Friday, December 27, 2013

First Sunday after Christmas - Holy Innocents

How was your Christmas? Alison and I had our extended family over on
the evening of Christmas Day for what turned out to be a perfect mild
evening of relaxed and happy company with a marquee on the back lawn
and everything you could wish for by way of food and drink and
conversation. On Boxing Day we caught up on some way overdue sleep –
so all around our celebration was pretty much perfect. I hope you
also had the opportunity to take some time out for family and
pleasure.

Today however – the first Sunday after Christmas which is often called
Holy Innocents – we come back to earth with a thud. Isaiah tells us
of God's solidarity and saving presence among Israel – Judaism's
understanding of incarnation that predates the Christian message of
Christmas by centuries. Psalm 148 is an appropriate response to that
– the marvellous hymn of praise that depicts not only human beings but
the whole of creation singing with delight. Then Matthew pricks the
party balloons, because he tells us the blindingly obvious, he tells
us what of course we already knew but would generally prefer to gloss
over. The incarnation of God is not pretty. Not only does the birth
of Jesus take place in the midst of poverty and hardship but the birth
of Jesus – and the wild rumours of hope that swirl around it – provoke
a violent and shocking reaction from those in power.

Herod – as we know not only from Scripture but other historical
sources – was for all his long reign an insecure tyrant, put in place
by the Romans when they conquered Jerusalem around 40 BCE. Herod
cemented his grip on power by murdering several members of his own
family, and he knew that he held power only as long as he served the
interests of his Roman patrons. He made extensive use of a sort of
secret police, for example, in order to keep the lid on protest and
dissent. Today's story, then, is utterly in character. The rumoured
birth of a messianic king reported by visitors from the east meant a
new focus for popular aspirations for freedom and hope. And Herod
acts with typical decisiveness and ruthless brutality.

The grimness of this story for us, as we read it two thousand years
later, is that it is essentially modern. It follows a pattern that we
continue to see in the world we live in today, and it comments on
similar ruthlessness – and complicity – in our own world. A
population is decimated, and survivors flee across a border. A tyrant
butchers families and villages and ethnic minorities – sometimes with
swords, sometimes with poison gas or artillery rounds – we see grainy
images shot with mobile phones of the aftermath of a massacre, and men
and women and children carrying meagre possessions trudge across
deserts and mountains to whatever dubious welcome they may receive
somewhere – anywhere – else. The message of Christmas is that God
shares our reality, our circumstances, and that gives cause for hope
because that makes the circumstances of our lives holy. But which
circumstances exactly is Jesus born into? A homeless peasant woman
has a baby, saved only by the kindness of a stranger from having to
give birth in an open field. The child is born into a heady mix of
political and religious expectation and attracts some international
interest. Is this the expected messiah who will save Israel? And a
countryside is put to the sword. The baby's father listens to the
prescient anxieties of his own dreams and manages to flee the
impending massacre. Our Lord is a political refugee.

Two things we need to notice in Matthew's story. Firstly, notice that
Matthew is very careful not to say that any of this is God's will.
This is hugely important. He doesn't say, for example, as he does
elsewhere, that 'this happened in order that the scriptures might be
fulfilled'. He says, 'Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through
the prophet…'. Matthew is reminding us that not even the most
chilling human evil can thwart God's compassion or power to save. And
then in just one verse – half a verse – Matthew describes
matter-of-factly a deed so evil that we can't bear to hear more
detail. Instead, we hear only the voice of the matriarch Rachel,
crying for her children, as Matthew evokes her voice in mourning over
these latest of her lost children.

The second thing to notice is that it is Egypt that the Holy Family
flee to. And Egypt, in Roman hands since 30 BCE but beyond Herod's
jurisdiction, was in fact a popular place of refuge at the time.
Ironically, the place where Jesus' ancestors were enslaved, the place
from which they were led to freedom by Moses, is the place to which
Jesus and his parents escape. Egypt stands in the Jewish story of the
Exodus both for captivity and for freedom and safety, as it does in
Matthew's story. We might ask ourselves whether there are any
'Egypts' in our own lives – places of refuge which are also places of
loss.

Our Lord is a refugee. This isn't a glib left-wing point to be scored
from the Christmas story but a central reality of God's commitment to
the solidarity of incarnation. In Jesus we see the reality that God
is present in the heart of human suffering, that where inhumanity and
brutality diminish human life, there God is. That where men and women
and children flee the violence of the powerful and seek an uncertain
refuge, then God is with them. God is not apolitical. God takes
sides.

The Christmas story indicts political power, and it indicts the
complicity of passive acceptance of that power. This is an
uncomfortable challenge for us, as Australians, right now. Our Lord
is a refugee.

Our country is led by insecure politicians. What makes them insecure
might take too long to go into, but it is to do with our loss of
confidence, as a nation, in who we are and what we stand for. The
Labor government was insecure and ineffectual. The Coalition
government has inherited its own brand of insecurity, but we don't
know how that's going to play out yet. Our governments don't lead and
inspire, they follow the latest opinion poll. And both sides of
politics in Australia believe that what gives them more security, what
buys your vote, is to be cruel and paranoid towards asylum seekers.
Both sides enact ever more punitive and harsh measures in an attempt
to buy your approval. And we distract ourselves by shopping, and we
vote for whatever will make the problem seem to go away. Our own
insecurity makes us complicit in what is done in our name.

Amnesty International visited the detention centres on Nauru and Manus
Island and released a report just before Christmas. You might not
even have heard about it. Of Nauru, Amnesty comments that detainees
are housed in army tents that offer no privacy and have barely any
room between the stretcher beds. Every single tent Amnesty inspected
was leaking, temperatures inside the tents reaching over 40 degrees
during the day with 80% humidity and no outside shelter. Most
detainees find it impossible to sleep at night due to the extreme
heat, rodents and insects. The mental health situation is dire and
medical facilities are inadequate. Amnesty concluded the conditions
do not meet the UN minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.

On Manus the conditions are similar but here there is also a shortage
of drinking water, with detainees being given as little as 500ml per
person per day. Detainees must queue for hours in the heat for their
meals, their feet are burned by the hot stone surface of the compound
and requests for shoes are denied. Personal space is limited with one
dormitory house containing 112 men. Basic hygiene is problematic as
there are insufficient shower and toilet facilities. Detainees report
that requests for improvement are met with the advice that if they
don't like it they should go home.

On Christmas Island, where families with children are housed, a woman
lost her baby just before Christmas because she was denied an
ultrasound test. When she pleaded for the test she was told she
needed to 'lower her expectations'. As Christians, we remember a
refugee family who were given assistance at a birth and hospitality in
a foreign country. Our own country uses cruelty as an instrument of
public policy to force refugees to return to the very situation from
which they fled. We do this, not because we are unable to afford to
be hospitable, and not because we face any sort of security threat,
but because we feel insecure and threatened by our own uncertainty
about what we stand for. We feel insecure because we are a wealthy
country and don't want our privilege watered down. We try to insulate
ourselves from the suffering and the poverty of the world around us.
When it comes down to it, we only believe in globalisation of
opportunities, not of problems.

Our Lord was a refugee, and what this means is that when we look into
the faces of refugees, we see the face of Christ, and we stand
indicted by Jesus' accusation in Matthew, chapter 25: 'truly, I tell
you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to
me'.

A Bible commentator I read as I prepared this sermon commented about
the soldiers who carried out Herod's brutal order. How could they
have done that? What moral responsibility do they bear? What about
the inevitable informers who tell the troops, 'yes, Mrs So-and-so down
the road has just had a baby' – glad to see them leave their own
doorstep. The point is that we can be several steps away from
violence yet still, indirectly, responsible if only for not naming it
and resisting it. The soldiers' 'just following orders' excuse is
false and deadly - and challenges us to examine where we collude with
evil by not intentionally standing against it.

