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Sunday, 30 October 2011

The White-Robed Martyrs

Texts: Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12

On this All Saints Day, I should like to turn to the Book of Revelation, which purports to be a vision given to a fellow named John, who happened to be in prison for the sake of Christ on the Greek island of Patmos.  The vision he is given takes place largely in heaven, and concerns things which ‘must soon take place’.  An angel instructs him to write down what he sees and make the contents available to each of seven churches in the region of Asia Minor

The Revelation to John is a fascinating read on many different levels.  First, it is written almost entirely in a poetic-symbolic language which scholars call ‘apocalyptic’.  Apocalyptic means, literally, an unveiling of the truth, which is kind’ve ironic, because most readers find the symbols of Revelation quite mysterious and impenetrable.  The book becomes much more readable if you happen to have (a) a vivid imagination of the kind that is able to appreciate fantasy or science-fiction novels; and (b) a fair-to-middling appreciation of Jewish literature and theology.  If you have neither, then I’m afraid you will continue to struggle!  The book is also fascinating because of the insight it gives into the self-understanding of Christians who are being persecuted for their faith.  Most scholars date the book as having been written sometime in the final decade of the 1st century, when the early persecution of Christians by the Roman state was just beginning to become more pronounced.  In many ways, the Book of Revelation was written to assure a persecuted community of Christians that God remains faithful to his people, and to encourage that community to also remain faithful to God, even in the face of strong opposition.  Not surprisingly, the Book of Revelation became a firm favourite of various persecuted churches down through history, while it has been hardly read at all by churches that felt or feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ with their political environment.

Armenian martyrs 1916
What I should like to do on this All Saints Day is ask a particular question of the Book of Revelation, and see what answers it might yield:  who are the saints and what is their vocation? For the sake of time I shall have to be mercilessly brief and to the point.  The answers I give may therefore succeed only in raising yet more questions in your minds and hearts, which I shall not be able to address right now.  If this is the case, then please do feel free to chase me afterwards.  As you are probably aware, I thrive on being chased about such things!

So, ‘Who are the saints, and what is their vocation or purpose in life?’  Well, according to the passage we read a moment a go, the saints are a great crowd of ordinary Christian people who are marked by the following characteristics:

  1. they are drawn from every language, tribe and ethnicity
  2. they stand before the throne of God and of Christ, ‘the Lamb’, praising God day and night
  3. they wear robes of white, and hold palm branches in their hands
  4. they are people who have survived something called ‘the great ordeal’
  5. their robes have been, rather strangely, washed white in the blood of the Lamb
  6. they are sheltered and protected from pain and evil by God
  7. the Lamb, again rather strangely, is their shepherd; he leads them toward something called the ‘springs of the water of life’.
 What does all this mean?  Well, it’s not that difficult to work out if you bother to read the rest of the book.  The saints are those who trust Jesus Christ with their lives, absolutely—so absolutely that they are willing to choose even death over the prospect of serving authorities that would usurp Christ’s rule, especially the authority of the state.  This become clear once you begin unpacking some of those mysterious apocalyptic symbols.  The ‘great ordeal’, for example, is an extended time of persecution in which Christians are tempted to abandon their faith for the sake of more cosy relations with a morally questionable state.  In Revelation, the Roman state is called ‘the Great Babylon’ and its emperor ‘the Beast’.  The beast’s demand that every citizen worship the beast and do everything that it says is an apocalyptic way of talking about the tendency of the state to undermine the absolute rule of Christ in the lives of his followers.  There can be no doubt that the early Christians would have had a much easier time if they had chosen to put their beliefs aside at certain points, in order to obey the law of the land.  But the Book of Revelation will allow no such compromise.  The saints are those who will NOT compromise.  The saints are those who a therefore willing to choose persecution, prison, and even death, over capitulation to the state and its values.

