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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reconciliation: personal reflections

This article first appeared in Gesher: the official journal of The Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria) 4/5 (2014): pp.16-19.
 The word ‘reconciliation’ bears witness to a contested space within Indigenous Australia. For many, if not most, reconciliation is precisely what is needed in the face of the historic injustices visited upon Aboriginal peoples by the invading colonists who came to these lands from 1788 onward. Reconciliation describes a process by which colonists acknowledge, in detail, their wrongdoing and then seek forgiveness for these misdeeds from Australia’s First Peoples. Importantly, for the proponents of reconciliation, absolution would not be automatic. It would be conditional upon Australia’s colonising peoples making concrete and measurable efforts to undo previous evils or, in the many instances where such undoing is impossible, to offer a just and proportional compensation for wrongdoing in ways that meet the approval of First Peoples.

However, some Indigenous Australians are not at all happy with the language of reconciliation. They rightly point out that reconciliation is a Jewish and Christian idea, an idea that arrived with the colonists and cannot, therefore, be regarded as neutral or benign. For some Aboriginal commentators, the language of reconciliation is part of the colonising apparatus that keeps First Peoples ‘down’, and it does so by forcing Aboriginal people to think about their future within an alien framework that is not really their own, a framework that puts not their own, but colonists’, interests at the centre. And what is the colonist’s prevailing interest, according to this account? It is the need to find absolution, a salving of conscience, a healing of the gaping wound that has been rent in the colonial sense of self through its multitudinous breakings of the Jewish and Christian law: ‘do not kill’, do not steal’, ‘do not covet’, ‘do not bear false witness’. To this way of thinking, the colonial motivation for justice with regard to First Peoples terminates not when Aborigines are satisfied that justice has been done, but when the ‘whitefella’ sense of guilt is expiated. And that, quite simply, is not good enough.

In the brief paragraphs that follow, I should like to outline the way in which I, personally, have reconciled myself to the language of reconciliation. In doing so, I want my readers to know that I am a Trawoolway man from northern Truwunna (Tasmania) and that I was inducted by my parents and their community into the Baptist tradition of Christianity from a very young age. Since my childhood I have been keenly aware of a struggle, both within and without, between the British heritage of my Baptist beginnings and the Trawoolway instinct for cultural survival against almost overwhelming odds. The nature of that struggle has often changed over the years. There have been times when I felt that my Christian heritage was indeed the enemy of all in me that is genuinely Trawoolway, most often when the churchly institutions of Christianity steadfastly refused to recognise:

a) that I or my people are genuinely indigenous to this land: that we belong to this country, and the country belongs to us;

b) that I or my people are being, or have been, grievously mistreated or harmed through the ongoing violence of colonisation;

c) that churchly institutions participate, and have participated, in that mistreatment and harm;

d) that those same institutions therefore have a responsibility to make some kind of amends for the evils that have been visited upon my people.
Unfortunately, in my view, churchly institutions have made little progress on any of these fronts across my lifetime. Yes, fine words have been uttered in a very general way, especially by the Uniting Church to which I now belong. But I still experience the church as fundamentally racist at the level of day-to-day, concrete relationships. It is in the wake of that experience of racism that I most often consider resigning both my ordination and my membership in any form of denominational church.

At the same time, I have very often experienced the nascent Christianity into which I was inducted – represented, here, by its most fundamental language and imagination in Scripture and apostolic tradition – as the greatest ally I have in seeking to survive as Trawoolway in colonial Australia. (I reject the narratives of ‘post-colonialism’ outright, because the process of colonisation clearly continues apace, even as it becomes more circumspect and reflexive). Consider, for example, the Pauline notion that God chooses the ‘nothings’ of this world – literally those who do not exist as far as the dominant powers are concerned – to be God’s people and to ‘shame’ those who consider themselves wise and strong (1 Cor 1.26-31). As a person who has been repeatedly told throughout my life that I don’t exist (‘you are not Aboriginal, there are no Aboriginal Tasmanians left’) or that I don’t matter (‘you are Aboriginal, but that means that you are a drunk, a welfare cheat, a waste of space and resources who has nothing meaningful to contribute’) I find this notion deeply encouraging. Consider, also, Paul’s revolutionary teaching about the identity of God. God, we are told in Scripture, was ‘in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5.19). Yes, ‘in Christ’, a man despised, rejected, condemned to torture and crucifixion by the imperial powers of his world. In Christ, so the story goes, the creator of the universe exchanges his great power and position for that of a slave (Phil 2.6, 7), that God might come close enough to offer help and salvation to all who are slaves, that God might lift them from their servitude to the colonising laws of sin and alienation and make them, instead, free children of God (Rom 8.15-17). Again, as one who has experienced the enslaving power of colonists, I am encouraged by this message about a God who is not identified with such power but comes, instead, alongside the colonised offering help, support and ultimately the gift of liberation. In my darkest moments, when I find myself agreeing with my oppressors that I am nothing, no one, of no value to anyone or anything, this message can be the only thing between me and oblivion. In this sense, the message of God’s love that is at the heart of the Christian evangel is often the only thing that is able to rescue my Trawoolway self from the overwhelming racist power of church and society alike.

So how have I reconciled myself to the language of reconciliation, a language that the colonists brought with them from over the seas? By first recognising, frankly, that there can be no return to an existence or mode of indigeneity that is somehow free of colonial influence, that dreams of any such return are (somewhat paradoxically) generated by colonialism itself. And, then, by recognising the genuine power of the Christian gospel of reconciliation to make a positive difference to Indigenous people and not simply to our oppressors. And, finally, by recognising that the language of reconciliation in no way absolves colonists from shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to creating a just settlement for the First Peoples they have wronged. Indeed, as I will argue below, the language of reconciliation actually creates that responsibility. Allow me to expand on each of these claims in turn.

I recently attended a conference in Melbourne that billed itself as a discussion of the notion of sovereignty from ‘postcolonial’ and ‘theological’ perspectives. The only Australian Indigenous speakers at the conference were a Warlpiri elder and his son, both of whom are also committed Baptists. Following their presentation, which drew liberally from the language of reconciliation, they were berated with questions about why, as Indigenous people, they felt the need to draw upon the ‘language of the colonisers’ at all. Did they not see that the language of reconciliation was little more than an opiate given to Aboriginal people by the missionaries as something of a consolation prize for the stealing of their lands and cultures? Why did they not draw, instead, on purely Indigenous stories and traditions in order to maintain their noble identities as Warlpiri people over and against the oppressive language of the coloniser? I found it extremely difficult to listen to these questions and take them seriously because, from my perspective, such questions serve only to inscribe the mentality and methods of colonialism all over again. 


First, it is simply not possible to talk about a purely ‘indigenous’ language and tradition in contemporary Australia. The fact of contact between Indigenes and colonists over more than two hundred years has created new, more or less hybrid, narrative frameworks for the interpretation of Indigenous traditions. That is what contact does: it creates new traditions out of older traditions. And the traditions live on precisely because they are adaptable; they are able to respond creatively to new data, new voices, new narratives and meaning structures. Every living Indigenous culture in this country has adapted in this way. And every interpretation of older traditions – preserved, for example, in colonist’s journals and academic papers – are themselves examples and performances of these hybrid narratives of contact between Indigenes and colonists. All insistence about working from ‘purely’ Indigenous traditions – unpolluted by Western or Christian influences - is therefore not only naive but also deeply disrespectful of Indigenous people. It fails to recognise that it is precisely our ability to adapt and respond to colonial perspectives, to absorb them creatively into our own, that has made the difference between our surviving and not surviving.