If we see Christ in our world by looking into the faces who have not,
or who are pushed aside and marginalised – then where in our world do
we see Herod? As Christians, what are we called to do about it? In
what ways might God be calling us to get out of our comfort zones? If
we did, might it not be that we would experience God-with-us in a new
and life-giving way?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas

What do you actually want for Christmas?

I guess for some of us, if we're honest, the answer would be, 'to snap
our fingers and all of a sudden it's Boxing Day, the family have all
gone home, the washing up's done, the tree's been put out with the
garbage, everything's gone blessedly quiet and the cricket's on the
telly'. There's no doubt, the season of peace and goodwill is
stressful – trying to find a carpark at Carousel is bad enough at the
best of times but it only gets worse when you find yourself in the
mall wedged in by a crowd of frantic last-minute Christmas shoppers on
the same desperate mission as yourself. Or the office Christmas party
that you just know is going to make you shudder with embarrassment all
next year. The guilt of getting Christmas cards the day before
Christmas from the long-forgotten relative you thought was safe to
leave off your own list. Maybe I'm starting to turn into a grumpy old
man, but isn't Boxing Day the best day in the whole year?

So, what do you want for Christmas?

I guess the answer depends on what sort of year you've had. My
grand-daughter Charlotte has had a very good year. This year she
finished Grade Two. She's cheeky and clever and a good reader.
Alison and I spent a few days this year in Adelaide, taking Charlotte
to the zoo, and to the beach and the movies – her energy was boundless
and her knowledge endless. At the zoo Charlotte insisted we had to
see every animal – we crossed them off a list. She insisted on having
her face painted like a tiger – and made tiger-faces at the real ones.
For a lot of people, like Charlotte, this has been a year of wonders
and new experiences – the first year of going to school; the first
boyfriend; the year of leaving home; getting a job; getting married.
The universe is expanding, jam-packed full of possibilities – and
Christmas with a baby lying strangely in a box filled with straw
surrounded by shepherds, angels and exotic kings is just one more
example of the infinite goodness of life. God's birthday present to
the world that says, this is how amazing it is to be alive – this is
how much I love you.

But, what do you want for Christmas?

You might not have had quite such an exciting year as Charlotte. The
longed-for family reconciliation that still didn't happen. The
nagging awareness of debts that you know aren't going away. The
dullness of being in a job that bores you. The growing knowledge that
none of the bright ambition you once had is really achievable. The
letter out of the blue that changed everything. The diagnosis you
didn't want to hear. The first year you have to celebrate Christmas
without the one you've shared your life with. The world you live in
maybe seems narrower and less friendly than it did this time last
year.

The big events of the year are swirling around in our grown-up heads
on Christmas night. Another year of listless violence on the world
stage. Two million refugees from the miserable conflict in Syria
huddle tonight in flimsy tents in the winter cold. Business as usual
in Afghanistan, Iraq and a fresh conflict in South Sudan. A hurricane
in the Philippines where the poorest of the world's poor face an even
more precarious future as extreme weather events become more frequent.
Our lucky country makes a lurch towards inhumanity and selfishness in
our treatment of refugees and cutting $4.5 billion from the money we
spend on foreign aid. We hear shocking revelations of systematic
child abuse within the Church make a hollow mockery of its moral
teachings. In a world where integrity and humanity seem to be in
short supply, maybe that's the only Christmas present worth asking
for.

So, why are you here? If, as the angels shout from the rooftops over
Bethlehem every year, the birth of Jesus is God's way of sending us a
message, what does the message mean? What's the good news about
Christmas? To be realistic, can Christmas really give you cause for
hope?

I have a friend, a priest who said to me a little while ago, 'Evan,
nobody wants to hear a sermon on Christmas Eve. Don't preach a
sermon. Just tell them why it's good news, and then sit down.' So
that's what I'm going to do.

I think Christmas is good news for two reasons. Firstly, because the
birthday present God gives to the world at Christmas time is not just
something we thought we wanted, or even thought we needed. The
birthday present God gives us is God's own self. As the prophet
Isaiah tells it, the baby of God's promise is called Immanuel, God is
with us. The baby born in Bethlehem is called Yeshua, God saves us,
and we get that, because we already know how the story is going to
end. We know, as tonight we read this story of angels and shepherds
that years later as he dies on a Roman cross Jesus is going to be
called something else by an awestruck Roman centurion: 'surely this
man was the Son of God'. We hear tonight's story knowing that we
encounter God in this baby born tonight, in the life of Jesus of
Nazareth we see God's purposes and God's priorities laid bare – that
in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we see God's
intention for all human life exposed. We know Jesus as Immanuel, God
with us, because in Jesus we are brought into a living relationship
with the God who created us. In Jesus we encounter the grown-up
reality that God with us is not a feel-good formula or a false
expectation of happiness ever after, but the assurance of
thick-and-thin solidarity – the God-with-us we encounter in Jesus
knows something about loss and compromise and failure and chooses to
be at home with us right in the middle of the mess and the heartache –
as well as the joy - that we call real life. That's good news.

And the second reason it's good news? Well, if the birth of Jesus in
a stable in Bethlehem is a message that God is sending to us, it's a
message in code. But not, fortunately, a code that's very hard to
break. Luke spells it out very clearly. You see, Jesus wasn't the
only royal personage known as a Saviour round those parts, certainly
not the first. The other one was another divine being known as the
Emperor Augustus – the peace on earth that the angels sing about at
the birth of Jesus comes right in the middle of another, more
officially sanctioned version of peace on earth, called the Pax
Romana, the peace of Rome which was based on Rome having the
best-equipped and best-trained armies the world had ever seen. The
birth of Jesus is good news because in it God is proposing a very
different sort of basis not only for peace but also for power in the
world that you and I live in. The birth of Jesus turns the accepted
logic of the world upside down – and note, even today, 2,000 years
later, it still contradicts the accepted logic of the world we live
in. Because Jesus doesn't get beamed down as an emperor even more
powerful than Augustus, Jesus doesn't make short work of evil-doers
even though that was really the sort of Messiah everyone had been
hoping for. Instead, we see something totally powerless, totally
vulnerable – a naked, helpless baby born to a poor family in an
insignificant part of the world. A baby who, you and I know, is going
to grow up to be rejected and crucified as a criminal, deserted by his
followers. How's that for a Christmas present? Certainly not he one
we asked for!

And I think the reason is that in the birth of Jesus, God is proposing
a completely different basis for power. Because, make no bones about
it, the God of the naked, vulnerable Jesus is indeed a God of power.
But the power that God reveals to us in the birth of Jesus is a
paradoxical power, what we could call relational power, the inverted
power of vulnerable, self-giving love, the power of recognising our
essential kinship with one another that, in the long run, out-trumps
regime change and terrorism and nuclear weapons every time. If God is
giving us a message, it goes something like this: 'think deeply.
What's most important here? Look at the people on either side of you
– the ones you came with as well as the ones you find yourself sitting
next to quite by chance. Think about the people you share your life
with, about the people whose lives are affected by the way in which
you live your life. Think about what it really is that connects you.
That's what takes on flesh and blood at Bethlehem. That's my
Christmas present for you, this year. Think about it – and watch it
grow in you and change you, and then watch it start to change the
world you live in.'

