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Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Wrestling with God

Texts:  Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17. 1-7, 15; Romans 9.1-8; Matthew 14.13-21

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

In 1885 the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet in which he describes the tribulations of a long battle with depression and despair. I won’t read the poem to you, because its rhythm is difficult and its imagery particularly dense. In short, I doubt it would make any sense to you at a first hearing! But I would like to dwell, for a moment, on a rather disturbing connection Hopkins makes between two realities which are seldom mentioned in the same sentence, namely, Despair . . . and God. If I understand him rightly, Hopkins says that his year-long wrestle with despair might also be read as a wrestling with God . . . In tones which moves me more than I can say, Hopkins speaks of a God who comes by night to call him into question – to question the calibre of his devotion to God, even after many years of spiritual discipline. Despair, he says, is like a tempest which comes to blow the chaff from the grain of his soul. As such, he says, even despair appears to be God’s instrument, the servant of a God who wrestles with all that is not totally his own. A Love who will tolerate no rival.

There’s a terrible irony here, is there not? If Hopkins were not so intent upon the love of God – striving to love with all his heart, soul and strength – then this particular kind of sorrow would perhaps pass him by! People who have no plans to live under God’s rule are unlikely to become despondent about their lack of spiritual progress!  Such people may be troubled by many things, but I’ll wager that the state of their relationship with God is not one of them! No, it’s the person who genuinely longs for God who is most likely to know that particular kind of sorrow which is the realization that your devotion is not yet complete. It is the sorrow of knowing that you are a sinner. Not because popular piety decrees that you are. But because you really are, and you know you are, deep down where it hurts, in the heart of what we call ‘the Truth’.

Jacob knew this on the night before he met his brother Esau. In the cycle of stories we know as the book of Genesis, God’s messenger had already appeared to Jacob in dreams aplenty, promising that his descendants would dwell in the land of his father Isaac forever, and that this company would prosper and become a great blessing for all the peoples under heaven. But on this night, that promise seemed like vain fantasy because, on the morrow, Jacob and all his family would meet up with Esau, from whom Jacob has swindled the birthright and blessing of a first-born son. Esau the wild man, who loved to hunt; Esau the leader of four-hundred warriors; Esau the one who had once threatened to kill his brother, so that Jacob was forced to flee in order to preserve his life. The promise and presence of God was wonderfully real to Jacob. Yet, on this night, the fear of Esau was yet more present. On this night, Jacob’s faith in God wavered precariously. After sending his family over the river before him, Jacob returns to his camp to spend the night alone. But he is not left alone. As he crosses the creek at Jabbok, a man accosts him in the dark, and wrestles with him, we are told, until daybreak. 

There are many ways to read this strange story. There are many ways to name the man without a name. If we were to read in a Freudian way, we might see the man who comes to Jacob as the externalization of his own fear about all that is likely to occur the next morning, the embodiment of his tendency towards despair before the face of what is feared. Through the long night of decision, Jacob wrestles with the urgent desire to flee from the face of his brother Esau. The part of him which would flee is very strong, but the part of him which longs to be rejoined to his brother is strong also. And so the wrestling goes on through the night, with neither side prevailing until, close to dawn, the fear finally leaves him – and he is blessed with the courage to go and meet with Esau. 

Some theologians reject such readings out of hand because they distrust, as a matter of principle, any tendency towards what is called the ‘psychologization’ of biblical narrative. I am not one of them. As a theologian who believes, utterly, that God has taken human reality to God’s very bosom in Christ, I do not consider myself free to dismiss the mysterious machinations of human imagination and spirit as somehow beyond the ambit of divine activity. I feel bound, rather (and this precisely as a believer in the Christ by whom God knits the atoms together), to declare that every psychological crisis within the human heart and soul hides, at its heart, a profoundly spiritual encounter and confrontation with God that functions as the very heart and soul of what it means to be a human being. That is to say, with Louis-Marie Chauvet, that every theological reality necessarily has a body, that every anthropological analysis is not entirely itself until it is also theological.

What that means for the story at hand is this: that within and through this recognisably human confrontation of Jacob with his fear and despair one must also look for an encounter with the living God. And that is indeed what the story suggests, does it not? Is not the traumatic visitation of Jacob’s fear at the dead of night also the means by which God comes close to ask his disturbing questions: “Do you really love me? Do you really trust me? Do you really believe in what I have promised?” Finally, after a long struggle, Jacob’s answer is ‘yes’. But not before he feels the full power of the temptation to despair absolutely. Not before he is wounded for life. Not before he loses his name, and his very self with it. And so Jacob emerges from his night of prayer chastened and humbled, and made new in the waters of the river in which the struggle took place. ‘I will name this place’ Peni-El’, he says, ‘because here I have seen the face of God and lived’. 

The Jewish sages knew that seeing God’s face was dangerous. Their God was not as sickly and sentimental and harmless as many modern forms of devotion would have us believe. ‘It is a terrible thing’, wrote Paul, ‘to fall into the hands of the living God’. When Jacob saw God’s face, he died indeed. And the wound he bore for the rest of his life reminded him of that death. But, in the mercy of God, he was raised to life from the waters of his drowning. He received a new name, Israel, which functions in the story as a symbol of his new identity: ‘one who has wrestled with humanity and divinity, yet perseveres’. In the power and hope of this new identity, Jacob is finally empowered to face his brother Esau, not with his usual cocktail of bravado, bluff and deceit, but with humility. It is by this newfound humility, given him in the struggle at Peni-El—literally “The face of God”— that he finally prevails.