Talk of cultural or racial ‘purity’ is also, rather nakedly in my view, a reinscription of that ‘noble savage’/Garden of Eden fantasy so beloved of Romantics and Nazis alike. The perseverance of the fantasy into so-called ‘post-colonial’ times demonstrates just how powerfully the colonist needs to maintain the fiction that a ‘pure’ form of indigeneity is still possible. This fantasy has two basic functions. It first soothes colonial guilt by assuring the troubled conscience that the damage is not irreparable, the ‘pure’ has not, in fact, been irredeemably lost. At the same time, the fantasy also works to legitimate that familiar colonial strategy of dismissing or ‘disappearing’ – sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively (the effect is equally devastating in either case!) – all forms of the so-called ‘half-caste’ or ‘half-breed’. Half-castes (so-called) – whether constructed in cultural or biological terms – are deeply threatening to colonists because they imply a ‘muddying of the waters’ with regard to purist notions of identity, culture and vocation. Their presence, if acknowledged at all, signals the emergence of an alarming hybridity that deeply disturbs the ‘us and them’ dualism of the colonial psyche. It is a curious fact of colonial history around the world that colonists – usually from Europe – hate only one kind of people more than the ‘blacks’. And that is the ‘coloureds’. It is my observation that Second Peoples in Australia remain confused - routinely and predictably confused – by Aborigines like myself who do not fit their purist notions about what an Aborigine is. Second Peoples – whether their ancestry be European or Asian or whatever – are routinely confronted and offended by the fact that the vast majority of Indigenous people have fair skin and are clearly adept at living urban and suburban lives along with everyone else. In my personal experience, colonial masters are particularly offended by red-headed Aborigines who clearly know more about their traditions than they do themselves and are able to offer an alternative reading of the significance of those traditions from another place or viewpoint.

That brings me to my next point of reconciliation with the language of reconciliation: the genuine power of this narrative to make a positive difference, not only to oppressors, but also to Indigenous people. Against the critics of reconciliation who claim that the project is primarily about expiating ‘white guilt’ I want to say that reconciliation is actually about the truth, most of all - the telling of truth and the common ownership of that truth - by both First and Second peoples alike. The truth is this: that there can be no reconciliation, no coming together of First and Second Peoples to build a more just future, without a common ownership of the undeniable truth of what has happened in this country.

For many years – from the 1850s right up until the 1990s – the public imagination of this country was dominated by a great silence about the stealing of Aboriginal land, the long war between invaders and native warriors, the systematic attempts to destroy whole cultures and nations and the forced separation of Aboriginal children from their families. School children were taught that the land was largely ‘empty’ when white ‘settlers’ arrived and that the few natives who already lived here soon died out because of their stupidity and their failure to cultivate the land. Students were also taught that Australia was unique amongst European colonies because it had never known a war that was fought on its own soil. 


These narratives were taught to Indigines and colonists alike. But throughout this period First Peoples held on to their own histories, their own memories, their own versions of what had happened. Eventually our memories and tellings came to the attention of revisionist historians such as Manning Clarke, and later Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds. In their hands, the truth began to get out. It began to contest the false versions of history so beloved of those whose wealth and power had been founded on lies. As this truth is slowly owned by Second Peoples, as the injustices visited upon Indigenous peoples and the fact of our survival slowly become part of a common national narrative, a more genuine launching-place for a reconciled future comes into focus. For reconciliation begins, as the Johannine gospel says, with a confession of the truth (1 John 1.8). Without the recognition of that truth, there can be no freedom (John 8.32). For freedom, in this understanding, is ultimately about liberation from falsehood and lies – lies about oneself, about others, and about the identity of the divine. Whoever lives in falsehood is a slave to falsehood. But whomever is set free from falsehood by the arrival of the truth will be free to choose a new destiny (John 8.34-38).

Perhaps it is now clear why I feel compelled to argue that the language of reconciliation in no way absolves colonists from shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to creating a just settlement for the First People’s they have wronged. Indeed, as I have already intimated, the language of reconciliation actually creates that responsibility. For wrongdoing, in the language of reconciliation, creates a responsibility in the guilty party to provide satisfaction or recompense to the party that has been wronged. 


How did Jacob reconcile himself to Esau, the brother whom he had wronged by swindling him out of his inheritance? First he confessed to God that he was, in truth, unworthy of the good fortune that had come his way (Gen 32.10). Then he sent a very valuable ‘gift’ on ahead of him – a great flock of goats, sheep, camels, cattle and donkeys – along with a message that these were for Esau (Gen 32.13-21). When the two brothers finally meet Esau greets Jacob with words of forgiveness and grace, to be sure, but the story is structured in such a way as to highlight Jacob’s responsibility to offer – at least to offer! – some kind of compensation for what has clearly been stolen. A saying of Jesus in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount reinforces the point. If one attends the temple to be reconciled to God, one should not pretend that such reconciliation is going to be in any way real or effective if there is a matter outstanding between oneself and another. If you have wronged someone, Jesus counsels, you must first do whatever it takes to be reconciled with that person before you can pretend to seek the forgiveness of God (Matt 5.23, 24). 

So, while the language of reconciliation clearly invokes the possibility of forgiveness as a way through to a lasting peace, the granting of forgiveness is very often conditional: conditional upon a recognition in the guilty parties that they have indeed done wrong, and that those parties therefore have a responsibility to make recompense for what has been stolen or destroyed.[1]
  Let me conclude with a challenge for the Jewish and Christian leaders who will read this article. Can any of you say, out of the truth that whispers deep in your hearts, that you have truly taken responsibility for the wrongs your synagogues, churches and congregations have visited upon the First Peoples of this land? Have you acknowledged your part in stealing land, removing children, and destroying culture? Have you acknowledged, and do you take responsibility for, the ongoing effects of these injustices in the form of disproportionately high levels of Indigenous poverty, incarceration and mental illness? Furthermore, have you made apology to the people so affected – not in that general rhetorical way so beloved of politicians and CEOs – but face-to-face, neighbour-to-neighbour? Finally, have you demonstrated to the people you have wronged that you are serious about seeking recompense and justice for them, so that they may have a chance to create a better future? Have you asked them what form that recompense should take, genuinely asked them? For the history of do-gooders in this country unfortunately suggests that such asking – and the careful listening for a guiding response that is part of any genuine partnership – rarely happens on the ground. Instead, it is the colonists who decide what form the compensation should take, and when, and how. Your response to these questions will make all the difference to whether reconciliation really has a chance in Australia, or whether it does not. My prayer, as always, is that the veil of ignorance might be torn from all our eyes (2 Cor 4.4). Only then will reconciliation have a chance.

[1] Elsewhere I have explored in detail the relationship between what has been called the ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ dimensions of covenant-making in the Jewish and Christian traditions. I am aware that unconditional forgiveness very often creates the possibility for a just response in the wrongdoer. My intent in this essay is not to exclude that possibility outright, but simply to argue that whatever the motivation toward just compensation, recompense is always part of the settlement phenomenologically. See Garry J. Deverell, The Bond of Freedom: vows, sacraments and the formation of the Christian self (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster Press, 2008) pp. 124-127.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Same-sex 'marriage'?

Having agreed to represent the ‘no’ case in this forum about same-sex ‘marriage’ in the church, it is unfortunately necessary to outline, in brief, what I do NOT mean to say when I say ‘no’. That is best done, perhaps, with a little auto-biography.

My thinking about this whole issue began way back in 1989 when I was a University student in Hobart. At that time, I was the co-founder of a large and very active University group of centre-left Christians called ‘Students in the Way’. One of our number, Tony, came to me one day in some distress to confess that he was sexually attracted to men. Having been converted to a form of Pentecostal Christianity a few years earlier, and having been raised in a deeply working-class Anglo-Irish household, Tony was all-at-sea about the conflict between what he felt and what he believed. Together we began an exploration into faith and sexuality, beginning with the writings of the prominent Anglican poet, WH Auden, about his life-long relationship with the composer, Christopher Isherwood.