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent 4

What should I do next? It's a real question that most of us need to
seriously ask ourselves from time to time. Living as we do in a
hyper-individualistic culture that places huge value on freedom of
choice, the irony is that most of the time we don't seem to have any!
Mostly we get about our business from one day to the next doing the
next thing that has to be done, attending to our responsibilities at
work or in our family lives, exercising real choice over nothing of
any greater importance than what brand of cereal to buy or where to go
for our next holiday. But every now and then, at pivotal moments of
our lives it hits us – 'what I do next is going to make a real
difference to the rest of my life'. For example, 'should I marry (and
if so – is this person right for me? Am I right for them?)'. Or,
'what should I do for a living?' 'Should we emigrate?' And when we
make the big choice then we commit ourselves to a new direction, we
don't know what our lives would have been like if we had chosen the
other path. But – how we choose is the question.

Sometimes the choice seems to be about what is right – the contest
might be between what we might prefer and the good or the ethical
thing to do. It comes down to who we know ourselves to be, and who we
actually want to be. Other times the choice might be between what we
feel like doing right now and what might lead to more lasting
contentment. That's also about self-knowledge, and having a clear
understanding of where our lives are based. Or it might be between
our own self-interest and the good of somebody we love. That's a hard
one. Or simply about which direction might lead to the better
outcome, in a situation when – well – we can't read the future. As
Christians, we know our choices aren't arbitrary, and that God's Holy
Spirit does lead us and nudge us, that God does want our lives to open
up and flourish in a particular direction. Sometimes we really do
know deep down what God wants for us and we rebel against that. Other
times we honestly don't know what God wants for us, and we pray for a
sign. A really clear one, please God. Sometimes we reflect on what
lies ahead, and we ask the advice of trusted friends, and we pray –
and we still make the wrong choice! How do we learn to be sensitive
and to discern correctly the signs that God gives us?

Today's readings focus on two very different men – one a king of the
ancient kingdom of Judah eight centuries or so before the birth of
Christ, the other a nondescript tradesman – the Greek word tekton
basically means tradie - Joseph wasn't necessarily a carpenter, he
could have been a stonemason for example – but both Ahaz and Joseph
are practical men, realists, and as it turns out, men who aren't
afraid to make decisions and act on them. The other thing they have
in common is that we find both of them at the cross-roads wondering
what which way to turn.

King Ahaz had the dubious privilege of being born into what the
Chinese call 'interesting times' and finding himself on the throne of
the southern kingdom of Judah at the ripe old age of 20 surrounded by
the dangerously charged-up kingdoms of Moab, Aram who had formed a
political alliance and were eyeing off a Judah weakened by decades of
political infighting. It was essentially local trouble, but Ahaz,
ignoring all the best political advice, decides he needs to take
decisive action and so with the northern kingdom, Ephraim or Israel,
Ahaz decides to ask the super-power of the day, Assyria, to come on
over and sort out his troublesome neighbours. Ahaz is a man of action
– something clearly needs to be done – this is something, therefore
I'm doing it – unfortunately he hasn't read the signs very clearly.

Joseph's dilemma is a bit more personal, but equally sticky. He's
just found out his fiancée is pregnant, and he knows it isn't him.
Marriage in the ancient world was a bit different to our modern custom
– Mary had probably been promised in marriage since early childhood
and the first stage of the marriage process – the betrothal – had
already taken place. So Mary in effect is already Joseph's wife
though she still has to live under her father's roof until she's old
enough to be taken into Joseph's house. Knowing that he isn't the
father of her child, and knowing that with the paternity of the child
under doubt he risks losing his own honour just as much as Mary seems
already to have lost her own, Joseph's dilemma is not so much whether
to divorce his wife as how to go about it. Being a compassionate man,
Joseph opts for divorcing her quietly, let her slip away without
asking any more questions. The alternative might have meant a public
accusation which could have led to her being stoned to death – a
penalty that even though it wasn't often applied in the first century
was still well and truly on the statute books in Deuteronomy.

But as soon as both Ahaz and Joseph have worked out their course of
action, each of them receives a visitor who challenges him to think
again.

Ahaz finds the prophet Isaiah on his doorstep with a message from God –
"Don't do it, Ahaz – ask God for help instead – whatever you like – as high
as the heavens or as deep as the grave…" Ahaz, however, is too proud,
too stubborn to look to God. He's the king. Making decisions is his
business. This is his problem. He can sort it out. Unfortunately, he
turns out to be mistaken. The Assyrians are more than happy to come
and deal with his neighbours. They obliterate them. But while they are
in that neck of the woods they think they might as well obliterate
Israel and Judah as well. They besiege Jerusalem and decimate the
northern kingdom, seizing its treasures and enslaving its peoples,
while Judah also stands on the brink of destruction. Ahaz should have
listened.

Joseph's visitor is an angel, who appears to him in a dream, but the message
is the same – think again. "It may not make much sense, Joseph, but actually
this is God's work. Stick with Mary – God knows what God is doing…" But
unlike Ahaz, Joseph decides to listen, to wait, to trust God, even if he has
no idea how it is that God can bring any good out of this whole sorry
mess. And we all know what happens next.

The reason of course that we read these two stories today is because
they are connected by the strange words of the prophet Isaiah, which
Matthew quotes, "the young woman is with child and shall bear a son
and shall name him Immanuel." What sort of a name is that? It means,
"God is with us'. Bible scholars still argue about what Isaiah means
by this - almost certainly he is referring to a real woman who is
pregnant right now, and he is saying, look, by the time this baby is
ready to be weaned the enemies you are afraid of now are going to be
dispersed – but this is more than just a roundabout way of saying all
this will happen within 12 or 18 months – for Isaiah the baby itself
is a sign of a new beginning, a new relationship with God. The baby
itself is a sign, a message from God.

Matthew takes those words and uses them, rather out of context and with a
few twists, to refer to Mary. Because he's using the Greek manuscript
of Isaiah instead of the Hebrew one his quote from Isaiah uses the
word 'virgin' instead of translating the original Hebrew word 'almah'
which simply means 'young woman'. It probably wasn't a huge
distinction at the time but it has thrown the Church into overdrive
ever since with endless arguments about whether or not the virginal
conception of Jesus is an absolute necessity of faith. The danger
with getting too hung up on this is that we get distracted from what
really important, the really crucial point about these strange words.
You see, it isn't really the mother that is the point, it's the child.
God's sign, says Isaiah – his message to faithless Ahaz and frightened
Joseph, is the baby itself.

It's a sign that Ahaz doesn't want to read, and he decides to stick
with the DIY model of international relations – history tells us that
he crashes a bit further down the road. Joseph, the man of action who
also pays close attention to the truth of dreams, reads the sign and
acts on it.

The point, of course, is how do we read the signs? Like Ahaz, we find
ourselves in a world global alliances and economies are fraught with
danger and human lives are filled with anxiety. The path to peace is
just as elusive as ever, and we watch in helpless frustration as
millions of refugees from the miserable war in Syria huddle in
makeshift tent cities against the freezing winter. We live at a time
of unprecedented concern about the very future of the planet we live
on, and we increasingly have cause to question our own judgement about
the use of its resources. Like Joseph, our lives are filled with
anxiety over personal dilemmas. We find it hard to live with
integrity and trust, we find it hard to believe in the future when we
also have to live with bad news – the job we so badly wanted, the
relationship that should have been for ever. Where is God in the
middle of all that?

And God sends us the same sign this year. A baby with a funny name.
Immanuel, God still with us. The answer to our questions is a baby.

