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Sunday 5 December 2010

Rejoice! A study in faith's absurdity

Texts:  Isaiah 11.1-10; Ps 72.1-7, 18-19; Rom 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12
Like most all of the lections we read during Advent, the Scriptures for today describe two kinds of reality.  First they describe the world as it is now, a world dominated by the rich, the unscrupulous and the powerful at the expense of the poor, the principled and the vulnerable.  Then they imagine or look forward to a day in which the tables are turned, a day when the poor, the vulnerable and the faithful will rejoice in God’s salvation, while their enemies are done away with forever.  In the Matthew reading, for example, John the Baptist announces God’s supreme displeasure at the behaviour of the Jewish elites who governed Judea in the first half of the 1st century.  These royal and priestly classes had chosen to collaborate with the invading Romans in order to preserve their status and wealth, even though this meant turning a blind eye to the way in which the invaders exploited and robbed the ordinary folk of their very livelihoods.  John castigates them for their poisonous hypocrisy.  Like the prophet Isaiah before him, John warns that a ‘day of the Lord’ is at hand, a cataclysmic day in which all their faithless and self-serving ways would be exposed, while the faithful ones, those who suffer because of the sins of these elites, would be vindicated forever.  I quote: 
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Get the gist?  The day of the Lord is like a deluge of fire.  The faithful ones are like wheat, preserved from the fire and taken to God’s own heart.  But the deceitful ones, who only want to protect themselves, are like the worthless chaff that is thrown into the fire and burned.  The outcome of that purgatorial cleansing is beautifully described in the song of praise we heard from the vision of Isaiah.  There the prophet imagines a world in which the remnant of God’s people, the righteous and the weak, who survive the punishment of their oppressors, are gathered to God in such a way that their experience of misery and shame is transformed utterly.  The song imagines a future where the people of God will experience reconciliation with their enemies and with God, rejoicing in God’s gift of peace for all time to come:  ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.’

It’s a wonderful vision.  So wonderful that I sometimes feel that it’s all too good to be true!  Of course, I have no difficultly with the part of the story that describes the evil and self-serving corruption of the elites.  Who could deny it?  At this time of year our political leaders come out with platitudes about peace on earth and the importance of defending human rights and democratic freedoms. Right now, at this moment, Nelson Mandela is being lauded as a champion of such Western values.  At the same time, both at home and abroad, political prisoners are being denied their democratic rights to legal representation and a fair trial. American drones are bombing large populations of non-combatant civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The folk who flee the brutal conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Syria are being detained for up to five years while their cases are being examined.  And our domestic gaols are overwhelmingly populated by two groups of suffering people for whom the wider community seems not to care: Aboriginal people and the mentally ill.  These facts completely undermine the West’s apparent commitment to justice and human dignity.  In the face of such hypocrisy, I feel angry, I feel powerless, and eventually I succumb to what some have called “hope-fatigue.”  Bono – from the rock band U2 - said it all in his memorable song from 2001: 
Jesus won’t you take the time
to throw this drowning man a line
   “Peace on earth.”
I hear it every Christmastime
but hope and history just won’t rhyme,
so what’s it worth,
   this “peace on earth”?

The fact that Advent coincides with Australia’s summer festival doesn’t help the situation, for me.  As a child summer was the time when all our family friends went to the beach for a holiday.  In summer, we knew that we were poor and that neither our church nor our community really gave two hoots.  I still feel that.  It still hurts.  The feeling is compounded by all the rampant consumption that dominates our cultural landscape at this time of year.  Because of what I experienced as a child, I find it difficult to see anything in all of this consumption apart from a complete indifference to the suffering of other people.  In the Philippines, right now, there are kids starving because they don’t have enough to eat.  In Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Columbia, kids are being sold into sex-slavery so that the rest of their families will be able to stay alive.  Even here in Australia, there are thousands and thousands of families who find it difficult to put a roof over their heads or pay the grocery bill.  Yet, each summer, middle-class Australians escape to their second or third homes at the beach and indulge in an exchange of goods which is surplus, entirely surplus, to anything they might possibility need.  Again, I feel sick to the stomach.  I feel overwhelmed at the enormity of this indifference.  In the middle of all of this nausea I simply find it difficult to believe that a day of salvation is at hand.  Very difficult. 

