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Sunday, 28 May 2023

St John's Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2.1-22; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12.1-13; John 20.19-23

If, in the Christian calendar, the feast day of Pentecost celebrates the first outpouring out of the divine Spirit on the infant church, then the Scripture readings set for today record not one Pentecostal event, but two.  The more familiar of these is created by St Luke in the book of Acts, the one associated with dramatic signs like the sound of a tempest and tongues of fire. Here the outpouring out of the Spirit is closely associated with the Jewish festival of Shavoat, or ‘Weeks’, which celebrates both the annual harvest of grain and the giving of the law to Moses at Mt Sinai. It occurs 50 days after Passover: a number which, in Jewish numerology, signifies the time of Jubilee when alienated land is returned to its original owners, debts are forgiven, and slaves regain their freedom.  It is also the time when Israel finds its true identity as a nation and seeks, in earnest, to live by the law of God.  

St Luke redeploys these Jewish meanings for Christian purposes. There are 120 disciples of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, 10 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. When the spirit is poured out, they will become the seed of new Israel, a new people of God. A new law is also given, the law of Jesus, whose spirit will break the strong social and political bonds of slaves, of women, and of younglings. No longer will it just be venerable old men like Moses who receive divine law and proclaim it with authority; from now on it will be everyone, even slaves and women and younglings. All who listen to the spirit and take her breath into their lungs will now become prophets whose larynxes and lips will form divine words, words of Jubilee, words of freedom, in a thousand different tongues. They will go out from that place and bear witness to this freedom in Jerusalem, and in Samaria, and eventually the whole known world.  All very dramatic. All very apocalyptic. All very beautiful. The stuff of movies and concerts and rock operas.

But there is another ‘Pentecost’ in our readings, the Pentecost recorded by St John in his gospel. Here the outpouring of divine spirit is reserved not for a crowd of 120 confidently awaiting the sure fulfillment of divine promise on the Feast of Shavoat, but for a motley remnant of scared and bewildered disciples huddled together in a locked room for fear of being discovered by their enemies. For, in John’s timeline, Jesus had been crucified only three days before, and most of his disciples have fled the city for fear of being rounded up and executed in a similar manner. Those who remained were therefore far fewer in number and, notwithstanding the report of Mary Magdalen that she had seen and spoken to an apparently resurrected Jesus, they were terrified.  For they dared not believe Mary. Her story seemed too fantastical. ('Perhaps it is the grief speaking?') Still, it is right there, in the midst of their terror and their doubt, that Jesus turns up. Right there. Through the locked door. Through their fear-locked hearts. Through their sceptical minds. Right there. And he says two things to them straight up. Showing them the wounds of his crucifixion, Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’. Twice. Then, as he breathes upon them, he says ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you: receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Let’s spend some time meditating on these words.

At one level, ‘Peace be with you’ is little more than a common greeting. It’s how every Jew would have greeted every other Jew at the market or in the field. That greeting is preserved in the Arabic phrase ‘A-salam alaykum’ used by Muslims and Palestinian Christians even today: ‘Peace be with you’. The traditional response was, and remains, ‘wa-alaykum salam’: ‘And also with you’. We use the formulary ourselves as we approach the eucharist in Christian worship. Which should indicate that the greeting is far more than a social nicety, a way of saying ‘hello’. It embeds and bears witness to the way of the divine spirit in the world. The spirit who, according to the Psalmist, both creates and renews all living things (Ps 104.30). The spirit who, according to St Paul, binds the community of Christ—with all of its diverse ministries and modes of service—together as one organism, one body (1 Cor 12.4, 12).  The spirit who creates and renews and binds all living creatures together in a cosmic body characterised by shalom, salam, peace with justice. The body of Jesus present in our story, a body risen and yet still bearing the marks of crucifixion, functions as an arch-symbol of this social and cosmic body in which we all participate by the spirit. On the one hand, the body is bruised and broken, marked by the grievous wounds we inflict upon each other and upon the earth. On the other hand, the body is resilient. It can heal, it can rise, it can overcome such sins through the power of the spirit who knits every sinew together in peace.

For peace, in both Jewish and Islamic teaching, cannot be reduced to something like a nice inner feeling of calm or equanimity, as in many popular forms of mindfulness. No. Peace is about the recognition that all life, whether human or animal, plant or mineral, thrives and renews itself only insofar as we recognise our need of each other, our interdependence in a divinely charged cosmos knit together by the spirit. 

In the human community, this means attending to the many injustices we visit upon one another in our quests for power, ownership and control. It means righting the wrongs, healing the wounds, and redressing the social and economic imbalances, so that we might be reconciled. In the ecological community, it means human beings attending to, and taking responsibility for, the devastation we have wrought upon our leafed, furred, scaled and beaked kin, and upon the land itself.  It means calling a halt to practices that maim our environment and committing, instead, to practises of repair, healing and renewal.  

For peace is essentially about tending the relationships we are given in creation, the matrix of care and reciprocity that the spirit has woven into our DNA. It is about justice, equality, and the integrity of creation.  It is about letting go of fear and exploitation and living, instead, as though we all mattered. All of us. Even black people. Even Muslims. Even Aboriginal people. Even gay, lesbian, trans and differently gendered people. Even koalas, even frogs, even deserts and rivers and rainforests. All of us. All our kin. Imagine that. 