So, the bible tells us that fear and panic, even despair, can be the messengers of God, the means by which we are led to choose for God once more. Indeed, the Jewish and Christian traditions say that Satan, also, is the servant of the Lord. But we should be careful to distinguish the servant from the master. The servant is not the master, though the master’s purposes may be fulfilled through the servant’s action. That is why Hopkins, in his poem on the dark night of tribulation, begins by declaring that he shall never give in to despair absolutely. The messenger of God these feelings may prove to be at times, the means by which God wrestles with those remaining vestiges of ego and sin, certainly. But God they are not. And that is important to know. Giving in to despair, you see, is like setting up a false god. It is believing that the God of Abraham and of Jesus is a liar who will not come through on what is promised. When we are tempted to despair, we are tempted to bow down and do obeisance to a very dark god indeed, a god who would have us destroy ourselves absolutely, never to rise again. That is why Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish contemporary of Hopkins, even suggested that sin is another name for despair. 

As for me, I am one of those who has been visited, from time to time, by the dark angels of the Lord, those messengers which ask the questions: ‘Do you really trust me? Is there really any point to your devotion?’ At such times, by the grace of God, I am reminded of Jesus, who persevered in faith against odds far bigger than mine. I am reminded of one who, when his friend John the Baptist was murdered, withdrew to a quiet place to wrestle with his own fears and anxieties and find his faith once more, one who continued to preach and to heal, even when the political and religious establishment decided to go after him. I remember the cup of his suffering. I remember the plea to his disciples: ‘Stay with me. Watch and pray’. I remember his arrest, torture and crucifixion, and his cry upon the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ I remember the way his disciples scattered in every direction, and denied that they knew him. But, most importantly, I remember this. That Jesus rose to God, that God vindicated his cause, and owned his life as a defining parable concerning the way that God lives and moves in the world. And so, in the story of Jesus I see how even the most monstrous of evils can become the instrument by which God offers healing and wholeness, not only to me, but to everyone . . . And I am encouraged to have faith in God. Yes, and even to imitate the Psalmist in seeking the face in which I know I will find my death. For in dying to myself, to my fears and worries and ambitions, I believe I will become what Christ became. And that is what I want most of all. As Hopkins says in another poem:
               In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
               Is immortal diamond.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

What God Hopes For

Texts:  Genesis 28.10-19a; Psalm 139.1-12, 23-24; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

Today I want to talk to you about hope. Not the hopes of humans beings, or even of Christians in particular, but the hopes of God. God’s own hopes are expressed rather well by the apostle Paul, I think:
. . . the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in HOPE that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God . . . Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
According to Paul, God made the kind of world we have – a world filled with futility and decay – in the hope that the creation itself might one day transcend all of that and embrace what he calls ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ - by which he means that we might all come to share in the joy of God’s life and being in the way that Jesus did. For Paul, you see, Jesus was the first of many children, a human being who submitted himself absolutely to the sadness and despair of the world in order to show that there was a way through to something far better, namely a joyful reconciliation with our creator. In that sense, Jesus is our trail-blazer. God hopes that all of us will embrace the choices Jesus embraced, so trusting his vision and his Father’s care, that we might also come to share in his inheritance as the divine Son of God. God hopes that we might all become divine children like Jesus or, to put it another way, God made us caterpillars in the hope that we might one day become sick of looking at the ground, and so cleave to Christ as he passes from death to life, that we should become butterflies instead.

But note this, friends, that hoping for something is not the same as seeing it happen. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We hope for things precisely because those things are not entirely present to our experience right now. And so hope is always accompanied by a kind of affliction, the affliction of longing for something that has not entirely arrived. Hope then, can be rather tortuous. The contrast between where we are and where we would like to be can be so painful that we cry out with frustration, longing, and anger. Some see Christians who are not content with the present reality as pessimists, ‘glass half empty’ people. But nothing could be further from the truth because, it is only those who have a clear vision and hope for that which has not yet arrived who have a legitimate basis for critiquing what already is, the ‘status quo’ if you like. Of course, the contrast between hope and reality is very difficult to bear sometimes. There is a constant temptation for God’s people to abandon their engagement with hope in order to escape the pain of that contrast. But Paul says that it is not only ourselves but the whole creation which cries out in the pains of labour, longing for the freedom of the children of God to be revealed. In another place he talks of being in the pangs of labour that Christ might be born in the hearts of his people. And so I have come to see that all who suffer because of their commitment to hope bear in their body the scars of the Christ who has gone before us, the Christ who endured the cross in order to bear witness to his vision of a world renewed in love, peace, and justice for all. Thus, it is only those with hope for a new world who really care about the world as it already is.

In that connection, consider this other implication of Christ’s suffering: that it is not only ourselves who hope but do not see, it is not only we human beings who cry out with longing for a reality not yet present. First and foremost it is God. For Christ is God incarnate. In Christ, God longs more deeply than any of us. Thus, it is the longing of God, revealed in Christ Jesus, that actually provides the foundation and impetus for human hope. In the context of this longing, the cross of Christ is not simply a dying for the sins of the world. It is also the sign of God’s willingness to be immersed in the futility of things as they now are. It is the sign that God is with us in longing for a better world. It is the sign of God’s passionate love for all who suffer because the world is not yet what it may be. It is the sign of Immanuel: God with us, in our present, for the sake of a promised future that will renew the world in peace, love and justice.