Three years later, now a candidate for ordained ministry with the Baptist Union of Tasmania, I researched and wrote a longish paper at Whitley College entitled ‘Pastoral Care of Homosexual Christians’ in which I explored what Scripture, theological tradition and the social-sciences would suggest we do and say in response to people like my friend Tony. My basic conclusions were five-fold:
  1. that Scripture is completely silent about sexual relationships between consenting adults of the same gender; 
  2. that the texts appearing to condemn homosexual relationships are actually condemning other behaviours – cultic prostitution, a lack of hospitality to strangers, pederasty and paedophilia, for example; 
  3. that most historic Christian theology simply reinscribed these misreadings over and over; 
  4. that more recent Christian theology was trying to begin again with the whole issue, starting not with specific proof-texts but with the nature of God as a trinity of love, and the character of the church as a baptised and covenanted people called to imitate and reflect this love by way of myriad forms of vowed relationships; and 
  5. that monogamous homosexual unions between consenting adults might well represent one of those legitimate covenants of godly love. 
 A short version of the exegetical section of this paper was published in a Baptist newspaper in that same year, along with another paper I had written on Indigenous land rights. The immediate result of these publications was my dismissal as a candidate for ordination with the Baptist Union of Tasmania and the onset of a longish period of clinical depression.

A few years later, in 1997, I found myself an ordained Uniting Church minister in a Tasmanian provincial city. The local forms of Christianity were dominated then, as now, by a form of ‘frontier’ evangelicalism – sometimes Puritan, sometimes Brethren, sometimes Pentecostal – that roundly condemned any form of sexuality that was not heterosexual. Local Christians often wrote letters to the editor to expression their hatred of gay, lesbian or transgendered people. In the second year of my ministry, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper declaring that homosexual people were loved by God and therefore welcome in my church. What followed was a deluge of letters – mostly from detractors – and several delegations from other church leaders asking that I repent of my sin and publish a retraction of what I had written. More positively, a number of gay men got in touch with me, along with the co-ordinator of a local Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays group (PFLAG), and we were able to start a support-group for gay Christians in which a great deal of healing took place. Unfortunately, a number of key members on my own Church Council didn’t really want to know about it, and I found myself increasingly alone in this ministry. Finally, after a couple of years, a number of stressors came together and I found myself in the middle of yet another period of significant clinical depression, and was forced to resign my placement.

You see then, I hope, that my saying ‘no’ to the church’s blessing of same-sex ‘marriage’ has nothing to do with a hatred of gay people or a belief that same-sex relationships are somehow more sinful or unethical than any other form of sexual relationship. On the contrary. I have bled – bled! - for my belief that gay, lesbian and transgendered people are loved by God, the God of Jesus Christ, and that they are therefore invited by God to participate fully and completely in that community of the baptised that is Christ’s body, the church. I say ‘yes’ to baptism for these brothers and sisters, and therefore ‘yes’, to their participation in the Eucharist, and ‘yes’, again, to their ordination! Yet, for all this, I find that I cannot say ‘yes’ to the ‘marriage’ of same-sex couples by the church. Why? Well, that is what I would like to talk to you about now.

In order to think through the significance of same-sex unions in relation to marriage or, more fundamentally, the covenant of baptism and the Christian life as a whole, we need first to think God. In the Christian tradition, God is a trinity of three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These persons are not to be thought, as the post-Enlightenment mind usually does, as individual body-selves who are single in themselves, already possessing a meaning, identity and vocation which is somehow prior to their togetherness or sharing in community. No, these persons are always already who and what they are by virtue of their relationship. They become themselves – each with their specific identities and vocations – by virtue of an eternal dance of mutual giving and receiving. This means that, for Christians, God is neither theon (an undifferentiated One), nor polytheon (many Ones). God, for Christians, is a Trinity, a communion or covenant, simultaneously one and many: one becoming many through an act of eternal donation, and many becoming one through an act of eternal receiving. In God, then, giving and receiving, being host and being guest, are one and the same. All of which is to say that God is Love. Crucially for our purposes tonight, this Love, precisely because it is love, both transcends and enlarges its boundaries through two fundamental movements: creation and redemption. The cosmos and the creatures of the cosmos, including human beings, therefore come into being as God’s free others by an act of divine love. And they are forever called back from the more tragic or alienated manifestations of that free otherness by that same love. This is a love that both creates and reconciles. A love that, crucially for Christians, revealed itself most uniquely and intensely in one Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Palestinian Jew who happens to be a man.

This incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, this Love-become-flesh, is deeply significant for our purposes tonight. It teaches us, first, that we should never seek to understand God apart from God’s humanity in Jesus Christ, including God’s gender and God’s sexuality. It also teaches us that we should never seek to understand humanity apart from our divinity in Jesus Christ, apart, that is, from our high calling to give flesh to divine love in all of our relating, communing and covenanting. With regard to God this means, first, that while God cannot be reduced to a single gender (man, woman, intersex or whatever) our experience of God in both flesh and symbol may be properly and legitimately gendered. God may be encountered, in other words, as man, woman, intersex etc. And God may be imagined and spoken about in these terms as well. It also means that while God’s love cannot be collapsed into the categories of human desire or sexuality, our experience of God’s love in both flesh and symbol may be properly and legitimately sexual. God may be encountered, in other words, as a love expressed in sensual, sexualized, longing. And God may be imagined and spoken about in these terms as well.

If we turn, then, to the implications of the incarnation for thinking the significance of human being, we might first say this: that our different genders may tell us something about the way in which God’s love is manifest. Just as divine love may be imagined across the differentiation of familial or gendered terms – a Father for a Son and a Mother-Spirit, a Son for a Father and a Mother-Spirit, a Mother-Spirit for a Father and a Son (for example) - so the love of human beings across different genders or familial relations may bear or manifest something of this othering character of divine love. That is why the writer to Ephesians says that the love between a man and a woman within the covenant of marriage can tell us something about the sexualised love of the (male) Christ for the (female) church. Divine love, the writer is telling us, has to do with the coming together of unlikeness into a bond characterised by mutual submission, here imagined in terms of the sexual difference that makes for a marriage.

But now we approach the nub of the problematic before us this evening. If the other-focussed love of God can become clearly manifest in that mutual submission of a man and a woman that we traditionally call marriage, can it also become clearly manifest in the love of a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, or whatever? Some, like Karl Barth and Robert Jensen, say ‘no’ or, at least, ‘not in its fullness’. For them, homosexual love is too much like narcissism – the love of a self for itself, its own image, its own likeness – and not enough like the differentiated and ‘other’-centred love of God within the Trinity or of the Trinity towards its other in creation. Homosexuality therefore erases the difference and makes it monadic. My own view is different. While the love of a man for a man or a woman for a woman may not be able to manifest the other-centred love of God in gender terms, it can certainly do so in other ways: different personalities, different life experiences, different body-shapes, different minds and emotions, different families and tribal allegiances, all coming together across the gulf of their differences to make a new union, and therefore a new covenant that is capable or manifesting God’s renewing, creating, reconciling love.

My difficulty with the idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ is not, therefore, primarily about the notion of same-sex love. I am very happy for the church to bless the love of a man for a man and a woman for a woman, especially if such love self-consciously intends to imitate the unconditionality of God’s love in the form of an open-ended and irrevocable covenant-for-life. My difficulty is with the use of the term ‘marriage’ to describe such a covenant. For marriage, it seems to me, has a specific meaning and reference that has remained constant, for the church, over its entire history. It is a union of covenantal love, for life, across the gendered difference between a man and a woman in which children may be born of their sexual union and raised in an atmosphere of trust and love. Now, let me be clear at this point. I agree with those commentators who say that the social forms of marriage have changed dramatically over time and according to perceived cultural and economic needs. The earliest Christian teachers – including both Jesus and Paul - were deeply critical, indeed, of certain forms of marriage and family, specifically those that were conceived in patriarchal and economic terms alone, those in which women and children were seen as little other than the possessions and chatels of their husbands and fathers. Both Jesus and Paul wanted to reimagine the family as a commonwealth under the motherly fatherhood of God, in which all people (and not simply the members of one’s own family or clan) were called to love one another as sisters and brothers, and to look out for each other’s interests in a spirit of sacrificial love. Neither of them forbade marriage and family in its more tribal sense. But they worked and preached towards its reform, calling always upon the experience of God’s love in Christ as its ongoing criteria and norm. The Johannine community made its own contribution to this reform through a theology of friendship.