So what sort of sign is a baby? A baby is a symbol and a reminder of
newness, isn't it? It is a new life, a new personality. When a child
is first born its future is a mystery, its character is a mystery –
unknown and unknowable. It is not a repeat of an old pattern, even if
it does have its mother's eyes or its father's nose, and it's not a
clone, it's something that has never been seen before, a completely
new beginning. Having a child is an act of faith – you don't know what
will happen to it or how it will change you.

Every baby, everywhere, is a sign of the wonder and the miraculous
underpinning of life, a sign that the everyday world we live in is
woven through and through with God's own life. But this baby, born at
this time and into this intersection of historical circumstances – if
we are willing to see it, this baby is the sign of God with us, the
sign that we no longer have to be self-sufficient, we no longer have
to be overwhelmed by anxiety because from now on human history belongs
to God, just as Creation itself belongs to God, so now the future also
belongs to God.

Like every baby, the arrival of this baby means we have work to do.
The future doesn't make itself, trusting God's promises isn't an
excuse for passivity but on the contrary, a reason for committing
ourselves wholeheartedly to the future that the baby both promises and
needs. Nobody cares more passionately about the future, nobody works
harder for peace or equality or for the environment than parents of a
newborn child. The meaning of Christmas, is imagining the possibility
that the Child of Bethlehem, who lets face it comes every year around
this time, change us and renew our love.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Advent Sunday

Back in my student days, the first few times we ever preached a sermon
was a mighty big deal – involving days or even weeks of preparation
and anxious anticipation of the critique we inevitably got afterwards.
So the first time anybody ever asked me for a copy of my sermon was a
pretty big deal. 'Sure', I said, 'I'll email it'. Imagine my
feelings a few days later when I got an email back … 'Thanks for your
email', somebody I had never met informed me. 'I'm pretty sure you
meant to send it to somebody else, but I actually read your sermon. I
was quite interested'. Trying not to sound too full of myself I
emailed him back: 'oh, sorry for the mistake — glad you got something
out of it!' To which he replied, 'Well, mostly just that I wish I had
the time to spend thinking about stuff like this. I find it takes all
my time just trying to earn a living and be a good dad'. Well, point
taken …

We live in busy times – and right now we are just entering the busiest
time of the year – I've noticed in our fast-paced society there's a
general weariness that seems to set in around the middle of November
and lasts until Christmas and then we enter the silly season – are you
over the festive season yet? Because it's only just starting!
Anaesthetised by the nightly horrors on the evening news, we find it
hard to feel sympathy for the victims who seem to have been there on
our TV screens forever when we've got a few concerns of our own.
Snowed under with busy-ness and responsibility, we seriously try to do
the best we can for the people we love, to do the best we can at work,
to get on with our neighbours, contribute to our community. But we're
too busy to pay attention to things of the spirit. It would be good
to have the time to think about things like Jesus coming back. But
there's too much going on. We tune out of the most important stuff of
all. So, are we asleep yet?

According to the picture Matthew paints for us, Jesus is telling us we
are indeed asleep – and it's time to wake up. The season of Advent
begins with the big picture, with Jesus' promise to return and his
vague but worrying instruction to stay alert, and only then does it
begin to converge and zero in on the concrete historical fact of the
birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Today we are confronted with the
information that this is not just ancient history, that we personally
need to get ready, because Jesus is coming back and if we're not ready
we'll be left behind. This might be alarming news, if it weren't for
the fact that we've heard it every year on the first Sunday of Advent,
for as long as we can remember. [T-shirt joke]. So if it's not
actually that urgent for us, if today's message has become
over-familiar and isn't actually jolting us awake - what does it mean
for us?

A few years ago I remember reading an article in the Messenger by the
Dean of Perth, who of course doesn't mind stirring up a bit of
controversy. The Dean hazarded the opinion that literal belief in the
second coming of Jesus is a bit superfluous really, it's the first
coming that matters, the fact that in Jesus of Nazareth we see God
becoming human, God bridging the unbridgeable gap between the finite
and the infinite; that Jesus models for us what God is like and what
God's priorities are; that Jesus models the way of self-giving love
that shows us what God's character is like; and then finally that
Jesus shows us that in God's scheme of things life is stronger than
death, because God has created us for love and for eternity. Dr
Shepherd argued we really don't need the doctrine of a second coming,
we just need to pay closer attention to the first one, to the reality
that, in Jesus, God has become present in human history in a new way
which changes everything, forever. Dr Shepherd argues that the
doctrine of the second coming got tacked on along the way because
Christians fell into the same trap the Jewish people fell into when
they were expecting the messiah the first time around – which is the
trap of triumphalism - 'this time, God, we want to see you throw your
weight around a bit, no more getting pushed aside onto the cross, this
time take out a few of the bad guys'. Of course, the Dean's opinion
piece provoked a bit of theological fisticuffs, which, I don't know
about you, but I used to rather enjoy a bit of impassioned argument in
the pages of the Messenger. We don't get so much these days, alas.

I like his point, but I'd rather argue the exact opposite, I'd rather
take issue with people who want to restrict Jesus to just two visits.
Why just two, I'd want to ask? You see, not only am I happy to go
along with Matthew in assuring you that Christ indeed is coming back
like a thief in the night – surreptitiously, in other words, on the
sly, when you least expect it – in disguise - and not only would I
also want to suggest that the whole of creation is heading towards a
culmination or some sort of joining together of all the threads and
all the pain and joy of existence that all get joined together in
Christ – some sort of climax of history and creation that we couldn't
possibly guess at - but I'd also want to suggest that the Christ keeps
coming to us along the way as well, that when it comes down to it
there is nowhere in the whole cosmos and no time in human history when
Christ is absent - because what we see in the person of Jesus Christ
is the commitment of God to being present in creation, Christ is God's
commitment to sharing with us this whole joyous and confusing mixture
of love and busyness and heartache that we call human existence. The
main question isn't where and when Christ is coming back, the question
is how often we notice when he does. Or how often we're too
preoccupied.

The earliest generation of Christians certainly expected Jesus to come
back bodily, from the sky, and in St Paul's first letter to the
Thessalonians which is the very earliest writing in the whole of the
New Testament we see that he apparently held this belief quite
literally. Matthew is writing a bit later, so he's concerned to wind
back the speculation a bit. You don't know the day or the time, he
insists. Unfortunately that hasn't stopped silly speculation to this
day about people being raptured out of their cars in the middle of the
freeway, or planes dropping out of the sky because their pilots have
been whisked off. To talk about just the second coming of Christ is I
think to short-change the gospel; and to try to second-guess the
details says more about us and our need for certainty, than it does
about God.

What Matthew is on about with his talk about the day of the Lord, and
the coming again of the Son of Man, what he's trying to say is that
the end or the fulfilment of all things belongs to God just like the
beginning of all things belongs to God, and the here and now belongs
to God. Not knowing what the future holds for us personally, or for
the church, accepting that we can't have that knowledge means we have
to be vulnerable, and that we have to trust God's good purposes for
us. What Matthew is getting at is that the only thing we need to know
about the future is that the future is God - that the God who created
the world we live in, and the God who brings the work of creation to
perfection by coming to live among us, is also the God who comes to
meet us out of the future.