Now, part of my anxiety about all of this is clearly emotional and psychological.  It is tied up with my experience of the world, and the narratives I create to account for that experience.  But part of the anxiety is also theological, and has more to do with a puzzle which the bible itself sets up, and puts into play.  Let me try and spell it out for you.  Here, this world:  evil, corrupt, rich getting richer, poor getting more miserable.  There, world to come:  peace, joy, no more bad guys, vindication for all who suffered at their hands.   Great distance from here to there.  How is the distance crossed?  How do we get from here to there?  On this particular point, the “how” bit, the bible doesn’t seem to be very clear, almost as though it doesn’t actually know how.  On my worst and most cynical days, this does not inspire confidence!

Of course, the theologians have tried to fill in the gaps in the biblical witness.  Theologians like to do that.  The ‘evangelicals’ say that Jesus will return with a whole army of heaven and whip the nasty people’s backsides.  Then he’ll wave his kingly sceptre and the world will return to an Eden-like state in which we’ll all love each other the way that God loves us.  But this theory raises more questions than it solves.  Amongst other things, one must ask why Jesus would behave so very differently on his second visit than he did on his first.  The first time around he didn’t force anyone to do anything.  He invited, he loved, he argued forcefully, he exampled a different way to be.  But he didn’t compel anyone to do anything.  That would have been to override the human freedom we have, apparently so prized by God that he allows us to use that freedom to do evil.  Wouldn’t a powerful army of warrior-angels kind’ve undermine that whole God-is-love image, God as the supreme protector of our responsibility to choose?

“Damn right,” say the ‘liberal’ theologians, “let’s attend more closely to the story as it’s actually told.”  That God became a child, one of us.  He was born in our midst, full of grace and truth.  He went about the place healing, driving out our demons, and teaching us how to love one another.  But then the rich elites got hold of him.  They tortured him and nailed him to a cross.  Sure, there was a resurrection, but it’s all rather mysterious.  Now you see him, now you don’t.  He lives on in the world as a kind of memory or spirit of the good.  Perhaps this suggests that God is like our deepest and best self?  God changes the world only when we decide to change the world.  God prompts and pricks our conscience, but refuses to do anything other than what we choose to do for ourselves.  Giving our second coat to someone who needs it, to pick a relevant Scriptural example.  But again, I’m really not sure that this theory solves anything much.  It makes a mockery, for instance, of all those bible passages which insist that it is not we, ourselves, who make the world’s salvation, but God alone.  By grace, the action of God, are we saved through faith, and this is the gift of God, not of human works, lest any man should boast (Eph 2.8,9).  If the liberal theory were believed, then I would personally consider the whole hope-of-salvation thing to be no more than a cruel joke visited upon us by a God who raises our hopes and expectations, but never intends to meet them with anything real.

Well.  What’s to be done with all of this?  What am I to do with the anxiety of my lived experience?  What am I to do with the theological conundrum?  When in doubt, I have often considered it wise to take a break from all the anxiety and tell a story.  A story takes you out of yourself, and here’s a good one I came across one day.

The time has come for St. Peter's annual three-week vacation, and Jesus volunteers to fill in for him at the Pearly Gates. "It's no big deal," Peter explains.  "Sit at the registration desk, and ask each person a little about his or her life.  Then send them on to housekeeping to pick up their wings."

On the third day, Jesus looks up to see a bewildered old man standing in front of him. 

"I'm a simple carpenter," says the man.   "And once I had a son.  He was born in a very special way, and was unlike anyone else in this world.  He went through a great transformation even though he had holes in his hands and feet.  He was taken from me a long time ago, but his spirit lives on forever.  All over the world people tell his story."

By this time, Jesus is standing with his arms outstretched.  There are tears in his eyes, and he embraces the old man.

"Father," he cries out, "It's been so long!"

The old man squints, stares for a moment, and says, "Pinocchio?"

This story is not an ordinary story.  It is a joke.  A joke distinguishes itself from a story as such by introducing an unexpected element into what would otherwise be all very familiar.  In this story, we expected that the old man would squint and say “Jesus?”  We were set up for that by everything that went before—the religious setting, the details about the old man’s son.  But the story transcended its own boundaries and became a joke by taking us by surprise, by shocking us with the arrival of something entirely unforseen.  Parables are like that as well.  They subvert the rules of the game.  And the greatest parable of all is Jesus.