My point is this: that while the church has indeed sought to reform marriage and change its specific social and economic forms over time so that they are more covenantal in the specifically Christian sense, the two basic features of marriage I mentioned before have NOT changed. The bond of a man and a woman for life, and an openness to procreation and the care of children through their sexual union. And while we are gathered tonight to discuss the possibility that these basic markers of Christian marriage might be changed, can I suggest that the very fact that we must place the adjective ‘same-sex’ before the term ‘marriage’ in our title bears witness to the linguistic and cultural fact that marriage is NOT, in the Christian imagination, a same-sex union. Nor, in my view, can it bear the pressure of such a dramatic change in its meaning without, at the same time, ceasing to be itself. It will forever resist our attempts to do so. In the same way that I will perhaps forever resist the reduction of my racial identity to that designation ‘Caucasian’ when, in fact, I have an Aboriginal heritage.

Why insist on the possibility of procreation, and therefore on heterosexuality, as a defining component of marriage? Because there is something in the symbolism of procreation – even where this is not in fact possible in specific cases, on medical or other grounds – that bear witness to the essential fecundity of God as the sole creator of life itself. God creates out of nothing, humans do not. And yet the capacity built into heterosexuality to be fecund at a fundamental biological level – to imitate the creator God in bringing forth life – remains a permanent sign in creation of the continuing work of the Creator. The Christian tradition has always argued that being that sign is a unique and special feature of the married vocation.    

Another way to elaborate on this is to insist on a fundamental difference between creativity in general and pro-creativity. Creativity in general has to do with our 'natural' gifts or training: it is a capacity to act upon the material realities at hand with the power of our minds and hearts in order to mould or call forth a new form from materials already given us. Creativity in general is therefore about the human power to make things, and this can be understood theologically as an imitation of the creative power of God. Creativity, in this sense, is a vocation for everyone who makes things. It is not unique. It is a vocation in which almost anyone can share.

Pro-creativity, on the other hand, is certainly NOT about this human capacity to make things through the power of our minds or hearts. No human being, no matter how clever, ingenious or in love they are, can create a new human life. We know this is true, deep in our hearts, for we all know people who have tried to create a life for many years - consulting fertility specialists, IVF doctors and relational psychologists along the whole heartbreaking way - and yet, in the end, have simply had to accept that none of these interventions can deliver a child. Children are not products of human creativity or ingenuity, even though they are fashioned from our own genetic material. Children, in theological terms, are quite simply a gift from God. And gifts cannot be produced or made. Gifts can only be received.

This, then, is the unique and special vocation of a heterosexual relationship: not that heterosexuality, in and of itself, can create life, but God has chosen to give life - to GIVE life, you understand - uniquely and specially through a heterosexual pairing. That is not the whole story, of marriage, of course. But it is a key dimension of the definition Jews and Christian have worked with for millenia.


Let me suggest, very briefly and inadequately, an alternative approach to blessing same-sex love. What if we were to see baptism – and not marriage - as our basic covenantal rite, the ritual that most adequately proclaims and makes manifest the covenantal vows we make with God, and God with us, the ritual that actually constitutes us in our identity and vocation as God’s people, the church, the body of Christ? What if we were then to see marriage as only one of the many possible ways in which Christians might seek to give bodily expression to the baptismal covenant, a way which emphasises the love of God across gender and familial differences? What if we were to imagine other rituals, others ways of life, which seek to build on the foundations of the baptismal covenant, but in legitimately equal and different ways? Like the vows of the celibate monastic, or of the order of hermits, or of priests – each with their covenanted forms of Christian love and community? What if we could imagine the committed and covenanted love of same-sex couples in the same way, another legitimate form in which the vows of baptism can be extended and given concrete form and expression? What if same-sex covenants could be performed not with a ‘marriage’ ritual – a ritual which is historically and theologically oriented toward the two characteristics of heterosexual union that I talked about earlier – but with a ‘communion’ ritual that is more in keeping with the particular character of same-sex relationships? I think it is possible to imagine. Indeed, I have been privileged to witness one or two that ritualised such unions very well - without, that is, at any point drawing upon the language or symbolism of ‘marriage’ as the church has consistently defined it.

Let me conclude by pointing out that what state authorities and legislators does with the deliberations of Christian churches on this matter is entirely up to that state. The state enjoys the right to completely ignore what churches say, and that is their prerogative. But we, as Christian churches – if we are still, in fact, Christian churches - need to think these things through in the light of our own unique and apostolic teaching. We may not simply capitulate to what others conclude simply because it is popular or expedient to do so. For we are called to be a ‘peculiar people’, followers of Jesus, whether that bodes well for us in the eyes of the watching world or not. Peace be on you all.

This paper was given at forum on same-sex ‘marriage’ which took place at Williamstown Uniting Church on September 11, 2013. Sincere thanks go out to Peter Weeks and Avril Hannah-Jones, my co-panelists, for the care and cordiality with which they met me on this occasion.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Peace be with you

John 20.19-31

This morning’s gospel tells the story of what happened immediately following the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary of Magdala. That very evening, we are told, the remaining disciples of Jesus had regathered in a house near Jerusalem, and they have the doors locked out of fear that they will be arrested as known associates of their treasonous leader. Suddenly the risen Jesus appears amongst them saying ‘Peace be with you!’ As evidence that it is indeed Jesus, and not some kind of imposter or ghost, Jesus shows them the wounds of his crucifixion. The disciples, John tells us, were overjoyed to see the Lord.

Again Jesus says to them ‘Peace be with you!’ But now he adds ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ and breathes upon them the power we know as the Holy Spirit. In this power, he gives them a unique mission: to forgive sins as God had already forgiven their sins through the words and actions of his Son.

The final part of the story is about Thomas, who was not present when all of this occurred. Thomas had apparently doubted what the others had told him about Jesus’ appearance amongst them. So when the disciples gather again on the following Sunday Jesus appears to them all again, this time, it seems, with a special message for Thomas. ‘Peace be with you’ he says again, and invites Thomas to touch his wounds and believe as the other disciples believe. Thomas then makes the famous confession of faith in Jesus, ‘My Lord, and my God!’ ‘Because you have seen me,’ Jesus says, ‘you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe’. And then John, the gospel writer, makes it clear what Jesus means by this. ‘These words are written,’ he says, ‘that you, my readers, will believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God and that, believing, you may have life in his name’.

Now, as we gather here this morning for our final service as the St Columba’s congregation, this story would both comfort and challenge us. For it contains within it the comfort and challenge of the risen Christ himself, a Jesus who is as alive and present today - here with us - as he was for the disciples in the story.

I want you to notice, first of all, that Jesus twice appears to his disciples as they gather together on a Sunday. And what does he do when he appears? Well. He does three things. First, he blesses them with the peace and forgiveness of God. Second, he shows them that he, the very one who was tortured and crucified, has risen a new kind of body, a body of flesh and blood that bears the marks of his crucifixion, and yet it able to pass through locked doors in order to encourage and to bless. Third, breathing the Holy Spirit upon them, he gives them the very same mission he had received from his father: to forgive sins and declare the peace of God.

To a first-century audience, to John’s first audience, this is all code. It is a code that seeks to answer the question ‘where may we find life and hope when I feel abandoned and afraid?’ For that, we believe, is precisely what John’s first hearers felt. They were a small group of Gentile Christians who were no longer, it seems, welcome to worship God at their local synagogue. Because of their faith in Jesus as messiah and Son of God, they had finally been expelled. And in the wake of the Roman Empire’s first wave of anti-Christian persecution, they felt very much alone and without shelter. So, when John has Jesus appear to the disciples behind locked doors on a Sunday evening, he is seeking to address the very real and visceral concerns of his first audience. John is showing them where to find life and hope in the midst of their fear and despair. You find such things, he says, in the Jesus who greets you when you gather together as one body for Sunday worship.