But that's not all. You see, when Matthew talks about the 'day of the
Lord' he is using an expression that goes back to the prophets. It's
an expression that carries a whole history of meaning, to do with the
hope of deliverance, of vindication for God's people, the hope that in
the future God will restore God's people – but also the other side of
the coin which is accountability – like the prophet Isaiah who warns
us not to look to the day of the Lord for hope unless we are also
prepared to look at ourselves and acknowledge our own failings and our
own injustices. Judgement is a big theme for Matthew – he says if the
future belongs to God, then justice and judgement also belong to God,
it is God's judgement that is both the ground for hope and the ground
of peace. The two working together in the field both seem to be alive
– but the one who is taken is the one who is truly awake, the one who
notices that the day of the Lord has already come, the one who
recognises the face of Christ in the many faces the world wears – this
one is taken into eternal life. This is symbolic language, an
extended metaphor. It is a dramatic way of waking us up to the
importance of being aware of the world we live in and the
God-connectedness of everything - it is a way of telling us that if
we're truly awake to what is happening in the world we live in we will
encounter Christ in the middle of the busyness and the responsibility
of our lives, and that when we do we will be taken – we will be
transformed. We get to choose – is that what we want? Or is
Christmas on its way and we're just too busy?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Reign of Christ

In the epic funny movie, History of the World, Part 1 – in which we
get the inside gossip on the Roman Emperor Caligula, we find out what
REALLY happened at the Last Supper, how the French Revolution worked
out, how to test eunuchs, and what kind of shoes Spanish Inquisitors
wore - Mel Brooks coins the undying phrase 'it's good to be the King'.
He looks so self-satisfied, and who wouldn't – seated on his throne
eating sumptuous tidbits and surrounded by beautiful women and
toadying courtiers. He loses his head shortly thereafter, of course.

We are still, in the 21st century, fascinated with kings. Just
recently we were treated to the sight of an English royal baby who
through the accident of his birth has become third in line to the
British throne and monarch of our own country. Little George may have
greeted the news with a colic-induced and slightly cross-eyed smile,
but millions across the world were reassured that the future of the
monarchy was safe in case anything should happen to Charles and
William. What is a king all about, in any case?

The legend of King Arthur plays with the possible meanings. Feudal
kings as tyrant warlords, making and breaking alliances for personal
advantage, doling out patronage to their cronies and making the lives
of everyone else miserable. Think Saddam Hussein, in the modern
world. Or the Fisher King, the keeper of the Grail, the mysteriously
incapacitated king whose inexplicit wound is mysteriously connected
with the infertility of the land. Until the king is healed the land
is blighted. And Arthur himself, part victim, part movie star –
flawed and well-meaning, the projection of everyone's hopes, focus of
chivalry and justice and romance but unable, ultimately, to live up to
the impossible promise. Think Kennedy and Camelot – the celebrity
King who achieves immortality by becoming trapped within his own
legend.

In ancient Israel the ideal of kingship was summed up in the image of
a shepherd. Partly because of the memory of David as a shepherd-king
but more especially because of the experience of God as the one who
cares for the people like a shepherd. This is a stunning image coming
out of the ancient world when rulers of the people were expected to be
self-serving and capricious tyrants. The actual shepherd was the
lowest of the low, a nomadic herder of – usually – other people's
animals, who lived with the herd and knew their habits and their
needs, who led them to fresh pasture and water and who provided
protection from predators and natural hazards. The metaphor of the
shepherd – should any ruler actually live up to it – was an image of
loving attentiveness, of humble service.

In Jeremiah, this morning, the rulers of Israel – both the secular
ones and the religious ones - come in for a royal bullocking.
Speaking in the name of God the prophet – with considerable courage,
it must be said – tells them, 'you haven't been true shepherds. You
have attended to my people'. The word, attended, is important – it
has something of the meaning of being in tune with, of listening to
and understanding the rhythms of, as well as caring for. It carries
the connotation of sensitive communication with the aim of desiring
the best for the one to whom you are attending. 'You haven't been
attending to the needs of my people. You've been attending only to
yourselves – and so now I'm going to take care of you'. If you're a
ruler – or a priest – listening to this and you know that it's true of
you, then you are beginning to feel a bit defensive. A leader, a
priest who does not attend to the people with understanding and with
love, who fails to lead them to good pasture and who fails to protect
them – such a leader is indicted in this passage and God says, 'you
are replaceable'. In fact, 'I will replace you'.

Every priest hearing these words in today's reading should take them
to heart. How many times have I failed to attend – to be with, to pay
attention to or to put myself on the line for, those whom God has
given me to care for? Many times, of course. The reading puts
leaders on notice that the standard of care is to be a shepherd, and
of course this is no easy task.

This coming week the focus of the Royal Commission is on child sexual
abuse in Australian institutions turns to the Anglican Church, and in
particular the Diocese of Grafton. Amongst many other Diocesan
bishops, Archbishop Roger has been summoned to attend, and expects to
be there all week. In a personal conversation with him last week, the
Archbishop commented to me that this brings the Church to its knees,
and the leadership of the Church can only acknowledge its failures and
welcome the intervention of secular authority. It is a humbling
position to be in – a difficult position for leaders who, as
Archbishop Roger has done, have tried their utmost to bring to light
and to deal with the sins committed in Anglican parishes and
institutions. I assured him both of my prayers and of all our
prayers, as a parish – in a sense the failure of leadership however is
corporate – as a Church we have failed to shepherd the most vulnerable
among us.

The indictment is however also a promise – 'I will raise up true
shepherds', God says through the prophet, 'and they shall not fear any
longer, or be dismayed, and none shall be missing'. This is a word of
comfort to a world in which people do go missing – not just in
churches but with the knock on the door at midnight, or through
roadside bombs or super-typhoons – or just through loneliness or
hopelessness or despair. Shepherd-leadership can never actually be
exercised by just one person, it is necessarily the ministry of a
community paying attention to God in our primary practices of worship,
prayer, reflection on scripture, and to one another not just
incidental others or even worse as numbers, but as unique companions
and sons and daughters of God.

Jesus models shepherd leadership – attentive to those around him he
notices as he is touched in a crowd, he seeks out the isolated one up
a sycamore tree, he turns aside to the blind beggar by the side of the
road or the foreigner seeking help for a dying child. He sends out
his disciples in twos without any mechanisms of support – deliberately
making them vulnerable and dependent on the hospitality of others as
they proclaim the hospitality of God. 'See', he says to them, 'I am
sending you out like lambs surrounded by wolves' – the reign of God
that he proclaims is an environment that is fit for human flourishing.
Jesus proclaims a new authority that turns the authority of the
powerful on its head – a world where the last shall be first and the
needs of the lost and the least will be met. As the French Jesuit,
Teilhard de Chardin, put it – 'we are not human beings struggle to
apprehend the spiritual – but spiritual beings for whom the struggle
is to become fully human.' Human personhood can only survive in a
human environment. To proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near –
is to take the first steps to committing ourselves to the practise of
our own humanity. It is as simple as that.

Christ the shepherd-king knows that there is a price-tag attached to
living like this. Proclaiming the value of human life over the values
of Empire and Church, Jesus is not crucified for nothing. The
powerful in his world, like the powerful in our own world, do not give
up without a fight – prophets suffer the usual consequences in a world
where governments fund sports arenas and casinos but withdraw funding
from homeless shelters and foreign aid. In our reading from the
Gospel we see Jesus dying as he has lived – forgiving those who have
crucified him and attentive to the criminals dying alongside him.
There is, however, no need for the dying brigand to remind Jesus to
remember him when he comes into his kingdom – for he already has, and
God's reign is already among us — as fully available now and always as
it was 2,000 years ago. We choose to recognise it when we choose to
live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God. As John Dominic
Crossan puts it in his book, God and Empire': the reign of Christ is
what will happen when Christians finally stop yearning for Christ's
Second Coming and realise that his coming amongst us the first time
was all we needed. The reign of Christ is what happens when we
Christians start living as though we actually believe it is already
here.