To all who are chosen by God to share in this longing, the dream of Jacob at Bethel becomes a treasured source of inspiration. For here is one of the most radiant fruits of faithful prayer: a vision in which ordinary things are transformed into extraordinary things. Where places apparently empty of God become places where the angels ascend and descend in a never-ending dance; where stones and grass and sky become the courts of divine presence; where wind and water become the whispering of God’s promise. I remember praying in the bush once, in a place now called Fortescue Bay in South-east Tasmania. At the time I was particularly conscious that the Aboriginal traditions which had once inhabited that part of Tasmania were no longer alive. Colonisation had all but wiped them out, so that there are now very few of us who can recall their significance. But while I prayed, while I lamented the fact, the bush seemed to come alive with presence. I could hear the crackle of campfires, and the songs of children, and the splash of women diving for abalone. It was like a message from God which said ,‘the Spirit of life has not finished hoping for your dead people and their traditions: there will yet be a resurrection in which all that has been lost will be recovered’. In the dream of Jacob, and in many other dreams, God encounters all who are lost and lamenting, and offers them the chance to find themselves anew by becoming emissaries of blessing for all the world – carriers, like the seed of Jacob, Israel, of promise and of hope not only for themselves, but for all people.

Friends, in a world such as ours, it is easy to lose hope. It is easy to numb ourselves against the scandals of poverty, injustice and greed, and pretend that there is nothing we can do. But hear this. When we lose hope, God does not. God continues in hope for a creation renewed in the power of the resurrection. God continues to hope that we may share that longing, and be transformed ourselves, as Christ was transformed. God, you see, is extremely patient in hope. Matthew’s parable of the weeds and the tares tells us that God persists in the belief that no matter how many evils may grow in the world, or in the souls of women and men, that these evils will never have the power to finally overrun all that is good and true and beautiful. In the end it is God, and not death and evil, who will prevail.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Mysteries of the Kingdom

Genesis 25. 19-34; Psalm 119.105-112; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9 (10-17) 18-23

In the beginning, people saw things clearly in Palestine.  There were a chosen few who were born to wealth and privilege, while thousands of others were born to sweat and be hungry and die in childbirth.  There were the godly citizens who knew and obeyed the law of Moses to the tee, tithing even the herbs from their garden because they believed God had commanded it.  And there were the godless citizens who were estranged from God because of the sheer impossibility of their obeying the law—the widow without family to care for her, who sold her body to survive, and so could never aspire to the cultic cleanliness required by the law; the landless peasant, who struggled under the weight of Roman taxation, who had literally nothing of value to tithe at the temple; the slaves, whose bodies belonged to the ruling classes, who must do as they are told, even if so doing contradicted God’s command; the demoniacs and lepers, haunted by the evils of colonial rule, rendered godless by their manifestation of all these injustices.  In the beginning, people saw things clearly in Palestine.  There were those who were wealthy enough to be godly if they wanted to, and there were those who were so poor that godliness was not even an option.  Apparently, God had made it so.

But then there came a man who took away their sight.  He spoke to them in parables, strange, subversive stories in which all they had come to believe and rely on was questioned, changed and transformed from the bottom up.  He told them of a sower sowing seed in a field.  Some of the seed fell on a path, where the birds came to eat it before it could take root.  Some seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was scarce.  It sprang up quickly but died for lack of room to put out roots.  Other seeds fell amongst thorns which choked the young plants as they grew.  But the seeds that fell on good soil grew well, bringing forth a huge harvest.  On hearing the story, people felt a shiver down their spines.  The rich and the godly felt a shiver of fear.  The poor and the godless felt a shiver of hope.  The shiver was an invitation to change, to abandon the old way of seeing and embrace the new.  Sadly, most of the folk who experienced that shiver walked away.  Such change seemed either too much to hope for or threatening to the very core.  They returned to the way their lives had always been, to their habitual way of seeing.  It seemed safer.  But some folk, a small few, felt the shiver and knew it to be divine.  They spent time with the Parabler, the teller of stories, and learned the secret of his vision.  They left everything, weather wealth or poverty, and followed him around the countryside.  Slowly but surely, that shiver did its work.  Their hearts became the good soil in the parable.  Slowly they became people in whom the reign of God could grow.

Many years after, the Parabler became himself a parable.  In the hands of St Paul, he became a story which sent shivers down the spine of all who heard it.  A story about finding life in the midst of death and acceptance in the midst of rejection.   In the hands of St Paul, the Parabler became a story which caused Jews to stumble and was sheer nonsense to almost everyone else.  Why?  Because he invited the hearer to change, to put off the old way and take on the new.  He invited the hearer to let go of all she or he thought they knew and embrace an enigma, a secret, a mystery from God that could change the world as we know it.

Now, you will often hear people say that the telling of parables were Jesus way of making complex things simple enough for almost anyone to understand.  You will sometimes hear people complaining about preachers and theologians who so complicate the simple gospel that few can understand it.  'Why don't they just tell simple stories, stories, like Jesus told', they say, 'then everyone could understand and the gospel would not be so mysterious'.  Unfortunately, that is not what parables do at all – not in the ministry of Jesus, nor in the ministry of the church.  Let me quote to you the bit of the gospel that the lectionary left out this morning:
Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
      so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.” 
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
Parables, Matthew tells us in the bit which the lectionary leaves out, are stories which convey the secret of the kingdom of heaven.  The word secret, in Greek, is mysterion, mystery: an enigma or ‘dark interval’ which evades understanding.  While Matthew wants us to divide humanity into those who understand the parables and those who do not, is there not a sense in which the word of God persists in its mysteriousness, as much for those within the circle of faith as for those without?  

If that is the case, then it may be that the meaning of Jesus’ preaching has eluded many who claim that the parables are simple stories with simple meanings.  In the light of this I am troubled by those who, for example, would like to reduce the meaning of this parable to a description of those who are 'in' the community of faith and those who are 'out'.  In fact, each of us comprise both the bad and the good soil.  Each of us are, at different times in our lives, both receptive and non-receptive to the gift of the kingdom.  I, myself, sometimes lose faith and hope when I see the power of radical evil, in the Sudan, in Palestine or in Washington.  I myself lose faith and hope in God when troubles come along, or when people patronise me because I am a Christian.  I myself lose faith and hope because of that drive to be socially and financially ‘successful’.  I myself am subject to all these things.  So the certainty of some about those who are in and those who are out is not a certainty I can share.