So. When the risen Jesus greets his terrified disciples in this story from John’s gospel, when he places his peace upon them not once, but twice, this is the meaning that is carried and implied in that word ‘peace’. All of what I just said. Every bit.  Nothing less.

Which leads us to what Jesus does next in John’s story, which is the explicitly ‘pentecostal’ bit.  Let’s recap. Having greeted them with peace and shown them the wounds of his crucified body, the risen Jesus says: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ He then breathes upon them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Here we have three extraordinary examples of what JL Austin calls ‘performativity’. Performativity is when something you say also does something, changes something, makes something happen in the real world. Like when a marriage celebrant says, towards the end of the ceremony ‘You are now married’. By saying that phrase, the marriage is brought into being. It is made real.  So it is with these three saying of Jesus here in the locked room. 

When Jesus says, first, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ he changes the identity and purpose of the people in the room.  They are no longer the scared remnant of failed religious movement, hiding away from their enemies. They are a community with a mission: to leave that room, that place of fear, and imitate in their thinking and behaviour all that Jesus has done in their midst. Just as Jesus had imitated what he saw his Father doing in the world. Just so. 

When Jesus then breathes upon them and says, second, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ he changes their relationship with the divine power that is at the heart of every living creature. Rather than being alone and cut off from that power, hidden away in a locked room our of a fear that they will lose their lives, the disciples are changed into a people who breathe in that power, and are therefore reconnected with the life and animation they are given in creation: a liveliness, a spirit, and a divine kinship network that can never be extinguished. A few chapters earlier, afterall, Jesus had said ‘The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (16.32, 33). So here—with the breathing in of the spirit, and in the wake of the extraordinary resurgence of life in the crucified Jesus—the disciples find their power to reconnect with the divine as Jesus had done. And they are emboldened to persevere with their mission despite the inevitable persecution that will come their way.

Finally, when Jesus says ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ the disciples are changed from a marginal community with no power whatsoever into a marginal community with the power both to forgive and not to forgive. Marginal still, mind. But marginal with an important new power. Remember that, in the most dominant forms of Jewish theology at the time, it was only God who could forgive; and only through the mediation and sacrificial system of the temple priesthood.  In time, and in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, that theology would change in Judaism. But, for now, the idea that unordained people (as each of these disciples undoubtedly were) could be granted the power to forgive sins, was rather radical. It is still just a bit too radical for some. Even in a Christian context.  

But think about it for a moment.  There is a sense in which the power to forgive, or not, is the only power of the Christian community. The only legitimate power, you might say, the only power given it by the Jesus of John’s gospel. It is endlessly interesting to me that Jesus did not say ‘Here, receive the power to annex the land of evildoers’, or ‘Receive the power to deprive evil doers of their liberty’. If Jesus had given the church such powers, which he didn’t, I suspect we would have used them for evil purposes. We would have used them to empower ourselves and our mates and exclude those we don’t like, for whatever reason. Reasons of ethnicity, social caste, economic status or gender, for example.  (Of course, the history of the Christian church shows, quite starkly, that the Christian community very often takes such powers to itself, regardless of what Jesus might have said about it). 

Still, the Jesus of St John’s gospel grants us only the power to forgive or not to forgive. Which I take to include a responsibility to discern when someone has truly repented of wrongdoing or not. So, let’s be done, I beg all of you, with every doctrine of forgiveness that pretends to be ‘unconditional’. Love can be unconditional, but forgiveness cannot. You must truly repent and amend your behaviour if you want to be forgiven and reconciled to the one you have wronged, whether that be God, the earth, or other people.  If you seek to be forgiven without repenting and changing your behaviour, the one you have wronged has a right, but also a responsibility according to these words of Jesus, to ‘retain’ your sins rather than to erase them from the ledger. For, if forgiveness is granted in a pre-emptive manner, abuse and bad behaviour is both rewarded and encouraged.  Which is incredibly discouraging news for those of us who are the victims of such abuse. And it does not make for peace as we defined it just a moment ago.  Peace is what you get when victims are heard, recognised, and properly supported on a journey of healing. Peace is what you get when serious attention is given to repair, restitution and the restoration of justice.  Peace is certainly not a ‘Pax Romana’, a ‘peace’ imposed by abusers and designed only to silence the voices of victims.

So then. This is St John’s ‘Pentecost’. A spirit poured out not 50 days after Easter, in fulfillment of a great many dreams and grand story-arcs, but on the evening of Easter itself: in the middle of dreams shattered and rumours of hope which, as yet, make no sense at all.  It is a Pentecost not for the strong, but for the weak. It is a Pentecost not for the centres of worldly power but for the exploited, wounded, periphery. St John’s Pentecost is for everyone who knows that they are broken and alone and in need of reconnection and healing. It is a Pentecost for everyone who feels that their community has become dysfunctional and there seems little chance that things will ever turn around. It is a Pentecost for the victims of injustice and abuse who are right here in our midst and all around. It is a Pentecost for the ravaged and crucified earth, which mob call ‘country’, our Christ. 