How do we practise the reign of Christ as an environment in which
women and men may be fully human – in a world that all too often
denies that reality? We do it by creating a space and offering the
hospitality of worship – a space and a hospitality that redefines who
we and who others are. Worship helps us to see the God has related us
to one another in a way that is deeper than biology – with the
possibility of relationships ordered not by competition and
selfishness but by forgiveness and seeking for the good of one
another. The life of a worshipping community becomes an embodied
accountability that turns us from self-obsession to service and
attentive love.

26th Sunday after Pentecost

Approaching the end of the church liturgical year, the readings from
the Bible take on an apocalyptic tone, reminding us of final things,
and of God's promise of new things. We are invited to take a
big-picture view of things – and as you listened to the reading from
St Luke's Gospel this morning perhaps your mind went to the
devastation in the Philippines, as millions felt the fury of a
super-typhoon and houses in which people sheltered were literally
stripped away around them. We are reminded of the impermanence and
the vulnerability of human structures. My mind also went to last
week's findings handed down by the Victorian Royal Commission into
child sexual abuse, with its devastating indictment of the churches –
the seemingly solid stones of respectability and institutional
self-serving power lie all too obviously broken and dismantled. Or to
the revelations of the impact our national lurch to the right on
asylum seekers is already having on the lives, the dignity and the
mental health of vulnerable people living in appalling conditions in
Manus Island where the only shade and shelter in tropical conditions
is to be found in stifling tents and detainees are deliberately
subjected to inhuman and humiliating treatment in order to pressure
them to return to the countries from which they originally fled. The
stones that I hear breaking are the stones of our self-serving
national mythology of the fair go. And we argue about whether climate
change is real, whether fires and storms and droughts that seem to be
increasing in severity and frequency are already revealing the damage
that human wastefulness has wrought on the planet, or perhaps we can
continue to pay it lip service while refusing to make any real changes
in the way we live, and perhaps the problem will go away. Perhaps.
The crumbling stones are the credibility gap between the stories we
tell ourselves and the reality of a stressed environment, God's
creation suffering.

If we listen to the nightly news with intelligence and sensitivity
then we are disturbed, and we can't fail to be aware of the
contradiction between our she'll be right rhetoric and the realities
of our world. Even when our TV news screens out many of the
realities, like the daily toll of suffering in Syria or Iraq. Perhaps
we can imagine the situation for the people being addressed by the
prophet we call Third Isaiah – the third historical segment of the
Book of Isaiah written around 475BC, about two generations after they
returned from exile with plans to rebuild their shattered city. Much
of the city was still in ruins, people continued to suffer the effects
of oppression and dislocation. Hunger, thirst, illness and early
death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were
the realities of the day. Even the partially rebuilt Temple seemed a
mockery of the distant memory of the glorious Temple of Solomon's
reign. In Isaiah, chapter 40 – the second historical segment – the
people had returned from Babylon excited and abuzz as the prophet
spoke of roads made smooth and the desert bursting into flower. Two
generations the hope seems to have been misplaced – but now Isaiah
speaks of a new vision from God, who, in the midst of human suffering
and despite the long wait, is about to do a new and great thing: 'to
create new heavens and a new earth'.

What does it mean? And what has it got to do with us?

The first thing is to notice what is being promised. Not just the end
of human suffering – the premature death of children, the injustice of
workers not being able to afford to live in the homes they built or
eat the food they grow. This is a world in which – so it is promised
– God's 'yes' will counteract and transform the 'noes' that fence in
our lives. Creation itself will be filled with peace – Bible
commentators point out the intentional echo that this passage makes
with the Genesis creation story, but it is not a return to Eden. This
is a new garden, with the curses of competition and fragmentation and
violence undone. This vision of peace, or shalom, on the other side
of exile and suffering echoes the pre-exilic vision of Isaiah chapter
11 – even the natural order is transformed with "natural" predators
living gently together, side by side. This imagined world may all
sound like a beautiful dream, but the prophet assures us it is the
promise and project of God who will bring transformation not in some
apocalyptic sense but in a concrete, this-world experience of all
things made right.

It's a good dream, not just for disappointed post-exilic Jerusalemites
in the fifth century BC but for dreamers of all ages who see and are
disheartened by the contradiction between the realities of power and
oppression and disaster and the promises of a God who sees creation
and calls it good. That's why this passage has been a favourite ever
since it was written 2500 years ago. It speaks to us of our deep down
awareness that the way things are is not the way God intends them to
be.

If we can agree for the sake of argument – because it's in the Bible –
that the prophet's dream of a new creation really is the dream and the
intention of God, then we need to ask ourselves, 'how does it happen?'
The word project is perhaps better than the word dream – if this
God's project, if God is the One who wills all this, and is bringing
it to reality, is it a project that God is going to bring about
without us or does it involve our participation? Have we got anything
better to do, or to give our lives to? The dream is comprehensive –
it involves the Earth itself, the healing of the land and the living
systems of earth and sky and water, and for human beings living
responsively within the natural limitations of the earth and its
season, sharing the goodness of the earth's produce with justice and
ensuring not that the rich get richer but that the most vulnerable are
cared for. It's not our work – it is God's work and God's creation is
already capable of sustaining us and flourishing in partnership with
us, but we have forgotten that God's love and attentiveness needs to
be echoed by our own.

Interestingly, even today we hear televangelists talking of disaster
and natural events and even war as God's punishment, usually for
personal sin – but the prophet in fact is reminding us that even in
times when the vision of the future is obscured by events and forces
that we can't do anything about and that threaten to overwhelm our
faith – even then we are surrounded by God's loving vision for human
life, and even then we can trust that God is at work, bringing God's
dream to reality. Isaiah certainly calls us to a wider vision that
that of personal salvation – as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan
Williams put it, as Christians we are necessarily prisoners of hope –
but the hope to which we are committed is not just hope for ourselves
but confidence in God's priority for the renewal and the healing of
the world itself. That's thinking pretty large, so where do we begin?
Is such a cosmic vision of a transformed creation counter-realistic
prophetic pie-in-the-sky or does it actually empower us, as
Christians, to make a difference?

We hear it, of course, as individuals in different circumstances.
Today we are taking up a collection for the ABM Philippines appeal to
assist with the reconstruction of devastated communities. We have the
opportunity to act in ways that restore human dignity and mitigate
suffering, to help re-orient shattered communities towards the future.
Whether or not our government recognises or cares to respond to the
threat of climate change we can adjust the ways in which we live and
our lifestyle as consumers. We can become better informed and learn
to live in a way that orientates our vision toward Isaiah's vision of
creation fulfilled and at peace. The self-defeating logic of those
who say that our contribution to climate change or environmental
degradation is so small that it's not our problem, or we can't do
anything about it is easily counteracted by millions of people like
you and like me who dare to imagine and believe in a healthy
environment and who care enough to change their behaviour. It becomes
just a little bit harder for vulnerable people who have fled
persecution in their countries of origin to be rebrutalised and forced
back if Australians like you and me are prepared to stand up for the
Biblical principle of hospitality and mercy. At the core of the
vision of Isaiah is the belief that God is at work for the good of all
of God's children, no matter how things may appear at the moment. And
that we as God's people are called to dream God's dream and to join in
the project of God for wholeness and justice.

We hear it, also, as a parish – as God's people in this specific
community – and it encourages us to ask how we as a parish are part of
God's project. One specific answer is that we baptise. Today we
welcome Flynn into the family of the Church through baptism, and that
is our response, and Flynn's mum and dad's response, to the promise of
the future that is always heard in the birth of a baby. A baby says
that the future matters, and we together see God's promises made flesh
and blood in Flynn, and in baptism we respond to those promises. As a
Eucharistic community we gather to hear and to enact Jesus' promise to
be with us, and this too is a promise that the future matters, that we
are not alone. We claim God's forgiveness, which is the miracle that
transforms past failure and paralysis into future possibility, and we
free one another by practising forgiveness.