Perhaps, in such re-telling of the sower parable, some preachers do not give enough attention to something else which Jesus said (and, again, we find this in the part which the lectionary leaves out).  Jesus also said, and Matthew reports this, that the understanding of the mysterion is a gift, which in Greek is dedotai, donation.  Now, if even our capacity to understand God’s word is a gift, then who can boast?  Who can thank God that their heart comprises good soil, while another’s does not?  And who, in the end, can know who is in an who is out?  Who can know if they’ve really grasped the mystery of the kingdom?

Now that, that little detail, preserves for me the original subversiveness of the parable and the Parabler.  That little detail, that the word of God is a gift which ever remains a gift, reminds me that what I see and what I know of God and his ways are mine not because of my status and history in the community of faith, but by virtue of God’s love and grace alone.  There is no reason, therefore, for me to look upon myself as either an insider or an outsider.  All who know something of God’s love and liberation, whatever their status in terms of spiritual affiliation or godliness, do so because of God’s grace.  No more.  No less.  Grace is the great leveller, the great parabolic subverter of status, even and especially within the realm of the Spirit.   Friends, if we could grasp that, then we would also have grasped that there is nothing to grasp.  For it is only by letting go of all we know, only by relinquishing that tribal need to define who is in and who is out, that any of us shall, in the end, show forth a kingdom which is from God.  In the end, that is all that is clear to me.  But it is enough. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

The Absurd, Laughable, Grace of God

Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.8

An old man, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah, lived in their tent by the forest of Mamre.  One day they are visited by three strangers.  Being people who believe that God sometimes roams the earth in disguise, Abraham and Sarah welcomed the strangers, giving them food, water and rest.  As Abraham chatted with them over a lovely outdoor dinner, one of the strangers said to him, 'Where is your wife, Sarah?'  'She is in the tent, helping to prepare our food', Abraham replied.  At that moment one of the men leant forward and whispered, 'We will return here at the same time next year, at which time Sarah will have given birth to a son'.  At that, Abraham's mouth fell open.  What an extraordinary thing to say!  Abraham and Sarah were very old, already decades beyond the age of childbearing.  And from the nearby tent, as if to underline the absurdity of the idea, Sarah let out a laugh.

The idea of having a child when you are a hundred years old is, indeed, quite funny.  And it is funny because it is absurd.

Have you ever reflected on the intimate connection between absurdity and humour?  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, absurdity is that which is unreasonable, ridiculous, irrational or illogical.  The absurd comes into being when two realities which are usually understood to have little or nothing in common, are forced to come together in a rare moment of comparison.  Like old age and giving birth.  Like monks and the Ku Klux Clan.  Like bureaucracy and caring.  When such comparisons are dropped on us, our first and most natural response is shock or surprise.  The foreign, the unexpected or the undreamed of, suddenly arrives in our reality.  A piano falls from the sky into the lemon tree in your back garden.  An elephant runs through the front yard.  An insurance assessor asks how you feel about the burglary.  When the silliness or absolute absurdity of such situations dawns on us, we laugh.  Because laughter is our body’s way of embracing experiences of irrationality or paradox.

When God's grace comes to call, it is very often quite irrational.  It surprises and shocks us. It seems silly or even ridiculous in the face of the harsh realities of the daily grind.  Yet such grace helps us to find the laughter and rejoicing in life.  In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul reflects on the absurdities at the centre of Christian faith.  Take this one, for starters: 'While we were still sinners, Christ died for us'.  It is oftentimes difficult for we Anglicans, who have heard these words so many times before, to register the surprise and shock Paul's original hearers would have experienced.  So let's translate the statement into a more contemporary mode.

‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ For moderns, this would be like hearing that while Hitler was still sending Jews to the gas chambers, a senior Rabbi offered his life to the Allies in exchange for Hitler’s.  It's like hearing that while Martin Bryant was still shooting people at Port Arthur, one of the wounded was already negotiating Bryant's freedom in exchange for his own internment.  It’s like reading that the sole survivor of one of many frontier massacres here in Victoria has offered amnesty and forgiveness for the murderers. Can you hear the scandal in that?  Can you hear the absurdity? 'While we were still sinners, Christ died for us'!

The surprise of God's grace is that it interrupts our despair.  It cuts across our hopelessness.  It relativizes our worst fears for the future.  God comes to one whose self-image has been destroyed by glossy magazines and says 'You are special, I love you'.  God visits the person who has failed an exam or lost a job and says 'I believe you are a winner.  Let's explore how together.’ God whispers to the newly disabled ‘You still have a contribution to make’. God stands beside the compulsive liar and says 'You can tell the truth about yourself'.  God visits the greedy and immoral person saying, 'You are capable of giving without thought of yourself, and I will stake my life on it'.  In every case, such divine visitations are downright absurd if you look at them from any rational or logical point of view.  We are all addicted to our sins; and whether we are personally aware of it or not, those of us who are financially comfortable are the beneficiaries of an economic order that exploits and steals from the vulnerable.  That is the reality we live in and have become accustomed to.  Yet, God is inclined to bring an entirely different reality to bear upon our situation.  God is inclined to treat us as though we were not addicts and exploiters, but saints.  And that, my friends, is a laugh.

At first, like Sarah, we laugh at God's foolishness.  How can God be so unrealistic?  How can God be so morally irresponsible?  How can God promise the impossible and the senseless like that?  Yet, in time, and with faith, we come to laugh with God.  We begin to see ourselves and our sinfulness in an entirely new light—in the light of grace, which is the power of God's unconditional love.  In that love, the suffering, the despairing and even the sin-sick may aspire to sainthood.  And that, my friends, can make one laugh—not with scepticism now, but with rejoicing!  Paul describes the process thus: 'We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us'.