If I might be permitted to make the implicit in what I’ve said quite explicit—recasting all I have said just now in an entirely Aboriginal frame—imagine for a moment that country has a voice, and that voice is amongst us, here in this cathedral, here on this sacred meeting place of the Kulin nations. The voice says something like this to us:

Peace be with you.
See the wounds of colonisation?
Still, peace be with you.
As the dreaming has sent me, so I send you.
Receive the spirit of country.
Receive power to forgive the repentant.
Receive power to resist the abusers.

These are the gifts of St John's pentecost. All that remains is that we receive and enact them. 

I wish you all a blessed and truly transformative Pentecost.

Garry Worete Deverell

St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne,
Pentecost 2023

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

'These lands now called Australia'. A most problematic phrase

'Australia' is a name given this continent by colonisers who came from another hemisphere (the 'north'). Thus, 'Australis': 'of the south'. The perspective built into the name is not our perspective. It is the perspective of people who come from elsewhere: the 'north'. The naming of this continent as 'Australia' is therefore part of the colonial project of subjugation and erasure.

From an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander perspective, the difficulty with naming the whole continent is that we never saw continental scale as important, and therefore we don’t have a traditional, received, name for the whole continent. For us, this continent is primarily many lands and many dreamings: Naarm (Melbourne), tebrukuna (Cape Portland), Meanjin (Brisbane) and so on.  The AIATSIS map of the continent, showing the territories of individual nations and clans, is therefore a tool that can usefully help settlers reimagine where they are.

Some people, in recent times, have decided to refer to the continent as 'these lands now called Australia'. I’m not a fan of this phrase because, whilst it reminds people that ‘Australia’ is a recent name, it also proclaims the supercessionist victory of the colonial imagination. I, personally, wish to problematise that victory at its most fundamental level.

I am sometimes asked why compass points encode a colonial imagination. Aren't they just neutral, applicable everywhere? Well, no, they came to these lands as part of the colonial imaginary. And I am not just talking about words and language here. I'm talking about a whole cosmology. There are not, in fact, 'equivalent' terms or ideas in traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cosmologies. Our cosmologies relate, almost entirely, to smaller biospheres associated with particular regions of this continent. Our spatiality is actually far more complex than European notions of space and difference precisely because they deal primarily with the local rather than the global or continental. We indicate directionality or distinction in space via a completely different imaginary apparatus. Landmarks such as creeks and rivers, represented in relation to each other via songlines, for example, better represent Indigenous spatiality than European compass points - which were, and remain, non-sensical to many of our people.

I am also asked if there may be alternative phrases to 'Australia' or 'These lands now called Australia'. I usually encourage people to use the local mob names for places as much as possible. This encourages the Indigenous discipline of thinking locally and regionally. When referring to the whole continent, however - as it seems we must in the age of the colonial nation state - I encourage the use of terms which highlight the contested nature of that reality. Some examples: 'the colony', 'the continent', 'the Gondwanan sub-continent' and so forth.  Using 'Australia' in inverted commas also draws attention to that contestation, especially if it is prefaced by a phrase such as 'the settler colony of . . .'

Garry Worete Deverell

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

The slave of the Lord

 Texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew’s passion

In the calendar of the western church today is ‘Palm’ or, alternatively, ‘Passion’ Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  During the season of Lent we've been journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem.  Today we arrive in Jerusalem, and there we witness Christ's passion, which is the suffering of Christ for the sake of the world.  A few moments ago we read from Matthew's passion narrative.  There we see a Jesus who is unjustly arrested, beaten and tortured by both religious and secular authorities, before he is crucified as an enemy of the state.  There we see a Jesus whose silence before the Emperor's representative makes the moral failures of those all around him all the more loud.  It is a moving story indeed.  But what does this death mean to human beings and to God? Why did Jesus die?  Why did he suffer so? 

In the letter to the Philippians we read an ancient Christian hymn which tries to make sense of these questions.  There we hear of a man who shared in God's own divinity, who knew what it meant to be at one with the Maker.  But, out of profound sense of compassion for human beings in their affliction, he willingly emptied himself of all divine privilege and became, instead, little more than a slave.  Most English bibles translate the greek word doulos as 'servant', which is really a bit weak.  The word really means 'slave'.  

In the society of the Romans, slaves were the lowest of the low. People usually found themselves in slavery either because of poverty or because of conquest. Either way, becoming a slave meant that you were no longer the owner of our own body: you belonged to another. And the tasks of slavery could be severe: long hours of physical or intellectual labour, up to 18 hours a day; you could be called upon for sexual favours; or you could be put to work in the arena or in warfare for your master. A slave, then, was someone who existed entirely for their social betters; a person who had no rights or privileges whatsoever, and certainly no freedom. This, then, was the kind of person Christ became, according to this ancient hymn. Such was the solidarity of Jesus with the poor and wretched of the earth, that he emptied himself of all the privileges of divinity, and suffered that loss that is at the heart of every form of slavery: the stealing of one’s life and livelihood by the rich and the powerful.

But what were the crimes of Jesus?  According to Matthew, Jesus was one who walked amongst the poorest classes of Galilean society, healing and offering words of hope. He got into trouble, it seems, because his message contradicted that of the temple-based aristocracy, who regarded anyone who was poor as 'unclean' or sinful and therefore cut-off from the covenant of Israel with Yahweh.  Jesus challenged their theology and therefore their politics.  He preached that the kingdom of God belonged to the poor, that God loved the poor and heard their cries.  He taught the wretched to call God 'Father', and the privileged to share their bounty with the needy.  He healed those whom polite society did not regard as worthy of being healed. He brought back into mainstream society those who had been cast to its dark and vulnerable edges. All this was far too threatening for the aristocracy, apparently. They worried that it might draw the attention of the Empire in a way that reflected badly upon their capacity to manage dissent. So they arrested Jesus on some trumped-up charges, staged a show trial, and then had him crucified, a death reserved for those found guilty of sedition against the State.