For look at how John’s structures the story he tells about Jesus’ appearances to the disciples. He structures it like a first-century worship service. First there is a liturgy of gathering, a gathering of disciples from their immediate experience of alienation and even persecution. It is there that the risen Christ meets them with his first words: ‘Peace be with you’. This greeting immediately communicates to those gathered that God is on their side, that God is amongst them in Christ to heal and reconcile all the pieces of their broken lives; that while many others may have pushed them away and abandoned them, God himself has done no such thing. In Christ, God has brought them near and renewed the broken covenant so that they could ever more be God’s sons and daughters, heirs forever, with Christ, of all the blessings God had given his people from time immemorial.

Then there is a liturgy of word and sacrament, in which Christ reveals to them himself: a body broken and destroyed by the actions of evil men, and yet risen as a sign that evil will never have the last word, that the power of God’s Spirit is more powerful than the power of death. This is a word that is able to encourage everyone who feels that the broken pieces of their lives can never be brought back together, that broken minds, hearts and bodies can never be restored. This is a sacrament, an embodied story, by which the power of the risen Christ to renew hearts and minds and bodies that were dead is taken into the body that is now his church, so that even the deadest and most broken of congregations can be revived, raised, to give God glory and to serve the world for which Christ died.

Finally there is a liturgy of mission in which the now encouraged and joyous disciples are blessed with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who raised the dead Jesus to life. Here they are sent out, beyond their locked doors, into the smeared and broken world, now ready to speak and enact Christ’s mission of forgiveness and reconciliation to all who would look for such things.

The message here is clear, and it is the same message that Luke shared with his own church through the story of Emmaus: that the church meets the risen Christ, the source of all life and hope, when it gathers together for worship. What John is saying – to both his own congregation, and to ours all these years later – is this. If you, as an individual Christian, are feeling lost and confused, bewildered or doubting like Thomas the double-minded, get thee to worship! If you, as a congregation of Christians, are feeling beaten up or abandoned, forgotten by those whom you had looked to for blessing, shelter, or protection, get thee to worship! For in worship you will meet the risen Christ and he will heal and renew the faith you need to face the world once more, no matter how hostile and godless that world may appear to be. In worship you will receive from Christ a power that is able to forgive your most awful persecutors, a power than can turn even the worst of enemies into friends.

Now, I want to close with some brief reflections on what this all means for this congregation of St Columba right now, as you worship together for the last time.

First, let me repeat what I said to you on that first Sunday after we had heard the news that this building would be sold. That there is no doubt, in my mind, that the Synod has committed a grave sin here. The church which is supposed to encourage and support local congregations, the church which in its Basis of Union says that the congregation is nothing less than ‘the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ’ has, by closing this perfectly viable worshipping congregation, betrayed its own fundamental faith and doctrine. For it is in the worshipping congregation – the gathering of Christian disciples to encounter Christ in word and sacrament - that the church receives both its identity as Christian community and the power it needs to carry out its mission. A church that closes down worshipping congregations in order to preserve programmes that do not include the gathering of the church around word and sacrament will very soon cease to be a church. Such a church will very soon become, as a senior leader in another church observed in a recent conversation – little more than a property trust or a secular charity.

Second let me say, by way of affirmation, something about the undeniable vitality of worshipping here at St Columba’s. I can testify, from my own experience, that this congregation is indeed a place in which the risen Lord Jesus Christ may be encountered. As many of you know, at the times in my life when you invited me to join you here for a time, I came to you somewhat disillusioned, broken and depressed. What I found here was a group of Christians who were committed to worshipping God - to struggling with Christ in the Scriptures, and sharing with him in the healing sacrament of his body and blood. I found, too, a community that had allowed itself to fundamentally formed by this worship of Christ, a congregation in which mutual care and love for each other took first priority. A congregation that looked beyond itself to care, also, for those whom Christ loves in the wider community. A congregation that was not afraid to offer a prophetic critique when it was needed, when either church or state begin to neglect those whom Christ loves. Hear me now, my friends. The joy I found while worshipping with you here I will treasure for ever. For Christ has reached out to me here. He has forgiven my many sins, he has blessed me with peace, he has given me the power to go on in the life-long calling to be his disciple. Because of all this, St Columba’s is one of the few congregations of which I can truly say that I encountered, therein, a Jesus who is alive and real and made fully flesh.

Finally, allow me to say something about your future. Although it is true that you have suffered because of the sin of others, please don’t hang on to the hurt you feel for ever. Hear the word of Jesus to all his true followers: ‘If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’. There is a mystery here. Christ has given his disciples the power of forgiveness, of healing, of reconciliation. Therefore, if we forgive those who hurt us they are indeed forgiven. If we do not, they are not forgiven. So please, in considering the sins of the Synod, consider first your own sins and Christ’s treatment of them. If Christ’s first word to us all is one of peace and of blessing, if Christ was prepared even to die on a cross to show us how much we are loved by God, surely those of us who know this grace deep in our hearts can also forgive the sins of a Synod. The church is far from perfect. If the history of the church shows us nothing else, it shows us this! But neither am I perfect. Or, I suspect, any of you. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone! So if you are struggling, still, with the hurt of what has occurred, I encourage you to get yourself to church, to worship, to a wrestling with Jesus in word and sacrament, that you may received from him the power not only to heal yourself, but also the power to offer this healing to those who have hurt you.

So, the congregation of St Columba’s is now to be concluded. But the church of Jesus Christ lives on. For Christ is present wherever his church gathers to listen to his word and celebrate his sacraments. If you want to find the Christ who is alive, who has overcome the sting of sin and death, if you want this Christ to share his power for life and for hope and for joy with you, get thee to church! That church can no longer be the congregation of St Columba’s. But it can be some other church.

I’d like us to conclude by saying a prayer together, a prayer attributed to St Columba, for whom this church is named:
O Lord, grant us that love which can never die, which will enkindle our lamps but not extinguish them, so that they may shine in us and bring light to others. Most dear Saviour, enkindle our lamps that they might shine forever in your temple. May we receive unquenchable light from you so that our darkness will be illuminated and the darkness of the world will be made less.
Glory be to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as in the beginning, so now, and forever more. Amen.

This homily was preached at the final worship service of the Uniting Church congregation of St Columba's, Balwyn, on April 27 2014, also the date of the congregation's 90th anniversary. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Unchaining the resurrection

Psalm 114; Luke 24.13-35

Friends, every year at Easter I hear the resurrection of Christ being tied to the cycles of nature, to the return of fertility, to the flowering of flora and fauna in the (ironically) European springtime. For that is what the theology of the resurrection has become in our culture: an affirmation of the eternal return of that which we saw last year, and the year before, and the year before that, and so on. Here the Christian meaning of the resurrection has been collapsed into that old pagan celebration of Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon god of fertility, whose advent is celebrated with the cyclic return of the sun to warm the world and awaken the life that lays dormant in the soil. This Easter celebrates what Nietzsche called ‘the eternal return of the Same’, the irrepressible tendency of nature to repair and renew itself; but more seriously, of human beings to want what they have always wanted, to believe what they have always believed, and to know what they have always known. It is an Easter in which the rhetoric of ‘new life’ is just a figure of speech, because nothing new is really possible. The circle returns, endlessly, to where it began. Which makes me think that perhaps the best symbol of this modern Easter is not even the fertile bunny or the egg, but the Big Mac. Because each time you have one, it tastes exactly the same as the one you had last time. 

Moreover, I often feel that our church, the Uniting Church, has become exactly like this pagan version of Easter: forever, like Smith in the Matrix films, preaching a gospel of inevitability. Since we have so tethered our faith to the economic and cultural fortunes of our society, we feel as though we no longer have anything important to say or do, nothing, that is, that has not already been said or done by many others. Here our faith in the resurrection is made forever small – about the size of our faith in the ‘human spirit’ - and forever repetitive, condemned to be no more than a ‘spiritual’ footnote to themes that have been present in politics, economics, law and sociology from time immemorial. Themes that are condemned to repeat themselves over and over again because they are made by us, by human beings, who find it comforting to believe that there is nothing really new under the sun. 