You will have noticed from our Genesis reading that the strangers returned to Abraham and Sarah's tent after a year.  And the apparently impossible and absurd had indeed come to pass.  As Abraham turned one hundred years old, Sarah gave birth to a son, whom they named 'Isaac'.  In Hebrew, Isaac means laughter.  But this time, when Sarah laughs, it is not with incomprehensibility, but with joy.  This time she laughs with God, not at God: 'God has brought me great laughter,’ she says, 'and all who hear this story will laugh with me'.  Sarah, like every reluctant and surprised convert in the history of this planet, has been bowled over by the grace of God.  First by its strange absurdity.  But then by its joy.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Sober Reflections during National Reconciliation Week

          ‘What I did not steal must I now restore?’ 
                                                                       Psalm 69.4b

In Australia, National Reconciliation Week (NRW) runs from May 27 to June 3 and is immediately preceded by Sorry Day on May 26.  The dates are significant. The 1997 report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, Bringing Them Home, was tabled in the federal parliament on May 26.  Sorry Day has become an annual observance inviting Australians to reflect on the genocidal policies which sought to destroy Indigenous families and communities and to renew community resolve to avoid ever enacting such policies again.  May 27 commemorates the date of the 1967 referendum in which the Australian constitution was changed to recognise the existence of Indigenous peoples and June 3 recalls the 1993 ‘Mabo decision’ of the High Court of Australia to overturn the racist legal fiction of terra nullius. Beginning as a week of ‘prayer for reconciliation’ within some Australian churches, the week has now been taken up in some sections of the wider community as a way to encourage the building of bridges between Indigenous and other Australians. 

I have to say that, to this Aboriginal Christian leader, National Reconciliation Week appears to be struggling as a tool to extract a more just settlement for our people. It is struggling, I think, for two reasons. First, instead of encouraging the colonial establishment to address issues of justice for First Peoples persistently and all-year-round, NRW has become a way in which organisations may signal their virtue in this area for one week per year, largely for PR reasons, but effectively ignore our concerns at every other time. Second, it has become increasingly clear that it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves who are expected to do most of the work of Reconciliation Week, just as we are expected to do most of the work of reconciliation itself. Which means, simultaneously, that our prophets grow weary and sad at the lack of progress on justice for our people whilst our colonial gubbas congratulate themselves for their virtuous attention to the politically correct, all the while refusing to lift a finger to actually change anything.  Which leads us to ask, with the Psalmist, ‘what I did not steal must I now restore?’ Must we who did nothing to create Indigenous suffering now be the ones who must do all the work of healing and restoration? Why cannot those who have benefitted from the dispossession of our people take responsibility for putting things right?

Many others have written about the consequences of conservative government for the reconciliation cause, pointing to the extraordinary lack of progress on matters like a voice to parliament, incarceration rates, health outcomes, family integrity, meaningful employment, access to country, housing and the preservation of language and culture. I don’t intend to add to that commentary. Rather, I want to point out that the very churches that initiated the week of prayer for reconciliation have now, very clearly, abandoned the cause in any meaningful sense. 

The Uniting Church has long enjoyed a reputation for leading the way on matters of reconciliation. And there are plenty of signs that it continues to do so. Its national constitution has a preamble declaring that First Peoples enjoyed a relationship with God prior to the coming of Europeans. The Constitution also recognises and gives formal institutional authority to a national ‘Congress’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the church who are able to run their own affairs (up to a point).  The church also funds a small number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries around the nation and has handed some of those ministries land and property for their beneficial use. The church has an interest in a registered training organisation, based in Darwin, specifically designed to offer certificate and diploma level education to aspiring First Nations pastors and church workers.  In addition, the church each year provides worship and other resources on Invasion Day, National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week for the nourishment of its members in the ongoing work of reconciliation.  All of which is terrific, at least to the naked eye.  

Of course, as someone who was involved in the Uniting Church as a Congress member for 20 years or so, I can tell you with some experience that the gains of our people over that period were hard-won.  The church authorities were very good at managing public perceptions, offering fine words of apology and commitment at the very time they were also steadfastly resisting our overtures for greater control of our affairs and a more practical investment in our ministries. I personally witnessed the official and institutionally sanctioned persecution of a Congress minister. Many First Nations leaders fell into despair and illness along the way. I, myself, eventually left the church becaue I could not find meaningful employment and because the battle to find a secure place to stand within the church was making me sick. Behind the glossy presentation of the Uniting Church’s leadership on matters of reconciliation there remains a fairly common, everyday racism.  I still come across UC leaders who have never read a book about the true history of this country, have never had a respectful conversation with an Indigenous person, who have never studied with an Indigenous academic or theologian, and never felt the need to do so. To date, the senior leadership of the church remains steadfastly white, and there are no Indigenous people on the teaching staff of any of its theological colleges. In my observation, it is still the case that Australia’s most progressive church on these matters harbours a fundamentally white-blind membership that cannot really see what the problem is.

The Roman Catholic Church appears to have both a national and state-based apparatus to address matters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concern. There is a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council reporting to the Bishop’s Conference, and a funded secretariat that functions nationally as well as on a state-by-state basis. Most states and territories appear to have at least one funded Indigenous ministry, with Tasmania being a notable exception. In addition, anecdotal evidence would suggest that Catholic schools and welfare agencies often form enthusiastic relationships with Aboriginal organisations and communities, Catholic and otherwise. These bodies collaborate happily both on curriculum and policy materials and on the building of relationships between people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds. Certainly, most of the Indigenous Catholics I know are reasonably happy Catholics. For all this good work, it appears that the church has still invested very little in the development of indigenous theologies, theologians and clergy. The Roman Church is exemplary in its multiculturalism, not least amongst the clergy. But there are still no Indigenous bishops or tenured theological teachers and precious few deacons and priests. There are still, in other words, almost no Indigenous voices where they count most: amongst the pastoral and teaching authorities of the church.