So why did Jesus die?  Because he loved the poor, the vulnerable, and the broken and believed that God loved them too. And that, my friends, is why I personally am a Christian.  Jesus is a sign in the world of God’s love for slaves.  And I love him for it.

The writer to the Philippians calls us to imitate this Christ. 'Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others' he says.  But who are these 'others'?  Well, they are the poor, the wretched and the vulnerable of our nation and our world.  Many of them are our neighbours. Many of them are our fellow Christians, those who sit next to us in church. In a great many cases, they are our very own selves because it is we, ourselves, who are poor, or wretched or vulnerable in some way. Whoever these poor are, God calls us to shoulder their cross, which is the cross of Christ first of all; to turn aside from the pursuit of status, money and privilege, and nurture, instead, an active compassion for God's poor.  Compassion, of course, means ‘suffering-with’, sharing in the affliction and the darkness of all who suffer.  This is what Christ did for us.  This is what God calls us to do with others. I wish you all a holy passiontide.

Garry Deverell

St Paul's Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne, Palm Sunday 2023

Friday, 3 March 2023

'Saved by the Cross of Christ'. But How?

 Text:  Romans 3.22b-31

According to the Apostle Paul, you and I are made right in God’s eyes not by our keeping of God’s law or commandments, but by our faith in God’s gracious gift of righteousness which, we are told, comes to us by way of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. In this event, we are told, God reconciles us to himself, for the death of Jesus is not just any death. It is a sacrifice of atonement that puts aside the sin that estranges us from God so that we might be reconciled to God once more. Therefore, says Paul, there can be no room for boasting in the Christian community. Who we are and what we have is a gift, pure and simple. No one can brag about how much they’ve achieved, because the power to be right in God’s eyes is a power that comes not from the human person, but from the free sacrifice of God’s own son for our sake.

Surely we moderns would have a few questions to ask about all this, however. If God is willing to forgive our sins, no matter how good or bad we’ve been, why doesn’t God just get on and do that without any fuss? Why is it necessary to have all this complicated business about sacrificing Jesus on the cross? Wouldn’t it have been easier for God to say ‘I’m o.k., you’re o.k.’ and leave it at that? And wouldn’t Jesus himself have been significantly better off?

Well, a number of theories have been put forward to explain why Jesus had to die, some of them better than others. The one that has been most influential in our own Reformed tradition was championed by Jean Calvin and is often known as the theory of ‘penal substitution’. Here God is likened to a Lawmaker and Judge who, having made the laws that define sin and goodness, is now compelled to enforce that law for the sake of consistency, even if the consequences are catastrophic. For if the penalty of sin is death, then all are destined to suffer the punishment of death, for all have sinned. Now, that can be put in a more nuanced way, of course. One could argue that death is not a penalty that God imposes so much as the interior meaning of sin itself—i.e. that sin is the beginning of death in the midst of life, because it is a straying from God as the source of life—which I think is right. Yet the logical result, in the end, is still the same. That everyone who sins dies, and that God, having made a universe in which it works like that, is still ultimately responsible for the fact. What Calvin argued for, as a way of salvation for us all, was the death of the righteous man Jesus, in the place of the rest of humanity, who are sinners. Jesus is punished instead of us. Jesus dies in our place, so that we don’t have to be punished at all.

There are a number of rather obvious problems with this account. First, how is it possible that the sacrifice of only one righteous man manages to pay the debt of sin for all people? Isn’t there are serious mismatch there? Why would God, under his own rule of an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ wipe out the debt of millions? Second, and more seriously in my view, isn’t there something a little immoral in letting people off the hook so easily? If people who are troubled by their own sins, or the sins of their world, turn up to church and all we have to tell them is that ‘God is no longer angry about your sin—all God’s anger was spent on Jesus’, I’m not sure that they’re going to be that impressed. Because the next day they’re going to be caught up in sin all over again, and they’re not going to feel that sin has been finally dealt with.

There is something deep in the human psyche that knows jolly well that sin cannot be entirely done away with apart from an act of the will, a deeply moral choice to turn away from one’s past and live differently. We all know that moral truth, deep down. From that perspective, then, a God who lets us off the hook apart from that moral striving would be an immoral God. Note that Paul himself, at the end of the passage we read just now, does not exempt Christians from keeping the law of God. Finally, then, the biggest problem with the penal substitution theory of atonement is that it is all so objective, and impersonal. It’s like ‘O, so Jesus suffered the punishment for my sin? Right. And all this happened two-thousand years ago? Right. Well. That’s great, I guess, but why don’t I feel forgiven?’ To summarise: we all know, deep down, that an objective transaction between Jesus and his Father a long time ago is of no real help for us right now, in this world, at this time, in the midst of the broken lives we are dealing with.