Of course, the Feast of the Resurrection has almost nothing, almost nothing I say, to do with the eternal return of this neo-pagan Easter (I will return to this 'almost' on another occasion). The resurrection of Jesus, rather, is about the in-breaking of something that is so new, so different, so unheard of, that, strictly speaking, we cannot even describe it. It is, as J├╝rgen Moltmann says somewhere, an event entirely without adequate comparison or analogy. It is an event that shatters every established pattern or model, every expectation, every shred of comfort and certainty we may have had about the way things are. It is like the t-shirt I bought at a U2 concert a few years back which said 'Everything You Know is Wrong'. It is the explosion within sameness of a reality which is totally and radically other than anything that we could ever think or imagine: it is the arrival of God. And the purpose of this interruption, this bending of reality? To change things. To change things so entirely that we will never again become captive to all that is predictable, or ‘necessary,’ or ‘fated’. When Christ rises he does not rise, like Lazarus, to a life lived as it had been lived before. When Christ rises, he rends not only our hearts, as Peter says in his Pentecostal sermon, but also the very fabric of the way things have always been, so that God’s creatures may never be slaves to the same ever again. 

Here we find ourselves inside Luke’s story of the Emmaus road. Like us, the travelling companions live in that time after the resurrection. The women had been to the tomb and witnessed its emptiness, but scarcely able to understand what had happened themselves, find that they cannot make themselves understood amongst their male companions, who remain trapped inside their cycle of despair. And that is where we find the companions as they begin their journey. Like many of us in the Uniting Church, they had lived though a cycling of highs and lows: their messianic hope had been shattered on a Roman cross. Yet it is here, precisely within the circle of their despair, that the risen Jesus chooses to meet them. 

Now, having joined them, Jesus, listens to their woes. We would expect that of him, would we not? But then he does something rather surprising. He begins to preach to them from the Scriptures – and not in the mode of most of the sermons I’ve heard, which do little more than confirm and comfort me within the circle of what I already know. No, this is a profoundly dis-confirming preaching, first castigating the companions for their lack of faith in the prophets, and then proceeding to deconstruct their Scriptural knowledge so radically that its meaning is utterly and irreversibly altered. The results were, I imagine, terrifying. Suddenly the companions begin to see that everything they had ever known and believed was wrong. Yet despite the upset, there is something in what Jesus says that compels them to hang onto him. 

So when they urge Jesus to join them for the evening meal, he consents to do so. And there he does something which really dislodges their expectations. In a careful repetition of what he had done at the last supper, Jesus takes bread, says a prayer of blessing, and breaks it so that all gathered may eat. At that moment, we are told, the companion’s eyes are opened. They recognise that the stranger is Jesus, their friend, the crucified one. And yet he is not that one. He is radically different. He is risen. If that isn’t weird enough, Luke then tells us that in that precise moment of recognition, at that very nano-second, Jesus vanishes from their sight and is seen no more. Turning to each other in wonder and excitement, the disciples declare to each other the way in which their hearts were ‘burning’ within them when they heard the word preached. Note the word: ‘burned,’ as in purged by a bushfire, not ‘warmed’, as by a cosy open fire on a winter’s night. The disciples rise from where they are and return to the place of despair and forlorn logic from which they came. They return to Jerusalem with a distinct and special mission: to declare and confirm that Christ had indeed been raised, and that he had make himself known to them in the breaking of bread. Which is to say, they returned to Jerusalem to dis-confirm the logic of the Same which held sway there, to interrupt and fragment its omnipotent power by the burning presence of all they had glimpsed in the risen Christ. 

Now, this is a strange and wondrous story by any standard. So strange and wonderful that I am certain that almost everything I intend in speaking about it tonight is not quite right. But this is how it is with the resurrected Christ. He comes to us as the word that is strange and in/credible, not conforming to the logic of what we know and experience to be real and trustworthy. He comes to us not to confirm what we know or to reinforce our sense of what is good and noble and true. He comes to change all that, to show us, in the blazing light of his risen glory, that the Eternal Return of the same is killing us. Slowly killing us, but killing us all the same. And who can doubt this word? Hasn’t life become genuinely banal for us in this neo-pagan world of circles? Hemmingway wrote famously that most people live lives of 'quiet desperation'. He was writing about himself, of course, a man who was constantly on the look-out for new experience, something which might cut across the boredom of his life. The writer of Ecclesiastes complains that all is ‘vanity’, by which he means that human beings, despite all their apparent thirst for experience, tend to look only for that which may be easily integrated into the logic and the framework which is always already there. But Christ is raised to shatter that logic, to undo the idolatrous gaze that works such vanity into all that is seen and touched and felt. Christ is raised to set us free from such things. 

This I believe, and this I declare to you today. But I want you to note two important implications of this belief for ourselves, as we begin on this new venture in religious community. First, resurrection belief is sustainable only if one believes what Luke says about the disappearance of Christ at the very moment that we recognise him. Remember what we heard from Moltmann. The resurrection is an event without analogy. No matter how much we try to understand and describe him, no matter hard we work to create forms of religious devotion by which he might be rendered permanently present, the risen Christ will always and everywhere elude and elide our grasp. We see him as in a glass darkly; he is a flash of light at the corner of our eyes, which, if we turn to take him squarely into the full ambit of our gaze, will only disappear into invisibility. The monastic traditions speak, often, about the Christ who comes in the guise of a stranger, a stranger who is gone even before one realises who he was. In precisely that mode, the Emmaus story tells us that no matter how ingenious our religious forms may become - even those, like ours, which earnestly seek to reform and recover what has been forgotten and lost - they will certainly not secure a Christ who may be domesticated to our own use and purpose. The risen Christ, you see, is free. He will always prosecute his own purposes, not ours. 

Which leads into my second point, and a rather perplexing one at that. Perhaps you will have noticed how Luke structures his story after the model of a first century worship service? First there is a Gathering of companions, who come immediately from the circle of despair, and they are joined there by Christ. Then there is a Service of the Word, a recounting of the Scriptures and a preaching; and it is Christ himself who does this; yet he is not recognised by those who hear. Then there is a Eucharist, where Christ is again the anonymous presider who breaks bread, blesses, and share it with his companions. And then there is a Mission. The disciples, having finally discerned the risen Christ, are driven out by the burning in their hearts to dis-confirm and question the logic of the world from which they came. What is Luke telling us in all this? Simply this: that the risen Christ ministers to us in the gathered worship of the Christian church. That he reveals himself to us in the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the word, and in the breaking of the bread. Which is probably rather unwelcome news to those who want to close down worshipping congregations in order to keep social and cultural programmes going! But seriously, how can this be? How is it that this most ordinary human language of worship may become the language of Christ? Didn’t I just say to you that Christ comes to interrupt our language and to un-say all that we might say of him! Well, there is a great mystery here, a mystery very much at the heart of everything I am trying to do in my own journey through life. And a mystery tied very much to the mystery of Christ himself, who, in the incarnation, is said to be God in an ordinary human life. Perhaps all that one may say about this mystery is something like this: That it is by the ordinary human language of Christian worship that Christ, himself, chooses to arrives in our midst. Not to confirm what we intend to say, but rather to so dispossess our devotional forms of the meaning we intend, that, somehow, even as we say and do them, we hear them coming back at us with a meaning not our own, in an inflection and tongue not our own, so that our hearts burn with confusion, and terror – certainly - but ultimately with the holy joy of people who are being liberated from their bondage to the same old thing. That is why we must continue to devote ourselves to the apostle’s teaching, to prayer, and to the breaking of bread with each other. For Christ has chosen these things, more than any others, as the instruments of his converting work. 

I pray to God that Christ may do just that, even with what we plan to do day by day and month by month in our little community. May Christ come to blast away our tired old habits of mind and heart. May Christ come to transform our despair and our churchly weariness, that we may find an appetite for evangelism and for witness that many of us have never truly known. May Christ come with the power described by the Psalmist, a power able to transform desert rock into pools of soothing water, the power that is able to lift all who are truly lost to their feet and give them courage. Even so, may it be for us, and for our church. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come!