The Anglican Church of Australia, likewise, has established a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander council, which reports to the General Synod. This Council, of which I am a member, consists mainly of representatives appointed by the 23 diocesan bishops. Several bishops do not appoint anyone at all. Some apparently appoint non-Indigenous people.  The General Synod funds a less-than-1.0 EFT national secretariat and an annual meeting for this Council, but it does not fund any on-the-ground Indigenous ministry of any kind. That is left to individual dioceses, which vary wildly in their engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Diocese of Melbourne, for example, employs no-one to engage with Aboriginal people.  And whilst there are, so far as I can tell, five Aboriginal priests in the diocese, four are employed in non-Aboriginal ministries and a fifth is not employed by the church at all. Across the church, nationally, it would be fair to say that almost all Indigenous church workers, ordained or not, engage in ministry with, or on behalf of, our people on our own time and at our own expense. The number of funded Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ministries can be counted on one hand. The Anglican Board of Mission is allowed by its charter to fund individual projects that engage with Indigenous peoples, but that same charter prohibits the funding of wages or stipends, which effectively means that ABM cannot support Indigenous ministers, lay or ordained, to do long-term embedded ministries in Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities.  It is sobering to note that, whilst the General Synod can in principle appoint national bishops for both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there is currently no funding allocated to do so. The national Torres Strait Islander episcopate is therefore vacant, and the national Aboriginal episcopate is currently being funded on a part-time basis by Anglicare in South Australia.  

One might additionally note that pleas for a more meaningful engagement from the Anglican Church usually fall on deaf ears. Since its establishment in 1998, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council has sought on multiple occasions both a meaningful covenant or treaty with the rest of the church, and a more substantial funding base to underwrite its aspirations. Neither have been forthcoming. At the local level here in Melbourne, the overtures of Aboriginal clergy towards a more practical approach to reconciliation are routinely ignored by church authorities. And, as with the Roman Catholic Church, it is still the case that there are no tenured Indigenous theological teachers in the mainstream theological colleges of the church, and less than a handful of Indigenous voices on diocesan councils in the whole of Australia. One can only conclude that reconciliation in the sense of restoring some measure of voice, dignity and justice to First Peoples is effectively terminal in the Anglican Church.

Notwithstanding these realities, churches routinely call on us in National Reconciliation Week or in NAIDOC Week to participate in symbolic acts of reconciliation, usually within the context of worship services run by white people who appear to be engaged in virtue-signalling. I, for one, find that this invitation, when it comes, is very often the ONLY invitation I receive from a church in an entire year, and it arrives just a few days before the proposed event because that is how long that particular church has allocated to planning. There is no relationship with this church. There has been no foregoing process of story-sharing or relationship-building, in the midst of which the particular event or worship service might actually take on some genuine meaning for the community that gathers. Furthermore, precisely because of the lack of conversation with the church in question, one cannot help but feel that there will be little to no positive outcome from the event for our people. There will be no commitments made, for example, to hand back some land, or pay the rent, or fund an Indigenous ministry, or engage in ongoing conversation with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organisation. To make those kinds of outcomes even remotely possible requires a long conversation, much education, and the fundamental conversion of racist hearts and minds.  All a one-off event can usually achieve is a self-congratulatory feeling of virtue in the hosting organisation for broaching such ‘complex’ issues and giving ‘difficult’ people like me a platform.  

All of which leaves us Indigenous Christian leaders in a place of considerable dilemma. Most of us are already exhausted by this point, because we have already endured many weeks, months and years of scorn, ignorance and indifference: in casual conversation and on media, both social and traditional. We are deeply sceptical about the value of doing what is asked of us. But we feel we have a responsibility to our people, especially our kids, to keep speaking out, to keep fighting the fight as our elders did before us at great personal cost, even though it is so very, very difficult to do so. So, we pull ourselves together, put on a smiling face, turn up, do our little bit and hope for the best. We pray that God will give us patience to answer all the hurtful and disrespectful questions without losing our cool. And we go home even more exhausted, and usually just a little bit depressed. Depressed because the questions have not changed in years, depressed because the church seems stuck in a time-warp when it comes to addressing the question of justice, depressed because like everyone else, we long for signs of light, but we rarely see it appear.  And really it is just oh so hard to keep the whole thing going.

In spite of all this, or most probably because of it, I am a person of prayer. I pray not because I am serene, I pray because I am desperate. Without the water from the well, which is the word of the suffering Christ, I would surely succumb to the floods of despair with which I am overcome at every reconciliation event. ‘Help me ancestors, help me Jesus, to stay alive, that the promise of your justice and peace may stay alive in me’.  That is my prayer, and most days – especially during Reconciliation Week - that is about the best I can do.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Bushfires and Colonial Mismanagement

The Australian bushfires that raged from late December to mid-January were the most destructive on record, destroying 8.5 million hectares of forest, farmland, town and residential country in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. If that number is hard to get your head around, my dear North American readers, think of an area the size of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island combined, then add a little bit more.  In some places, the fires burned so hot that stone structures melted and even the biomatter below the surface of the ground was utterly obliterated. Ecologists are now saying that in such places, nothing will ever be able to grow again. Even where this is not the case, in parts of the forest where regeneration is possible, whole ecosystems – millennia in the making - have been utterly laid waste. It is also estimated that over 1 billion native animals perished in the fires, many of them belonging to species already close to extinction such as koalas and mountain pygmy possums. A large portion of those animals apparently died either because the fires were travelling too fast or because they could not make their way through fences erected by property owners.