So, if Jesus didn’t die to take God’s punishment for my sins, what possible purpose can there be in his death? And, more importantly, what relevance (if any) has that death for us today, here in the midst of our struggles with sins both personal and corporate? Well, strangely enough, some of the answers can be found in the passage we just read. For what Paul says about the death of Jesus is this: that it is his sacrificial death that effects an atonement or a reconciliation between God and ourselves. Sacrificial. That word is the key. Let me dwell on that for a moment.

Now, any botanist or zoologist will tell you that in order for some kinds of lives to continue, other lives have to come to an end - in order for human beings to stay alive, for example, plants and animals have to lose their lives. This pattern is repeated a hundred times over in the biosphere of which we are merely a part. Now, this simple biological fact has been dramatised since ancient times by means of various rituals of sacrifice. For the Jewish people, a system of ritual animal and vegetable sacrifices served to remind them that their lives were made possible because of death. What the Jews added to this basic anthropological understanding, though, was a theology—a story about what this might mean for God. God, they believed, had made a personal sacrifice even in creating the world. For the existence of the world spoke of a God who had chosen to limit or sacrifice God’s influence and power so that another reality or power, a cosmos, could come into being—a cosmos inhabited by beings who were genuinely free to exercise an independent will and power over and against the will and power of God. Theologically, one could then say that life itself, especially human life, can only be because God chose, and continues to choose, to sacrifice something of God’s sovereignty out of a desire to form a relationship or covenant with a cosmos and humanity that are in no way simply puppets, playthings of divine power. What this Jewish theology means, of course, is that God can no longer be thought as a monarch or tyrant who always gets his way. On the contrary, this God is one who freely chooses to be vulnerable, vulnerable to all that we human beings would do. God sacrifices God’s power and will that we human beings might be capable centres of will and power as well. We do not, of course, use our freedom and power particularly well. By and large, we have used our will and power to turn away from God, making the world according to our own independent vision.

In this perspective, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross should be seen, first of all, as a divine self-sacrifice. Not the killing of an innocent man to turn aside the wrath of an angry tyrant, but a potent and effective symbol of the way God was, and is, and always will be with the world. A God of costly love. A God who sacrifices God’s own will to create the possibility of relationship with his others, with you and me. For Jesus is not simply you and me. He is God, the divine Son who goes out from the Father to invite all to turn away from the terrible wastefulness of sin and be reconciled to God. Jesus is God’s invitation to turn, to repent, and to accept God’s ever-new invitation to be reconciled with God in making a world that is finally healed and whole, a world of peace or shalom. Jesus is God’s invitation to forgiveness which is, of course, nothing other than the making-new of a broken relationship.

But there is another aspect to the sacrifice of Jesus, and this is the bit of the story that Calvin and his followers have never, ever come to terms with. The sacrifice of Jesus, you see, is a symbol not only of God’s sacrifice for our sake, but also of humanity’s sacrifice for God’s sake. Let me repeat that. The cross of Jesus is a symbol not only of God’s sacrifice for our sake, but also of humanity’s sacrifice for God’s sake. Jesus, you see, is not only God. He is a human being who shares our nature in every way. He is one who has none of the privileges of his father: he does not see all, he does not understand all, he cannot do anything that he wishes to. Christ confronted his own future with nothing other than the resources that are given to everyone. In that, he was utterly and entirely human. Yet, and this is crucial, Christ is unique in the pantheon of human histories because he used his freedom, his will, and his personal resources, not to please himself alone, nor even to serve the collective will of his society and culture, but to do the will of his Father God. What Christ desired, more than anything else it seems, was to love and serve the one who loved and served him. In this perspective, the sacrifice of Christ is the sacrifice that any human being could make if they really and truly desired relationship with God: the putting away of all that keeps us from knowing and loving God, all those unhealthy addictions and allegiances, so that there is room in our lives for what God might will and desire. In that sense, Christ is what each of us might be if we truly loved and trusted God.

This, then, is how the death of Jesus saves us, right here and now, in the midst of the real world we must negotiate every day. It reminds us that God is no tyrant, but one who continually sacrifices God’s own life that we might be alive and free. It reminds us that God is continually inviting us to have done with evil and violence and turn, instead, towards a reconciled relationship with God, a reconciliation that makes for peace, justice and love in the world. But the death of Jesus reminds us, also, that there are no short-cuts to reconciliation with God. We, too, are called to make our sacrifice. For that is how it is with relationship. Each partner receives his or her life from the other, from the other’s willingness to be hospitable, to make space in their hearts for other’s desires and dreams. So let’s face the fact, squarely: in a world such as ours, making room for God’s dreams means, in the end, a very costly putting aside or sacrificing of many of our own dreams, those dreams bequeathed to us by family and society—the dream of a prosperity that doesn’t include people other than own family or tribe, for example. Without dying to idols such as these, says the gospel, without joining with Jesus in his deliberately counter-cultural lifestyle, there can be no salvation.

The grace offered us in Christ, you see, is not cheap grace but “costly” grace. I quote Bonhoeffer once more, of course. Yes, God has invited us to God’s banqueting-table. Yes, God has sacrificed God’s own self in order to make it possible for us to be reconciled with joy. Yes, God has shown us to the way in Christ. But no, we will never get there unless we struggle daily to make Christ’s way our own, to accept God’s grace in the shape of a daily discipleship that calls upon the power of Christ’s Spirit to resist the spirit of the world in which we live. That is how Christ saves us: by calling us to sacrifice ourselves, via a thoroughgoing participation in Jesus’ own sacrifice, so that in dying to this world and its sin, we might have done with such things, and share in the glorious future of the children of God.