This homily was delivered on the Feast of the Resurrection in 2014 to constitute the Kairos Community, a group of Uniting Church ministers who committed themselves to daily prayer, to mutual care and to a monthly gathering for theological education and the celebration of the Eucharist.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday

Palm (or Passion) Sunday is the first day in what is known as ‘Holy Week’, the most important week of the annual Christian calendar. Through an intricately woven series of rituals and services, Holy Week recalls the final week of Jesus’ life from his entry into Jerusalem through his arrest, torture, crucifixion and burial. Holy Week is the introduction and theological precursor of ‘Pascha’, or the season of Easter. Taken together, they proclaim that the risen Lord of the cosmos is also the Crucified One who shares in the experience of injustice and evil of all who are genuinely poor, marginalised or forgotten.

The liturgy of Palm Sunday unfolds in two movements, the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion. The Liturgy of the Palms tells the story of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey, and the adulation of the people as they welcomed him as a messiah, the ‘Son of David’. The ritual gets its title from the account of St. Luke, who recalls that when Jesus arrived in the city the people spread palm leaves and also their garments before him as a sign of their respect and worship. The Liturgy of the Passion introduces the major themes of the week to come: the betrayal of the messiah through a kiss; his abandonment by friends and supporters; his agony as even God, his Father, appears to turn his face away; his torture, crucifixion and burial as some kind of sacrifice of atonement for those who do evil to both God and their neighbours. This story is told through a series of readings and songs, often accompanied by the extinguishing of candles arranged on a large cross placed in the very centre of the place of worship.

The combination of these two liturgical movements invites worshippers into a contemplation of the ways in which every one of us seeks to kill the good in ourselves and one another, burying the invitation to justice and peace under the stultifying soil of our inhumanity, even as we praise and honour such principles with our lips. Read in that way, Palm Sunday represents an invitation to all people, whether they are Christian or not, to self-examination. Are we really a people of justice and peace, or do we actually pursue lifestyles that undermine the coming of these realities into our world? Do we support the good, the noble, the beautiful and the true with both our lips and our lives, or do we actually put such aspirations aside when the way becomes difficult, dark or unpopular? Palm Sunday is also an opportunity to reflect on the forgiveness and grace at the centre of all things, a power which is able to put aside even the very worst that human beings can do to one another and create the possibility of a new world, a world where justice and peace can find a permanent home.

It is not surprising therefore that there is a well-established tradition of public marches and rallies for peace and justice on Palm Sunday. Here we hope and pray for a deep congruence between our participation in the liturgical life of the church and a ‘taking to the streets’ to advocate for justice and compassion towards all who are poor or marginalised.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

I will give you as a light to the nations

Isaiah 49. 1-7; Psalm 40. 1-11; John 1. 29-42

The call of God comes to those who have lost hope, and to those who have wasted their labour for nothing and for vanity.  So says the book of the prophet Isaiah.  In the 49th chapter Yahweh addresses the prophet, calling him personally to take up the lapsed vocation of the people of Israel as a whole, to be the servant of God and a light for the world.  As is so often the case with such a call, the prophet’s immediate response is to keenly feel his inadequacy for the task.  Like the rest of his people, the prophet languishes in Babylonian exile, beaten, disheartened and despairing.  Despairing not only because Jerusalem is no more, but more profoundly because of a growing conviction that it was Israel’s sin which had led to her downfall, that it was her inattention to the ways of God which finally felled her, like dry rot will fall even the most glorious of trees.  The prophet names the truth for what it is.  ‘All we have ever done,’ he says, ‘is work for vanity and nothingness’. 

Vanity and nothingness.  Now there’s two words which I reckon characterise our own age.  Vanity: a turning in on oneself, a forgetting of the other who is my neighbour, and therefore my responsibility.  Isaiah tells us that the leaders of Judah immediately prior to the Babylonian war were vain people, so focussed on accumulating wealth and prestige for themselves that they turned aside from their covenant responsibilities to care for the orphan, the widow, and the alien.  Our own government is abdicating its responsibilities in a startlingly similar vein.  ‘Do more with less,’ authorities tell our public hospitals, schools and welfare providers, at the same time cutting the tax bill of those who can most afford to share.  Where the God of Isaiah says, ‘This is the fasting I desire . . .  is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to welcome the homeless poor into your house’ (58. 7), our government consistently says: ‘Go away, you needy, you shall find no help or refuge here’. 

And what of the nothingness that characterizes our generation?  Nothingness, nihilism: a fascination with all that is without reality or substance.  One only needs to turn on the television for evidence.  The advertisers tell us that what really matters is style, fashion, texture.  Buy a bigger house, not because you need one, but because it is fashionable.  Buy a flashy car, not because you need one, but because your old one is no longer in style.  Buy the look and texture of a gym or surgically-sculpted body, not the character or struggles of a real person, a real soul, whose experiences are forever etched upon the surface of our bodies.  And what of those of us who cannot afford these constantly changing innovations?  Well, God help us, as they say.  God help us.  Ironically enough, it seems that it is only God who can help those of us consigned to the economic scrap-heaps.  Or those of us who wake up to the fact that that fashion is nothing: semblance without substance, surface without depth, texture without soul.

Only God can help those who come face to face with the nothingness of their lives, because God is one who from time immemorial chooses not the great, or the confident, or the smart or the fashionable, but the small one, the despairing one, the one who knows his or her life is refuse and rubbish.  Listen to what the prophet hears from God at the very moment of his despair, of his nothingness:
The Lord called me from before I was born . . .  he made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me, he made me a polished arrow which he hid away in his quiver.  ‘It is too small a thing that you should be my servant,’ says the Lord, ‘to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’. 
Now, listen to me.  Because there is something really important in this for us all.  Are you a person who feels like most of what you do is vanity and nothingness?  Are you?  Are you one who feels defeated by life, but you go on because you don’t know what else to do?  Are you one who feels that despite the best of intentions in days gone by, intentions to love and serve God and God’s ways with all your heart and soul and strength, that somehow you got lost along the way?  The rot set in and now you don’t know what to do, or which way is up?  Hey!  I know the feeling, I really do know the feeling!  If that’s you, then listen, ‘cause there’s some good news here.  God chose you before you were born to be God’s servant.  Not just within the privacy of your own morality.  And not just in the church, the visible company of God’s people. But in the public world, the world of your labour and your government and your community.  The very world which seems so dark and gloomy these days.  God has called you to be a light for the nations.  You.  Not somebody else.  You.

You see this call of God is not only for apparently special people called prophets.  The people of faith have only ever decided who the prophets and saints are years and years after they did what they did.  Prophets tend not to think of themselves as prophets at the time when they get the call and do their stuff.  So if you think you’re not prophet material right now, look out, because that’s exactly what all the great prophets thought too.  And the call of God is especially not a call only for the Son of God, the Christ, whom the Gospel of John names as not just a light, but the light of the whole world, the one who has come to take away the sin of the world.  Why?  Because the New Testament makes it clear that when Jesus fills your life with light, then you are at that same moment called to do everything in your power to bring others into the orbit of Christ’s influence.  Just like Andrew, in the gospel reading, who sees the light in Jesus and then invites his brother, Simon, to meet him as well.

Of course, no such thing is possible unless one is first able to accept that great impossibility which all prophets face at the first:  the impossibility of God’s love and grace in choosing those whom the world calls foolish to shame those whom it calls wise.  In other words, becoming a light for the nations is only possible because of what we Christians call grace—the unmerited attention and favour, indeed the love, of God.  The impossible life of peace, joy, and a service centred in the neighbour, only becomes possible because God makes it possible.  The life of vanity and nothingness is left behind only because God says ‘yes’ to the visions God places in our hearts, ‘yes’ to who we are - not in ourselves - but in Christ.  