So how did the fires start and why did they burn so hot?  The short answer is that the continent of Australia is on the front line of the battle over climate change. Increasingly mild ‘cold’ seasons and increasingly hot ‘warm’ seasons over the past thirty years have left the driest continent on earth (after Antarctica) even drier. Periods of drought, always an issue in this sun-burnt continent, have become progressively more severe over time to the point where even the wettest places on the continent - temperate and tropical rainforests - are becoming tinderboxes. When dry lightning comes along, therefore, there is little to stop entire forests, along with any farms and towns on their perimeter, going up in flames. And once the fires start, even the world’s most prepared and well-resourced firefighting services cannot stand in their way.  There is little to be done except to evacuate residential areas and pray for rain.

But how did we get to this point? How did an apparently ‘developed’ nation such as Australia, allow the situation to get so out of hand, possibly to the point of no-return?  Obviously climate-change is a global issue. Even if Australia had a progressive government which takes climate-change seriously (which it does not) the only possible mechanism that will make a difference to global policy is international treaty. And the world’s largest polluters have not yet signed any of the protocols generated by UN conferences such as Kyoto or Paris. Notwithstanding this fact, I believe it is incumbent upon nations such as Australia to recognise that we find ourselves in these catastrophic circumstances primarily because we have failed to recognise the wisdom of our indigenous peoples.

I am an Indigenous survivor of what some of us are calling, in Australia, ‘the apocalypse’.  Before the British arrived on our shores in 1788 CE, over 500 nations were already living here, and we had done so for more than 100 000 years. 100 000 years is a very long time by anyone’s estimation. When you’ve been in a place for that long, you get to know it very, very, very well. You get to know the moods and cycles of land and seascape. You get to know the seasons, the animals, the plant-life. You get to know the ecological systems which bind that land together and cause it to flourish with life. You get to know how to find food and shelter, and how to sustainably access those resources over many hundreds of generations. The other thing that you do when you’ve lived that long in one place is find a way to preserve the knowledge of previous generations and pass it on to your children. Doing so is crucial to survival. My people preserved their wisdom in a large body of knowledge we now call, collectively, our ‘dreaming’, which consists of songs, dances, paintings, stories and rituals which, together, show us how to live successfully and well in the lands and seascapes we call home. When the British arrived, they apparently did not see the value of our lore – indeed, after only a little while, they devised policies and practices specifically designed to destroy it - and this was the beginning of our apocalypse. During the 230 years of British occupation much of our lore has been destroyed and possibly lost for ever. Certainly we have been systematically murdered or separated from the specific places in which our various ‘dreamings’ belong. And that has meant, worst of all, that most of us are no longer able to fulfil the vocation given us by our creator-ancestors to look after and manage our homes in such a way that future generations may continue to enjoy and live from their bounty.

Of the many skills our ancestors learned and passed on was the management of landscapes and resources through fire-farming. When the British arrived, they thought that the land was ‘virgin’, empty of human presence, cultivation and influence. But nothing could be further from the truth. For thousands upon thousands of years, my people had been modifying the landscape on an epic scale. We had been using fire to create agricultural fields in which we could plant crops, fields where the soil was permeable by both air and water. We had been using fire to create grasslands which would attract game which could then, in turn, be harvested. Crucially, for the current discussion, we also set small fires in order to prevent wildfires. These would be set within large stands of trees, as well as in open fields, on a seasonal basis. The fires would be managed by burning small areas of grassland or forest undergrowth in a circle-pattern, with a large group of people lighting fires at the perimeter and then following the fire into a centre of convergence. The seasonal nature of the burning kept fuel loads under control, but also caused many of Australia’s native plant species to regenerate and therefore provide nourishment for a local ecosystem to survive.

By contrast, the British clearly did not know how to manage our lands sustainably. Within the first 50 years of annexation, they cleared the grasslands of its people, agricultural systems and animals, and replaced them with millions upon millions of cattle and sheep which compacted the soil and made it relatively impermeable to air and water. The soil, which could no longer breathe, became progressively less nutritious over time and, when it rained, less able to hold moisture. More grasslands for sheep and cattle were created by cutting down forests, but those stands that remained were poorly managed so that ‘bushfires’ became a feature of the ‘Australian’ experience. Today’s Australia not only has to content with wildfires, but also with deeply unwell river systems, dying coral reefs and fisheries, alarming levels of drought and desertification, as well as one of the world’s most mismanaged native animal populations.

Some policy-makers are becoming interested in the land-and sea management practices of our First Peoples. But they are few and far between. And so we pray to our creator for mercy, and for a change of heart and mind that is able to reverse at least some of the damage. And we do so, some of us, in the name of the one who loved even the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

The Works of the Father

Texts:  Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14

On the album ‘Everyone is Here’ by the New Zealand singer/songwriters, Tim and Neil Finn, there is a song that opens with this line:
We’re all God’s children
And God is a woman
But we still don’t know who the Father is.
It’s a terrific song, because it refuses to see the usual new-age theology as, in any way, an adequate basis for peace among nations.  If we’re all God’s children, and God is that feminist ideal who is supposed to be into cooperation and listening (instead of competition and fighting), then how is it that the world stands, yet again, on the brink of several human-made disasters?  ‘If this is God, and we are God’s children,’ ask the brothers Finn, ‘shouldn’t we be getting along famously?’  How is it that the children of a justice-loving God stand by and watch as 200 000 people are massacred in the Sudan?  How is it that the children of a mercy-loving God seem content to let millions of children die of AIDS and malnutrition in Africa and Asia?  How is it that the children of a fairness-loving God can be so greedy and possessive towards the labour and resources of other people?  The answer the Finns hint at is not so much an answer, but a question:  perhaps all this happens because we still don’t understand who God is as Father?  It is the question that I should like to address this morning.