Garry Deverell

St Paul's Catheral
Evensong, 7th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, 5 February 2023

The Law, the Prophets and Justice for First Peoples

Texts: Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20

In the gospel reading we heard from just now, Matthew has Jesus say: 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So what is this ‘law’ that Jesus does not intend to abolish, and who are these ‘prophets’ whose oracles Jesus intends to fulfill? 

The law is the law of Moses, the law given to Israel after they have fled slavery in Egypt. You know, the ten words or commandments. You can read about them in Exodus chapter 20.  Amongst the laws are these:

You shall have no gods before Yahweh.

You shall not worship idols.

Keep the sabbath.

You shall not murder.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

You shall not covet what belongs to your neighbour.

‘Do not think, for one moment,’ says the Matthean Jesus, ‘that I have come to do away with this law.  I have not.  This law will stand until the age has reached its conclusion. Keep this law, and you will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Break this law, and you will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven’.

The law stands, then. It has not be swept away by some cheap and unnuanced understanding of ‘grace’ or ‘forgiveness’, as some seem to believe. It stands. And you and I, who believe in the teaching of Jesus, are called to keep it.

The prophets, whose oracles Jesus came to fulfill, bear witness to the importance of the law. It was on the basis of this law that Isaiah, for example, passed judgment on the nobles and landowners of Israel in the 8th century BCE. 

Isaiah criticises the wealthy for abandoning the law of God in three respects. First, they steal from their own workers, those who labour in their farms and vineyards. They cheat their workers of their just wages. Second, they tell lies about one another and plan violent assaults upon one another in the hope of securing the wealth that belongs to their neighbours. Third, they are content to allow the hungry in their communities to remain hungry. They will not share their plenty with those who are poor through no fault of their own. They will not take such folk into their homes and tend their wounds. They remain aloof and uncaring. Thus, in these three respects, the wealthy are chided by the prophet for their lack of neighbourly care. For a neighbour who cares will not steal. A neighbour who cares will not lie and plan violence against othersr. A neighbour who cares, will not hoard what they have and fail to share it with those who have nothing.

Now, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is like a new Moses, a new Isaiah. He is Moses comes from Egypt to give the law again. He is Isaiah come to warn the wealthy Jewish collaborators with Empire – the Roman empire – that their greed and indifference will result only in their ruin.

‘Why’, he says, ‘can you not be like salt, which gives a meal its tang, and makes it attractive?’ ‘Why,’ he says, ‘can you not be like a light on a hill, paragons of justice that inspire others to be good, and to love, and to take mind of one’s neighbours?’

These are exactly the questions that face us as a church and a nation.

Australia is a nation that has become powerful by coveting, stealing,  murdering and slaving. Coveting Aboriginal lands, murdering those who sought to defend it, stealing that land and carrying its children off into slavery and domestic servitude.

Our church worked hand in glove with the colonial authorities. We participated in the stealing, the murdering and the slaving. Indeed, we actually ran the institutions that did a lot of the damage.

That, my friends, is why Aboriginal Australia is in such distress, even now. It is why we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. It is why our kids take their own lives at rates unrivalled by any other people group. It is why we regularly die in the custody of justice officials but no one has ever – ever! – been held accountable for such deaths. It is why we still have so little ownership or control of our own lives or the land that was given us by God. It is why we most of us remain sick and poor.

All because church and state broke every single one of those commandments that Jesus came to teach and to fulfill. All because the church failed in the duty to be a neighbour.

Now, for thirty years, I have seen the church pray for Aboriginal people. I have seen the church say sorry to Aboriginal people. I’ve even seen the church set up Aboriginal councils, ‘Voices’, if you will, to advise Synods and bishop’s councils on what to do about the Aboriginal ‘problem’. What I have not seen in those 30 years, however, is a church that will do anything much at all about justice, about the fulfilling of the law and the prophets after the way of Jesus. I have not seen a church hand back the land it stole. I have not seen a church compensate the families of those whose children it took away and sold into slavery or domestic servitude. I have never seen a church do positive things to reverse the trends: set Aboriginal employment benchmarks, or give to Aboriginal leaders real power in the church to do things differently, in ways that make sense to us, in ways that will foster pride and the healing.  I have not seen the church do any of these neighbourly things.  I have not seen a church that can even begin to understand what costly love might require.

I have only seen a church of thoughts and prayers, of words and glossy brochures.

In this way the tragedy of the church in this place, in this country, is related to the tragedy of my people. By failing to be the church – to love the neighbour rather than murder, rape and steal from the neighbour – the church guarantees that its neighbour will suffer rather than thrive.  The church carries the guilt of its original sin, and so fails to thrive. To be salty, to be a light for the nations.

But the good news is this: the story of our church and nations is not yet complete, it is not yet over.  I am here with you today to remind you of your power to change the story.  Allow me to quote from Isaiah once more: 

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

As we prepare to enter the fast known as Lent, there is before us yet another opportunity for the church to turn around, to forsake its evils, and to walk the way of Christ. To embrace a far more thoroughgoing fast. To finally do some measure of justice, so that the oppressed can begin their long walk to freedom.  For in the freedom of Aboriginal peoples is your freedom. In the liberation of those whom you have long oppressed is your own liberation. 

