'Who are my mother and my brothers and sisters?', he asks his disciples in Mark's Gospel. 'Who is my family? Whoever hears and does the will of God.'  It's a damning indictment.

The townsfolk of Nazareth – Jesus' own kinfolk – recite his family history as proof that they don't have to listen to him, that after all, he is just one of them and no better than they are.  And so they close their ears to the good news, and the good news is taken to others.  The message for us is two-fold: we need to exercise humility in our listening in case we miss the good news that God is wanting us to hear.  As often as not God's next big thing is not the bright idea of the hierarchy – after all hierarchies usually resist fresh thinking – but by the person on the edge of the community, the newcomer, the misfit, the one with a different point of view.  How well do we listen?

And the second part of the message is that we need to learn imagination and courage to actually share the good news, to go as Jesus sends us, dependent not on our physical resources or our learning or training but on the reality of the Holy Spirit, and on the hospitality of those we encounter.  It's actually just about learning to be secure in who we are and who God is.  Evangelism is not the work of experts and priests but of every Christian, and our story today suggests it is not about being a Bible basher or attempting to convert long-suffering relatives and friends or passers-by, but simply by getting about our ordinary business in the shopping centres and workplaces and caf├ęs of our city.  Not with a Bible in our hand but with the gifts of the Holy Spirit: love, kindness, patience, gentleness – and the willingness to share with others what gives our lives meaning and purpose.

When we do this we will learn to think of ourselves not as people who belong to a Church – as people, that is, who are at home in a building with its familiar sacred objects and rituals, and its history interwoven with the rites of passage of our own lives.  Not as people of a Church, but as inheritors of the Gospel and as stewards of the life-changing message of God's love.  This, of course, is the real treasure of the Church and it is entrusted to us for one reason only – whoever's son or daughter we are, whatever small town we come from, however meagre our learning or our skill at speaking – to share it.