There has been an understandable nervousness about the Fatherhood of God in recent theology, and on two grounds.  Some theologians have been nervous about God’s Fatherhood because of the experience they had with their own Fathers.  These theologians, like a great many people in the community at large, experienced their Fathers as, as best, distant bread-winners who had little time for emotional intimacy with their children and, at worst, stern or troubled abusers of their children.  If Fathers are like that, these theologians argued, then Fatherhood is no longer an appropriate metaphor for God.  For God is more like a Mother:  intimate, caring, protective.  Another group of theologians, some who had experienced the fascist-styled ‘fatherhood’ of Mussolini and Hitler, worried that the Fatherhood of God encouraged people to remain stuck in an infantile state, never maturing to a point where they could assume moral responsibility for themselves.  These theologians spent considerable time wondering why the citizens and soldiers of war-time Germany and Italy accepted all that they did from their national ‘Fathers’.  Their answer was this:  that many of us would rather not grow up; we would rather believe that someone else, a strong father-figure for example, is always right and knows, unfailingly, what is best for us.  By believing that, they argued, we stay in a perpetual state of infancy.  We never grow up.  In the wake of Hitler and Mussolini, these theologians concluded, it is no longer useful to refer to God as Father.  Fathers like these do not let their children grow up into ethical and moral agency, the result of which is Auschwitz and the SS.

Now, much of what these theologians say is absolutely true in terms of its analysis of culture and human psychology.  Who can doubt that if your father has been emotionally distant, that you are likely to believe that God the Father is a distant and unapproachable figure as well?  Who can doubt that if you were abused by your father in some way, that you are likely to have enormous difficulty trusting God as Father?  Furthermore, who can doubt Freud when he says that for many of us, God the Father is nothing more than a dictator, a despot, who protects us from growing up to take moral responsibility for our actions?  Certainly not me.  All this is true.

But here is my objection, and the objection of a great many others as it turns out:  that this nervous theology about God the Father has been too much interested in human sin, and not enough interested in the redeeming God of Jesus Christ.  In other words, theologians who are nervous about the Fatherhood of God too often allow their experience of human sin to overwhelm the experience of God as a loving redeemer that belongs to the primary witnesses of faith in the New Testament.  For if we actually turn to the New Testament, for a moment, we discover this:  that God the Father is neither a despot, nor a distant bread-winner, nor is he an abuser of his children.  God the Father, we are told, is like his Son, Jesus:  a friend, a lover, a companion in difficult times.

Consider the following words of Jesus from John’s Gospel:
I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also . . .  Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father . . .  I am in the Father and the Father is in me.  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works . . .  Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
Here we learn a number of increasingly scarce lessons about God as Father.  First, and most importantly, the Christian God is seen and known not through the lens of personal psychology or philosophical speculation, but through a patient examination of the life and teaching of Jesus.  God the Father, we are told, is at work in the world through the agency of his Son.  Whatever we seen the Son doing, whatever we hear the Son saying, that is what the Father is doing and saying as well.  Over the years I’ve heard many people say:  ‘I can’t relate to God the Father; he is too mysterious and distant.  Jesus I can handle, though.  Jesus is more concrete and real.’  Well, to all who think like that, here’s the good news.  The Son, Jesus, is like his Father.  The Father is everything that you see in the Son.  He is love in all its simplicity and complexity: intimate, passionate, striving, forgiving.

A second lesson follows on from this.  God the Father is not away somewhere else doing his work.  His work is in our midst, here, in amongst all the chaos and confusion of our lives as they are really lived.  It is important to remember what Jesus’ favourite name for God is ‘Abba, daddy.’  In Aramaic, the term denotes an emotional intimacy, an experience and trust in the emotional engagement of the Father in all that the child is struggling with.  What we learn from Jesus is this:  that God the Father is our Father precisely in his willingness to be around, to be available to us, to care.  That is what fatherhood means, for the gospel:  being there, being available, passionately engaged in the struggles of relationship.  Not in a way that is despotic or manipulative.  On the contrary, as Jesus says in this same discourse, we are no longer God’s slaves, but his friends—people who are invited to take responsibility for our own side of the relationship, to respond to all that God is doing as adults and moral agents.

A final lesson is this.  Because God the Father is close by us in Jesus, living his life and purpose out in the midst of our own lives and purposes, the call of God is very clear and cannot be easily ignored.  God’s will for the world is no longer a mystery, hidden in secrecy.  The secret is well and truly out.  What the Father calls us to be and do is exactly what Jesus was called to be and do:  to speak the word of his Father and do his works, to be God’s representatives in the world—not because we have to, not because we are infants, but because we trust God, and want to join with Christ in transforming the world about us.  So, if you want to know what God is doing in the world, take a look at Jesus.  And if you want to join God in that work, if you want to change the world, become an imitator of Jesus.  As Jesus imitates his Father, so we are called to imitate Christ.  If we do, then the world will change,  it will become more like God, the Father of Jesus Christ, and less like the distant, corrupt or despotic fathers our nervous theologians are so worried about.

So, given that the modern church is perpetually wondering what to do with itself, what does all this theology mean?  Simply this:  that we will never know what to do with ourselves and our church unless all of us, and not just the clergy and a few others, give ourselves over to a profound and ongoing meditation upon the life and teaching of Jesus as we have it in Scripture.  Every revolution begins with its manifesto, and the manifesto of Christians is the New Testament.  I encourage you to read it, to study it, and to trust it.  For in trusting the New Testament, you trust Christ.  And in trusting Christ, you trust God, God who is our Father as well as our Mother, God who wants the world to be transformed in love.

In the name of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as in the beginning, so now and forever, world without end.  Amen.

This sermon was first preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2005, at St Luke's Uniting Church in Mount Waverley.