So, write to your churchly leaders, if you have a care. Implore them to do justice on your behalf. Write to your national leaders, implore them to take care for the First People of this land. Implore them all to make treaty with us, to enact a more just settlement that is able to heal the wounds that rend us all.  If you do this, your light will finally rise and the gloom that afflicts us all will be replaced by the brightness of noon.

I stand amongst you as one who does not like to say these things because doing so places me in a vulnerable position. But, as a disciple of Christ who knows nothing but Christ and him crucified, it sometimes falls to me to say what needs to be said. So I encourage you, I implore you, I beg you: choose to walk with Jesus as he commends to us the way of the law and the prophets. In this way lies justice for First Peoples, and ultimately healing for us all.

Garry Deverell

St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2023

Sunday, 11 December 2022

Hope, Patience and Justice

Isaiah 35.1-10; Magnificat; James 5.7-10

The letter of James, which we read just now, says:

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. 

This morning I want to speak a little about what it might mean to be patient as we wait for the coming of the Lord.  For quite clearly, the Lord has not yet come. Not in his fulness, not to transform the world and human community into the image of God’s lovingkindness. For if the Lord had already come in that way, we would not need to pray our prayers of intercession. We would not need to sing the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, as we do this morning and at evening prayer.  The despots would already have been removed from their thrones and the poor raised up. The rich would already have been sent away empty, and the hungry filled with good things. The swords would already have been beaten into ploughshares, and we would be at peace.

That this is not the case means, quite simply, that the messiah has not yet come. On that, and many other things, Jews and Christians are agreed.  So, what are we to do in the meantime?  What are we to do as we wait for the crops of justice to grow, as both Isaiah and James imagine? What are we to do whilst we wait for our hope to be realised?

Well, according to St James, there are two things we can do.  

The first, he says, is to stop grumbling against one another: to stop judging one another.  For, that is one of our finer skills as Christian people. Do we not look across the desk or the table or stare into our screens that those we disapprove of, and do we not ruminate upon the ways in which those people are unworthy, somehow, of love or affection? For all the problems in the world come from other people, do they not? Surely Jean-Paul Sartre was right when he said that ‘hell is other people’!  If only they were not around, we could fix things! If only they were not around, the world could be put to rights! We imagine, do we not, that when Christ returns it is they who will get their comeuppance, whilst we, the truly good and righteous people, will be received into the divine halls? Or perhaps it is only me who thinks that way. Perhaps it is only me who needs to hear the divine command ‘judge not, lest you be judged’.  But more of that later.

The second thing James says that we can do whilst waiting for Christ is to suffer patiently like the prophets. Which is something of an oxymoron. At least it appears to be. For the prophets, on my reading, were rarely patient. Indeed, one might more accurately describe them as paradigm examples of the impatient! They were impatient about the abuse of power, they were impatient about hypocritical religious types, they were impatient for the liberation of the poor and the raising up of the marginalised. And they expressed their impatience and frustration loudly, and in the places where they were most likely to cop a beating for their trouble. So, what’s patient about that?  A fair question, I reckon!

The kind of patience we are called to exercise as Christians is not, in fact, a ‘quietist’ kind of patience, patience understood as a meek and mild acceptance of all the wrongs in the world, as if there is nothing we can do to change things.  For, if the harvest of justice is to arrive, we are called to be farmers and horticulturalists, that is, people who not only wait for the seed to grow, but also work hard to prepare the soil, and plan meticulously to ensure that the most optimal growing conditions are in place. I have never met a husband of the land – least of all amongst mob – who sits back and does nothing when there are hungry mouths to feed.  For us, the care and nurture of the land remains a daily responsibility. For, to our way of looking at things, if we do not tend the land with loving care then we should not be surprised or angry if the land fails to be fruitful.  If the land is to be fruitful, it should be tended. Carefully, and with unhurried patience. 

So it is with the friends of God and the prophets of this current age.  If justice is to arrive, we must work at it patiently. If Christ is to arrive, then we must sow the seeds of justice with sobriety and regular, even ritual, attention.  Which is precisely what Christ did when he came around the first time. He went amongst the villages of Galilee giving sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, hearing to the deaf and belonging to the poor and excluded. All of which can be understood as a sowing of seed, a preparing of the ground. Because not all were healed, not all found themselves welcomed back into community. Not all were raised to life.  What was done was a sign and a promise of what is yet to come: justice and healing for all.  But now it is our turn. It is the special calling of the church to become these signs anew, in our community and in our politics.  It is we who are called to tend the land and sow the seed.  It is for God to make the seed grow and bring the harvest to fulfillment. But we each have our part in preparing the way.

That’s all well and good. But still I am troubled by a question, a question that hides between the two instructions James has left us, a question that hovers between the injunctions to ‘stop judging’ and ‘suffer patiently like the prophets’.  And it’s this: how can we name what has gone wrong, and work towards a more just alternative, if we are never allowed to judge other human beings? Is it not human beings who commit the crimes? Is it not human beings who make the policies that result in persecution, harm, and even death for vulnerable populations? Is it not human beings who exploit the earth and render it uninhabitable in so many places?  How, then, can we be prophets who cry out for justice if we can never judge our fellows for their crimes?