You see, John’s hearers expected that their messiah would come along to whip the Romans with superior military strength.  They were wrong.  And our own expectations, all these years later, are probably just as misguided.  Whether we are evangelicals who expect that Christ will change things one day by the might of his superior power, or whether we are liberals who expect that Christ is so much one of us that he is only able to help those who help themselves, we are probably all mistaken.  For the story of Christ is still in motion, and we are not privy to the punch-line.  In another part of Matthew’s gospel, a part we read last week, we are told only that we cannot know what is to happen, or how.  For the punch-line is God’s.  As Jesus shocked the Greeks with his human weakness, and scandalised the Jews by his failure and cross, so this fool from God will appear a second time.  And while we moderns may pretend to have followed the story so far, the joke, the punch-line, will surely leave us all so gob-smacked that the only response available to us will be to be astonished, to laugh, to rejoice. 

For that is what we humans do when we are genuinely surprised.  We absorb the shock, we adjust our imagination, and then we laugh!  Like Sarai at the announcement of her old-age pregnancy with Isaac.  Like the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came near with the Christ-child.  That is why Paul counsels the Romans to cease their sniping at each other and rejoice.  Stop trying to control the outcomes, stop trying to whip your opponents with their lack of understanding, he says.  Instead, surrender your concerns into God’s hands.  Relax into that surprising peace which surpasses all understanding.  The peace that is absurd.  The strange peace that we have cannot have manufactured for ourselves, because it defies every effort at human reasoning.

On my better days I see that Advent hope is a choice.  It’s about believing in the possibility of surprise.  It’s about believing that our tragic and repetitive history has an unforseen and unpredictable punch-line which will fly in the face of everything that either the evidence or our secular reason might cause us to expect.  And that’s the hope I encourage from you as well.  The hope of a Mary of Nazareth who, in that ancient time of Advent waiting, become a bearer of the impossible to a tired and un-surprisable world.  Rejoice, people of God!  For while the night may be filled with tears, joy shall indeed come with the morning.  How, I have no idea!  But I believe it shall come.

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church in December 2004.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Shalom Dreaming - hope and endurance

Texts: Isaiah 65.17-25; Luke 21.5-19

When the exiles returned to Jerusalem, their prophets imagined a time when the misery of former times would no longer be remembered: the fundamental injustice and corruption of Hebrew society in the period before Jerusalem's destruction; the fall of Jerusalem to the foreign invader; the captivity of Israel's noble families in Babylon.  In the passage from Isaiah, the prophet declares that these memories of trauma and disgrace are to be put aside forever, because God has begun the work of making a new Jerusalem out of the ashes of the old, a Jerusalem characterised by peace, or Shalom.

Where the former Jerusalem had ignored the terms of covenant with Yahweh, this new Jerusalem would be a 'joy and delight' to its God.  The resources of Israel would no longer be concentrated into the hands of the aristocratic few.  The peasantry would no longer suffer the early deaths of malnutrition and disease, because they would now enjoy equal access to the land's bounty.  Neither would the majority be alienated from the fruits of their labour.  No longer would they work for others without just recompense.  No, in this new Jerusalem of Yahweh's making, the poor would live in the houses they built and enjoy the harvest of their own planting.  Shalom.

Alongside these covenantal social reforms, the prophet anticipates a new depth of spiritual communion between the people and their God.  In former times, the people had cried out to God for deliverance from their ills.  Yet God, on many occasions, had seemed distant and unresponsive: as distant and unresponsive as the people sins had made them from God.  But now God would come closer than ever before.  Even before the cry of distress came to people's lips, God would already be present to offer assurance and care.  Here the prophet implies not so much a change in God as a change in the people's approach to God.  In times gone by, the people would cry out to God for help.  Yet they had shown little inclination to mend their ways by returning to the peaceful terms of the covenant.  The prophet dreams of a time when the spirituality of the people is thoroughly covenantal, where the people are more intimately and wholeheartedly lovers of God.  Shalom.

Finally, the prophet indulges in a little cosmological dreaming.  Not only will the people enjoy peace, but the non-human order also. The imagery here is quite beautiful:

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together;
the lion shall eat straw like an ox;
. . . they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.