So there’s no point in making a project of one’s life, imagining that if we were only to become more dedicated, more intensely focussed on getting our acts together, that we would come up to scratch.  It’s never worked for me.  It’s only during those periods when I’ve actually taken my eyes off myself, the obsession with my own subjectivity and ‘success’, that I’ve ever really changed.  That’s why I could never be a Buddhist.  Paul Williams, a Buddhist and teacher of Buddhism at Bristol University for 30 years, recently became a Christian.  Why?  He says that in the end, Buddhism is about the self changing the self.  It is about the power of subjectivity.  But he could finally see no hope in that project, because the self seems condemned to futility, finally and ultimately incapable of reaching its own aspirations.  ‘I need,’ he says, ‘the grace of God in Christ’, that power from the outside, from God, which makes in me what I am unable to make for myself. 

The hope for me, and for us all, is in this gracious call and election by God, a call which comes freely, and at the precise moment of our deepest despair.  Now, it is quite possible that God has been calling to you lately.  Yes, you.  Calling you beyond your self and the anxieties which attend all that, calling you to lift your eyes and see the plans that God has in store for you.  In the gospel story, Jesus says to all who will listen, “Come and see, come and discover the way I live.”  In order to become who you are, in other words, you have to leave yourself behind and learn how to live like Christ.  So, if you have heard the call recently, I encourage you to stop running from God, to turn around, and to start listening to God.  “Come and see,” God says, “come and see how life may be different.” 

Obeying this call is not something you can do within the privacy of your own subjectivity and thinking.  Christianity is an irreducibly communal and material religion, which, in this instance, means that none of us can know Christ’s way of life apart from learning about these things from the church, and especially from its ministers and elders.   The church, you see, is the body of Christ; his Spirit is at work there to call and to baptise, to so immerse us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ so that we can die to ourselves and live for God.  In the end, then, there can be no getting around the church, for all its sin and failure.   So . . .  if the voice of God has seemed faint recently, maybe this is down to one thing:  you’ve been looking for God somewhere other than the church—its teaching, its symbolism, and its practices.  How will you learn to recognise God in all the business of life, unless you learn what God is like from the church?  When Christ says “come and see,” what he means is this:  “come to worship, come to bible-study, come to prayer, come to mission.  It is there that I live, so it is there that you will learn my ways and so become light for the world.”  This is the call.  How will you respond?

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Community Baptist Church in January 2005.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas: the gift of peace

Texts:  Isaiah 62.6-12; Psalm 97; Luke 2.1-20

A moment ago we heard the story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, and how the angels sang ‘glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours’.  But what is this peace that the angels sing about?  And what has it to do with the birth of this particular child?

Is the peace of the angel’s song the ‘peace’ promised by superpowers like China or the United States, the peace you get if you are big enough and strong enough to cower everyone else into submission?  Is the peace of the angel’s song the peace promised by a good many infamous leaders in this past century, that specifically fascist kind of peace which says ‘Don’t be afraid.  I know best, trust me.  I’m taking away your freedoms in order to protect you from our enemies?’  I doubt it very much.  The child born in Bethlehem grew up to say things like ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ And ‘If your enemy strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other as well.’  And as to who one might trust with one’s life or liberty, he said: ‘Do not call anyone on earth teacher.  The Christ is your only teacher.  Put your faith in God alone.’

Well then.  Is the peace of the angel’s song like the ‘peace of mind’ you apparently get if your house and contents, your car, your health, your mortgage, and even your life are fully and comprehensively insured against disaster?  I suspect not.  The child born in Bethlehem was not, apparently, insured in this way.   Indeed, his whole life might be described as totally un-insurable!  First he becomes a religious nutter, then he neglects his responsibility to contribute to the family’s economic fortunes, then he goes all anti-globalisation, preaching against the powers that be.  Finally he is executed by the Roman State as a dangerous criminal.  As far as I am aware, neither he nor his family received any compensation for any of it.  And I doubt that a modern insurance company would have paid them out either.

So then, perhaps the peace of the angel’s song is more like that ‘inner peace’ promised by the ‘new’ spiritualities and therapies?  You know, the calm you are supposed to feel by getting away to a deserted beach or mountainside, where the factions and fractions of our tumultuous world cannot intrude?  Or that ‘peace’ you are supposed to receive, in Buddhism, when you rid yourself of every desire?  I doubt it very much.  Now don’t get me wrong.  The child born in Bethlehem was very often alone in prayer or meditation.  But when he was, it seems that the tumult of his world went with him, so that he wrestled inwardly with a deep sense of care and responsibility for the lost and broken all around him.  He wrestled also with his own desire, praying earnestly that he might be delivered from the temptation to seek the safe and easy way through life.  But that should not be taken to mean that he was a good Buddhist.  For instead of doing away with desire altogether, as the Buddha taught, Jesus immersed himself in the desire of another, that one he called his ‘Father’, the God of Israel.  His whole life, it seems, was filled with the strongest kind of longing, a groaning and a pining towards a world in which the poor were no longer poor and the rich no longer rich.

Well then, is the peace of the angel’s song finally a certain kind of political peace, a democratic tolerance of all our many differences?  You could certainly get that impression if your only exposure to Christianity was the many ‘Carols by Candlelight’ celebrations that have colonised the countryside in the past couple of weeks.  You know their message well, I’m sure: ‘We’re all different, we have different aims in life.  Some of us are less well off than others.  But let’s not bicker.  Live and let live.  Let’s just get on with each other.’  Is this the peace promised by the angels?  Again, I doubt it very much.  When the child of Bethlehem was grown, he got himself into all sorts of trouble because he was certainly not very tolerant.  He was intolerant towards poverty.  He was intolerant towards the indifference of the rich and the powerful towards their suffering neighbours.  He was intolerant towards the racism of his fellow-Jews towards non-Jews.  He was intolerant of the way his society relegated women and children to the bottom of the food-chain.  But deeply imbedded in all these intolerances was the intolerance that motivated them all:  his refusal to accept that human beings can find a real and genuine peace apart from a relationship with God.

For it is this peace—the peace that God gives to all who acknowledge, deep down in their hearts, that there is no peace apart from the loving favour of God—that the angels announced at the birth of Christ.  The peace given by Christ is also the peace given by God.  It is not a peace that can be generated by either prayer or politics, insofar as these attempt to create something out of the raw material of the human heart.  For the whole of human history bears witness against us.  We cannot make a peace that lasts.  Even now, we are at war, and many of these wars are being waged against phantoms of our own devising, demons hidden in our own souls that have been projected onto the faces of others so that we will never have to acknowledge our own failings. 

And for all our fantastic progress in science and research, for all our privileged economic fortunes, can we really claim to be reconciled, to be at peace with our neighbours and ourselves?  I doubt it very much.  There is considerable research now to show that the more prosperous we become the more possessive, and then we become 'unhappy', in proportionate measure.  I have spoken about these things often in this church.  I shall not go on with all that again this morning, except to say this:  that peace, a peace that lasts, seems to elude us.  And Christians are not immune from his experience.  Insofar as we have been seduced by modernity, Christians are at least at troubled as everyone else.

The peace that Christ gives cannot be given by the world or anything in the world.  It cannot be generated by either prayer or politics.  The peace that Christ gives is, as Titus would have it, a gracious gift: the gift of a deep and profound communion with God that transforms every dimension of one’s life, whether in body, soul or community.  The peace of Christ is something that, as the apostle Paul wrote, transcends our understanding.  The peace of Christ is not, therefore, something you can make a project of.  It is not a feeling you can induce by thinking happy or positive thoughts.  It is a state that comes upon you slowly, wheedling its way through your defences, making its way into your heart like a transfusion of life-giving blood from another’s body.  It is a gift.  It is pure communion.  It is a deep down sense and conviction that because God is for us, nothing can prevail against us:  not other people, not our own misguided desire, not the present, nor the future, not anything in all creation.  It is a peace that comes to us as we look and listen for God’s word of favour in the story and event of Jesus, who is called the Christ.

May the peace of Christ wheedle its way into your heart and your community today.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, on the Feast of the Nativity in 2007.