We orient ourselves to the future, we come together in prayer and
study and the gossip of God's goodness, and we practise hospitality
and welcome, and this is how as a parish we participate in the project
of creation. We could do it better, of course. But this is how we do
it.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Pentecost +25C

What actually matters in life?  What is it for you that, from the perspective of the end of your life, you would look back and say, 'that made it a life well-lived'?  Or, if you prefer to pose the question in terms of our Christian faith, what matters from the perspective of eternity?

I have been reflecting on this a bit since Synod, and the debate about human sexuality.  More to the point, I've been reflecting on some of the Archbishop's comments in his opening address.  You see, the actual motion Synod had to consider seemed fairly simple.  It asked us to recognise that there is diversity amongst Anglicans both in terms of our sexuality and in our theology about sexual identity.  Which is to say, there are gay and lesbian Anglicans as well as heterosexual Anglicans – there are Anglicans who are married, who are living with a partner or who have a partner outside marriage, and there are Anglicans who are celibate.  We come in all different shapes and sizes, and we also hold different views about what God thinks of that.  The second part of the motion was even more straightforward, because it asked us to acknowledge that if the Government legislated for some form of legal recognition for same sex relationships, then that wouldn't actually affect the status of marriage between a man and a woman.  In other words that there aren't any losers.  The Archbishop's view is that for the Church to give its blessing to a legal recognition for same sex unions can and will be seen as detrimental to our commitment to the sacrament and the canon of marriage within our own Anglican tradition.  I don't debate that, and he was forced to make a judgement in a highly-charged political environment, and I believe that we can all be grateful for the grace and the calm integrity with which the Archbishop conducts himself.  But the comment he made in his opening address was that for us to recognise a diversity of theologies about human sexuality was in effect to say that all theologies are equally valid, and he commented that in fact our sexuality is not what defines us before God.  It is not what matters about us in the perspective of eternity.  What we are, the Archbishop reminded us, is the sons and daughters of God, men and women made in God's image, broken by sin but reconciled to God and with the ability to be reconciled to one another in Christ.  I agreed, I said 'Amen' to that silently, but it still troubled me.  Because we dare not say to the person who is oppressed, well don't you worry about that, you are a child of God, then we are wrong because God's priority is for men and women to be free, and to know joy and flourishing.  And our own task as sons and daughters of God is to help with the setting free.

So the Sadducees come to Jesus with a trick question.  Two things you need to know by way of background are firstly that the Sadducees are the conservative party.  They believe in the old-time religion, the first five books of the Pentateuch, and they don't hold with the fancy new contemporary beliefs of the Pharisees – and of Jesus – about resurrection.  Nothing in the Pentateuch about resurrection, and Bible scholars believe it was an addition to the religion of Israel during the years of exile in Babylon and exposure to the beliefs of the Persian Empire.  The Sadducees are against all this postmodern stuff.  That's the first thing, and the second thing is the tradition of Levirate marriage, whereby a brother-in-law would be expected to marry his brother's widow if she was childless.  In the ancient world, before social security and pensions this did two things – it gave another chance for the dead man to produce heirs, and it offered some security for the woman.  The downside was that the woman herself was given about as much dignity or choice as a sack of potatoes.

So if all seven husbands die and the exhausted, still childless woman herself dies, if all this resurrection claptrap is true then whose wife is she in heaven?

So the Sadducees are going for the political jugular -- family values. It's a good choice, because everybody knows that family -- marriage and parenthood -- is the bedrock of society, the human institution with the clearest eternal importance. The Pharisees knew that – they knew that one of God's first commandments to humanity was to 'be fruitful and multiply'.  Even the Romans knew it -- central to the emperor Augustus's domestic policy was that marriage and childbearing should be encouraged to repopulate an empire decimated by war. The Sadducees had Jesus right where they wanted him.

So Jesus does two things.  Firstly he uses a passage from the Pentateuch – the books of the Torah that the Sadducees themselves approve of – to back up his view that God will raise the righteous at the end of the age.  Well as exegesis goes it isn't especially convincing, but of course resurrection can't be proved.  Israel's belief in resurrection had come about in new circumstances, during a period of great suffering.  The Pharisees – who we can think of as the forerunners of today's rabbis – had looked at what was happening around them in the world -- the righteous suffered, and the wicked seemed to prosper -- and they knew that a just God wouldn't let this be the final word. They concluded that God would raise the dead. The righteous would receive their reward, and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment.

So resurrection was radical theology that came out of a radical challenge – but then Jesus, far from trying to justify or prove that his radical theology was actually conservative, ups the stakes by being even more radical –

Marriage isn't the main thing, he says.  It isn't important in the perspective of eternity.  It doesn't define you in God's eyes.  Jesus must have been listening to the Archbishop.  Or the other way around …

This is still a radical, even a disturbing thing to say.  For a start the Sadducees' trick question is also a real question for many Christian couples.  Is this life together all we have?  Will we still be married, will we still even know each other in eternity?  What if one partner gets remarried after the other dies? 

When women and men marry, it changes who they are at a fundamental level.  It is a foundational relationship through which married people actually grow into their own truest, God-given identity.  The Church talks of marriage as a covenant based on God's covenant relationship with us – it's that important because in marriage you give your partner all that you are, and you receive all that they are, and you entrust one another for who you will become.  Marriage is also important at a societal and a cultural level.  In many cultures marriage is one of things that define who you are as a responsible adult - alongside things like raising children and working and paying taxes.  Marriage even establishes who is trustworthy, who is responsible.  Single people, childless people, gay and lesbian people experience themselves, very often, as locked out of the ways by which our society confers normality and acceptance.  Just at the level of today's Gospel story, we need to pause and consider the social and cultural cost for the woman who, despite seven husbands, remains childless.  She is denied the means of social approval and respectability, and in the value system of her own culture she has lived a life that is of less worth.  This does matter, in the perspective of eternity.

No, says Jesus, you are not married in heaven.  Your God-given identity and vocation is not about being married – or single – or straight or gay.  Who you are is a child of God, broken and sinful and loved.  Your real life, your full life is about experiencing the fullness of God's blessings and learning to love the people around you - without reservation – as your response to the love you yourself have experienced.  This is true, Jesus and the Archbishop are right.

But there is more, and we need to remember Jesus' consistent teaching that God's priority is for human wholeness.  If you are fortunate to have been brought up in a loving family, if you are fortunate to have a loving marriage, then in marriage and in your family life you grow in love – which is to say you grow in the likeness of Christ.  Your marriage is your vocation because it is what has been given to you as the way of becoming who God created you to be.  Another thing – amongst the much that we don't know about resurrection, heaven, eternity – whatever you wish to call it – is one thing that we do know, and this is that eternity is about love.  It is necessarily about relationship, about your relationship with God, and so there is every reason to believe, also about your relationship with the people God has given you to love.  Far from not knowing those in whose love you have come to the fullness of your own God-given identity, I would say that in the perspective of eternity your relationships will come to their fulfilment and their greatest joy.