This is a vision of cosmic peace, where even 'natural' enmities have been put aside; where even carnivorous animals become vegetarians!
Now, contrast all of that with the rather bleak vision of Jerusalem presented by Luke's gospel, a Jerusalem that would have been profoundly disappointing to the prophets we've been discussing. For this Jerusalem of the 1st century, far from experiencing covenantal Shalom, is once more the scene of terror and dismay, this time at the hands of the Romans. At the time in which Luke writes, the temple, which so poignantly symbolised the hope of Shalom for so many Jews, was once more in ruins. And with it, one might conclude, so was the ancient Hebraic dream of peace.
How does a community deal with disappointment on this scale, particularly a religious community, which has dreamed such wonderful dreams—dreams about a world reborn to justice, truth and love? How did the black community of America cope when their great dreamer, Martin Luther King Jr., was taken by a sniper's bullet? How did the Salvadoran community deal with the death of their courageous archbishop, Oscar Romero, who had dared to imagine an El Salvador where the poor would be destitute no longer? The easiest thing to do, it seems to me, is to give up the dream, to conclude that the dream is a hoax; or, perhaps, that such dreams belong to an era of idealism which we have wisely left behind. People who come to such conclusions often join the very forces against which they have raged for so long. Like the hippies of the peace and love generation, who grew up to become the kings of western capitalism, thus demonstrating that they were really just as greedy and individualistic as those they had formerly accused.
I must confess to having felt the temptation to abandon the Christian dream on many occasions. Whenever I see a disaster like the inter-ethnic massacres in the Sudan a few of years ago, I feel that temptation. Or the civil wars in Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. For these conflicts are not, in any way, fated or necessary. They are the results of centuries of co-operation between ethnically-based oligarchies and foreign colonialism. They are the result of the greedy exercise of power and a basic lack of care and respect for people and their future. For years, ordinary people in each of these places have been agitating against the power of the privileged few over their lives. And, eventually, they each gained a victory of sorts. The promise of free elections and an end to violence. Yet now, as we speak, the dreams which came into being through the poet-politicians of each of these communities . . . with so many dead and dying, where is all that now? And when I see the decline of genuine Christian witness in the midst of our own increasingly stratified and materialistic society, I ask myself the question: what am I to do? How can I resist the power of these enormous forces?
In that context, the exhortations of Jesus for those who are being persecuted take on a new power. Here in the western church we are not being persecuted with the ferocity that Christians were being persecuted towards the close of the new Testament period. And we are not being killed and maimed like countless Christian workers in Africa, Burma, the Philippines and the Middle-East. But we are facing a time of terrible decision. In the face of the colonising and secularising forces of western capitalism, how are we to respond? Do we simply join in with it all? Do we simply capitulate to the New World Order where the rich get richer and the poor die young. Or do we somehow find the Christian dream once more, and live by it, no matter how difficult?
Jesus stands amongst us this morning, as he did in the Lukan community of old, and encourages us to keep living the dream. 'Don't run after false messiahs', he says. These are the American-styled ‘pentecostal’ preachers who promise peace when there is no peace, who promise a personal relationship with a ‘Jesus’ who does nothing except numb your heart and spirit to the realities of everyday life in much the same way as alcohol does. A real Messiah, I submit, would ask us to bear witness to the Christian dream right in the middle of everyday life, with our eyes open and our hearts and minds alert. Which is precisely what Jesus asks of us: to offer a critique of everyday life in the light of Shalom. To protest. To say it is not good enough that so many thousands of children die of malnutrition, that Aboriginal children suffer in squalor, that the resources of the future are being exported to provide for the greed of today. Don't be afraid, says Jesus, when you make your protest before even the captains of industry or the officials of government. If you keep living in the dream—if you allow it to well up into your thinking, your feeling, your praying—then you will find wisdom and words to do it justice. 
But most of all, when all seems lost, when the whole world seems mad on destroying itself, keep believing the dream. For if you do this, you will, in the end, actually become the dream. You will, in the words of the new Testament, become its body and spirit in the world. For the dream is Christ—all that he did and said as an incarnation of God’s own dreaming or Spirit. Insofar as we allow Christ to become the primary compass for our own living, insofar as we allow his own dream and Spirit to become ours, that is the extent to which the kingdom of Shalom will arrive in our own place and time. That is how the dream will stay alive in the world. So what will you do? Capitulate to the way things are? Or make yourself available for God’s dreaming?