You will perhaps understand how I might struggle with this question as a trawloolway man, an Aboriginal person, a member of that people against whom much wrong has been done, and continues to be done.

Well, the way I see it (and I’m happy to be corrected) is that we are called to ‘hate sins, but to love humankind’ as St Augustine put it in one of his letters. We can work against what people do to harm the earth and each other, in other words, but this does not require us to condemn the people who do it to hellfire and damnation. The scandal of the the gospel is that no-one is beyond the love and mercy of God. All are loved, even if what they do is evil. And that goes as much for Hitler, and Pol Pot, as it does for the thousands of good churchmen who massacred our people. We must work as hard as we can to discern how evil is present, and to limit the effects of that evil in our hearts and in our world. But we simply do not have the authority to pass final judgement on any human being, least of all ourselves.  That is something for God alone. So we should leave those matters to God. We are not called to respond to hate with hate, but to love our neighbours as Christ has loved us.

So, allow me to summarise what James encourages us to do whilst we wait for Christ to arrive. Don’t judge or condemn anyone, lest you yourself are condemned. And work for justice with the patience, and love, and consistency of the prophets. If we do these things, we will have done our part. The rest is for God, and for the Christ who will come to recast the cosmos in the image and likeness of divine love.

Garry Deverell

3rd Sunday of Advent, 2022
St Paul's Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

'Wait without Hope': Contemplation and consumer society

In 'East Coker' (1940), the second of his Four Quartets, TS Eliot wrote this:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Here Eliot names what is essential, I believe, to the apprehension of genuine contemplatives, whether they be Christian or more anciently Aboriginal in their ontology or phenomenology of expression. What Eliot names here is the interruption, the breaking, the ending or even the impossibility, of everyday life. For everyday life is indeed broken, is it not? In the wake of modernity, with its autonomic production of desires which gobble up and consume not only our sacred souls but also the very earth itself, are we not broken? Are we not spent? Are we not dazed, hazed, bewildered and confused, and are we not desperately, rapaciously lonely? And is this not the case even for those of us who seek to transcend this condition through practices and rituals designed to calm and soothe our flagging spirits? Do we not hope desperately, and prematurely? Do we not love forcibly and possessively? Do we not trust, blindly, in whatever phantasm we have conjured up from the ruins of our creativity?

The one thing moderns do not do, ever, is to pause, to stop, to empty ourselves, to cease with that endless churning through of problems and solutions, all smoke and mirrors and digital shadows. We never command ourselves to be still in the night time of modernity - so that we may give ourselves over to unthinking, to unknowing, to a genuine hollowing out of every idea or ethic, whether good, bad or indifferent.  We do not call for an end to desire, which forever threatens to consume every object, or person, or affect of light or of landscape that wanders into our orbit.  Not even in meditation, as it is most commonly practiced. For, as Slavoj Zizek rightly intuits, much of the consumer meditation industry is about patching up the tired and the stressed and the broken so that we can reengage in the very forms of neoliberal work, family and entertainment that made us tired, stressed and broken in the first place. 

What we need is a different form of life, a more deeply interfused weave of being, a more visceral form of relationship with each other and with the cosmos.  What we need is to get outside of our neoliberal, differentiated selves. We need to get outside of the world we have created through the endless self-production of desire. What we need is to get out of our heads and our hearts in the direction of a radical openness to what the Indigenous nations of this continent call, quite simply, 'country'. Country is, for we natives, both radically material and radically divine. It is the embodiment of the divine in pathways, waterways, skyways and the ritual songs that make them navigable. Country is, for us, a patterned network of reciprocal kinship with all living things: plants, animals, people, weather patterns and even rocks, which actually vibrate with ancestral presence. Each of us are born to a specific country, and there we belong. Country tells us who we are, to whom we belong, and what our part will be in the profound responsibility to care for country and its strong but fragile ecologies. For if we take our part in the communal vocation of caring for country, all of country will care for us. Crucially, this is not something we choose by virtue of  ourself-actualization as autonomous selves. It is simply given. It precedes and exceeds us. It gives us a unique and irreplaceable place in a patterned whole. 

In Aborignal perspective, then, as much as in the Christian mysticism of Mr Eliot, the answer to our woes lies not within, but without: in country, or the givenness of things in themselves, rather than in what we would forge from them out of selves that look only to possess, to consume and to colonise.  To walk on country is not, therefore, simply to bathe oneself in the sensuality of occasional contact with the wonders of 'nature' - wonderfully healing though this experience can be in itself - but also to stop and to stay, to engage in a more sustained waiting, to observe how each thread of the tapestry depends on each other thread for its life and its purpose.  To wait long enough to see that life and death and life again are woven into the fabric of the bush, just as Christ and his paschal self-emptying are woven into the persistent creativity of the cosmos.

Which brings me, at the last, to the very next lines in Eliot's poem:

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Let us, like country itself, be contemplatives who are able to die to ourselves - to our hungry and self-serving desire for the phantasmic dreams of modernity - that we might be reborn to that more expansive self that is a deep and abiding kinship with all creation. 

Garry Worete Deverell

This brief talk was shared as part of a panel for the Contemplative Studies Centre (University of Melbourne) and the Australian Association for the Study of Religion, on November the 29th, 2022.