So that's the first thing, and the second thing is this.  That if in this life there has been the pain of incomplete relationships, of children lost or unborn, of a love that somehow seems to be denied the blessing of social approval or that even in our supposedly accepting and advanced society can't quite be celebrated or spoken of openly – then that matters and that pain is part of what is transformed in eternity.  For gay and lesbian Anglicans who can't quite be open about admitting to having partners – strange how the Church is fifty years behind the rest of society on so much of what matters – then that knowledge of not quite being accepted for who God created you to be matters, and that pain is part of what is transformed in eternity.  I don't know about gay marriage, I think we need to wait and see how the debates work out, but I can tell you this as a priest, that it is a sadness to me that so many good Christians feel they are not welcomed by the Church, and it is a sadness to me that I am not permitted to bless a gay relationship.

You might not be married in heaven.  But you are brought to the completion of joy and love, and that is what matters.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

All Saints

They were a tough breed, back in 1915. The debacle of the Gallipoli
landing was in full swing when the secretary of the Parish of Queens
Park, a Mr Hogg, wrote a letter of resignation. It was two sentences
long. 'I beg to inform you', he wrote to the Parish Council, 'that I
must resign as Secretary. I am going into camp tomorrow'. This
meant, of course, that Mr Hogg would shortly be embarking for the
Dardenelles. Parish Council considered Mr Hogg's letter, and accepted
his resignation. A vote of thanks was passed for his service, and as
an afterthought another member wished Mr Hogg a safe voyage. No more
was said.

These of course were the days of the stiff upper lip. Throughout the
war years, Parish Council got on with its business, including raising
some additional monies to help pay the stipend of a military chaplain
for forces stationed locally prior to embarkation. The parish
participated in a local memorial service for over 400 young men of the
district who had lost their lives in the fighting. There were
discussions about accounts – a staple concern of Parish Councils for
longer than the last 100 years – and the occasional letter from a
family regarding enrolments in Sunday School.

The books of minutes on display in the Social Room this morning make
fascinating reading – and I hope they will continue to make
fascinating reading for local historians and members of the parish for
years and decades and even centuries to come as they are catalogued
and protected and made more accessible for future generations in the
Diocesan Archive. As well as Parish Council records we have minute
books and memorabilia from Mothers Union and the Ladies Guild,
registers of baptisms and marriages over the last 100 years and of
course a trove of early drawings and correspondence regarding the
construction of our current church building in 1959. Above all, this
collection is a human record – not just a glimpse back to 1915 but a
longitudinal record of the faithful life of a community. A community
that – as you read through the minute books – occasionally squabbled
and often worried, that never seemed to have quite enough and didn't
always have confidence, but that always remained faithful to its
calling – which was and is to be witnesses to God's love made known in
Jesus Christ, to serve the community in which we are located, and to
pass on to future generations of Christians the faith that we
ourselves inherited from those who came before us – and the
wherewithal to carry out the age-old mission in new circumstances and
in new accents. As is fairly obvious when we look at the
hieroglyphics and read the message on the parchment we took out of the
time capsule in 2009 – we never really know what the future is going
to look like, so it takes some courage as well as all of our wisdom
and foresight to live towards it with confidence. The saints of our
parish have done well, it seems to me, not only in meeting the demands
and crises of their own day but in making provision for and remaining
open to the future. Paradoxically, in fact, for us to look backwards
with gratitude also reminds us to be open to the ways God is leading
us as a parish to meet new challenges and to learn new languages.

All Saints is an elusive kind of festival in the Church's year,
because historically it's been understood in some very different ways.
For a start, it's a relative newcomer to the Church calendar – the
first All Saints Day was on the 13th of May 609 AD when Pope Boniface
IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the
nameless martyrs who had suffered and died there. Pope Gregory III
moved it to its present date some time around 741 AD. The idea seems
to have been that All Saints was a sort of catch-all day for those
holy men and women who have lived and died unknown, or for those
lesser martyrs who don't have their very own feast day. It makes it a
good day for us to remember the violence being suffered by Christian
communities around the world even into the present day — in Syria and
Egypt and Nigeria, to name just a few places. I read the other day, in
fact, that it is estimated up to 70 million Christian men and women
have died for their faith since the time of the apostles — 45 million
of them since the beginning of the 20th century. At a local level, we
remember those whose faithful witness has made it possible for us in
our own time and place and for future generations to know God's love.

A second dimension of the word 'saint' was added during the
Reformation by reclaiming the New Testament confession that all the
baptised have the vocation of sainthood. This goes back to the
reformers' insistence that we become righteous before God not because
of anything we do or could do to deserve it, but solely by God's
grace. And if, by God's grace, we are held to be righteous then we
ourselves are living saints of God – this, I think, is not so much a
case of wishful thinking as of reminding ourselves that we have a
God-given identity to live up to and grow into. In our reading this
morning the Apostle Paul addresses even the smug and self-satisfied
Christian community in Corinth, who on so many occasions he has
rebuked and castigated for their many and various moral offenses, as
saints, or holy ones (1 Corinthians 1:1-9). Clearly, the sanctity of
the Corinthians wasn't a reflection of their moral virtue, but rather
St Paul's reminder to them that they had been made holy by God's
declaration in Baptism. I think sometimes modern Christians forget
this, when we think of baptism more as a cute rite of passage or a
family tradition. In baptism, God gives us the vocation of sainthood.

So if we follow the logic of the Reformers we celebrate All Saints not
by contrasting the saints up there with the would-be saints still down
here – but by recognising and celebrating the way that the Church
visible – that's us – for all our shortcomings and self-doubt, are
already joined with the cloud of witnesses of all the centuries and
generations before us. All in fact for whom Christ died and rose
again, established by our common baptism, nurtured by our life
together, and brought to fulfilment in the age to come. It's as if
God has given us a blank cheque – the crown of righteousness before
we've even earned it –but with a nudge that reminds us that we have a
vocation we need to take seriously. This way of thinking about the
saints of the Church helps us to recognise and to be grateful for
signs of saintliness in one another– even, perhaps, to give some
encouragement to one another as we find ways together of building up
Christ's Church.

But there's also a third dimension or way of understanding what a
saint is about – and perhaps this one is the most challenging of all.
Because a saint is not just a person who is made holy, but a person
who has been blessed by God. And that's why the Gospel reading for
All Saints comes from the Beatitudes – Jesus' pronouncements of
blessing. Luke's plainer version of the blessings that we read this
morning emphasises Jesus' challenging, even paradoxical understanding
of what it means to be blessed by God. Because blessing, according to
Jesus, isn't about being healthy or lucky or winning Lotto – but to be
blessed is to be the recipient of God's favour. And the God of Israel
who Jesus bears witness to reserves special regard for the poor, the
maligned, the downtrodden. This God shows particular favour, in fact,
to those who stand in the greatest need. So to be blessed means, in
some sense, to be in the thick of it where God's priorities are. For
those of us who are doing alright – for the materially comfy or those
of us who live in a country that counts itself lucky and who benefit
from its wealth – this can be a confronting notion. But it challenges
us to look beyond the narrow horizons of our own lives and clarifies
our calling to recognise and to help those in need – in our own
community and also farther afield - and it promises us that God stands
also with us in our own moments of distress, or poverty or loss.
Jesus' understanding of blessing asks us to have the heart of the God
we hear described in the Hebrew scriptures as being full of mercy and
compassion, abounding in steadfast love.

To be a saint – holy and blessed or as is more frequently the case,
still working on it – is not a vocation for the faint of heart. It
takes intention, and persistence, and most of the time we don't feel
very saintly. Just as well God sees us differently from the way we
see ourselves, or even, sometimes, the way we see each other! But one
big help is the gift of memory, as we gather and name and celebrate
the saints who have gone before us, and recognise the ordinariness as
well as the extra-ordinariness of their lives. Like Mr Hoggs, for
example — or like us? – getting on with the job.