Sunday 31 October 2010

How to become a saint

Texts: Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31 

If the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is to be believed, it is really rather difficult to become a saint.  There are several requirements.  First, one must be dead, which does tend to dampen the ambitions of many a popular preacher!  Second, one must have lived a very virtuous and holy life.  Not necessarily from birth, but certainly from the time when a person first began to follow Christ in earnest.  Third, one must have produced at least two ‘miracles’, that is, unusual phenomena that may not, after careful investigation, be accounted for by reference to the normal processes of what is ‘natural’.  It is quite permissible, as it happens, to produce a miracle after you are dead.  Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, for example, was exhumed from his grave several times over a period of three hundred years, and his body had not decayed in the way that bodies should.  To the Roman authorities, that kind of thing will boost your sainthood score enormously. 

Of course, sainthood was not always so.  In the New Testament a saint is simply a disciple, a person who has heard the gracious call of Christ to follow, and chosen to obey that call out of a fundamental faith and trust in God.  At one level, then, sainthood should never be understood as something one may ‘earn’ through a life of exemplary virtue or heroic deeds.  For sainthood is a gift—the gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ.  It is also true, nevertheless, that there are those who really believe and trust in this love of God, living their lives out of its power . . . and there are those who don’t.  In the passage from Ephesians that we read a moment ago, the writer prays earnestly that his hearers will live out of the enormous power of God, demonstrated in the works God wrought in Christ for our salvation.  Note well, the power is God’s, not ours.  Yet the writer still feels the need to pray that such power may become the most important fact in his hearer’s lives, which implies that they are not yet the people God has called them to be. 

It is in this sense, then, that I can see some point to all the Roman posturing about sainthood.  Underneath all the rules and procedures, under all that detritus of centuries, what the canon-law of saints really says is this:  that saints are people who shine with faith and trust—not in themselves, their own virtues or achievements—but in the virtues and achievements of Christ on their behalf.

This, then, is the paradox of Sainthood or, if you prefer, discipleship.  Disciples live from a power, a virtue, a miracle which they have not generated for themselves.  They depend, utterly, upon Christ.  Yet, it is precisely that attitude of dependent faith which makes them radiate with goodness, care and compassion.  Think about it.  If we have died to ourselves in baptism, if we have been crucified to the basic values of this world, then the life we live in faith is not our own life at all.  It is God’s.  It is the divine life that was made human in Jesus.   We rise from the waters to live the life of Christ: to imitate and repeat his life in our own.  In this perspective, the amazing faith of the saints is no more than a grace that is actually believed in and received, rather than considered but then put aside when it really counts.

What is the difference, then, between a Mary McKillop and your average church attendee?  From God’s perspective, not a great deal!  God loves both of them.  God forgives both of them.  God calls both of them to die, to take up their cross and follow Christ into a quality of life and love that the world cannot give.  Yet one of them chooses to live from the power of this gracious call, to trust in its power, and the other (one suspects) chooses to do so only very rarely.  One chooses to love as Christ loved, loving the neighbour even to the point of great personal sacrifice, while the other perhaps chooses to put faith aside when the going gets tough or when there is money or status at stake.  One really believes that Christ’s life, no matter how difficult, is the only life worth living.  The other suspects that Christianity is impractical, a set of admirable ideals mind you, but not to be lived too literally.

This morning you and I are called to be Mary McKillops.  To let go of all our hungers for health, wealth, family and security—to surrender such things into the hands of God—and to hunger instead for the commonwealth of peace and justice that Christ will bring.  A hunger for the kingdom is exactly like the hunger for food.  If you are starving, if you have nothing to eat, you will do almost anything to find nourishment.  You will travel hundreds of kilometres over rough and dangerous terrain, like the refugees of South Sudan, in search of the one thing you need to sustain life.  So it is with the desire for God’s kingdom.  It is a desire that consumes all else, a desire which comes to us as a painful longing that the world might be different than it is, a desire which drives and motivates us as though it came from a place other than ourselves.  And so it does, for it is the desire of God!

The saint is not one who gets everything right, who is always successful and admirable.  The saint is one who trusts in God, who believes God’s promises, even when the chips are down and there seems little foundation for faith.  The saint is one who, in a sense, becomes who he or she is because he or she is first able to allow God to be who God is, and this in the midst of  a body and soul given over to God to do with as God wills.  This is a calling not simply for the especially intelligent or gifted or capable.  It is a calling for us all, because in the end sainthood is not about self-generated achievement or sanctity.  It is about trusting that Christ will complete his work in us, even when our sin looms large.