Some of you may be asking, ‘What was so wrong with the Roman state?  In what ways did it threaten Christian beliefs and values?’  The answer is at once stark and subtle.  Starkly, the Roman emperor demanded the absolute allegiance (even the worship) of his citizens.  He demanded that every citizen of the empire bow before his image, as the embodiment of absolute authority in heaven and on earth.  What this actually meant in daily life was much more subtle.  Worshipping the empire meant accepting and enacting its ethics.  It meant accepting that slaves, women and children were the property of men, and could therefore be treated or mis-treated according to men’s whims and fancies.  It meant accepting that those who were richer than yourself deserved your fawning obeisance, while those poorer than yourself were to be regarded as a resource to be exploited.  It meant accepting the superiority of Roman blood, such that the Roman state had a right to invade, subjugate and enslave the peoples of other lands and nations.  It meant accepting your fate in life, and never questioning your station or fortune. 

You can now see, I am sure, why Christians got themselves into trouble with the Romans.  The early Christians preached a classless society, a society in which it one’s social and ethnic markers were of no relevance whatsoever.  In Christ, they believed, all the social distinctions which make men and women somehow ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than one another, has been done away with.  In baptism, they believed, the human person was immersed in Christ’s death and resurrection, putting to death their social and economic significance in favour of a new identity which came as a pure gift from God.  That is why the Book of Revelation imagines the saints in robes of white:  white is the colour of baptism; white is removing of every colour, all that one may or may not have achieved in life, in order to accept the pure gift of God’s acceptance and love.  It is also why Revelation insists that not even the threat of death should dissuade the Christian from their baptismal vow to obey only Christ.  For if, in baptism, the Christian had already died to the authority of the world, why would being killed, physically, make any difference at all?  If, in the end, it was only God’s acceptance that ultimately mattered, what could the evils of state-sanctioned torture possibly steal away? 

In the end, the Book of Revelation does not see even the threat of violence and death as a power that is able to overcome the power of God.  For its vision of the saints is one in which their refuge in God’s care has been won for them by the violent death of their own Lord at the hands of the Roman state.  Note well.  The blood that makes them clean is not the blood of their own martyrdom, but that of their Lord Jesus, the one imaged as a slaughtered lamb.  The saints persevere not because there is anything special or heroic about them, but simply because they place their faith and trust in Christ, who alone has overcome sin, evil, and death.  They believe that he can carry them in his wake, as it were, all the way to the banqueting room of heaven.

Let me conclude with a few remarks about the relevance of this vision of the saints for our own time, our own sainthood, if you like. 

Since the upheavals of the Reformation, the Western church has settled into a fairly cosy relationship with the state.  In our own time, most of us have grown up assuming that the aims of our state authorities and the aims of the church were more or less compatible.  We therefore assumed that there was nothing particularly odd about being a good citizen as well as a good Christian.  I suspect it is time, however, to wake up from these assumptions, for everywhere in the Western world, the state is departing from even the thin veneer of Christianity.  In Germany there is no longer any doubt about this, of course, because there the state went on a mid-twentieth-century rampage, which left the church in tatters because it believed, even well into the second world war, that Hitler was a Christian—even when he was hanging Swastikas in the churches and putting its more errant clergy in prison.  In allied countries, however, many of us still believe that the state is more or less Christian, if only because some of our political leaders claim to be churchgoers.

I put it to you, however, that the time of multi-lateral co-operation between church and state is coming to an end in the West.  When the Australian state refuses to engage seriously with Aboriginal people over the tragic consequences of our colonisation; when it fails to care for people living in poverty; when it locks people away for years at a time without there being any kind of trial; when it proposes legislation in which anyone who expresses opposition to state policy may be imprisoned without charge or even shot dead; when it refuses to honour its obligations to asylums seekers under international law; then the alliance between church and state has well and truly come to an end.  In the present circumstances, it may well be time for the Western churches to take out the Book of Revelation, to dust it off, and to begin a serious study.  For here is a book that may teach us a great deal about how to be a saint when the state is showing every sign of becoming a dangerous beast.  I recommend its vision of sainthood to you this morning.  Not as a curious historic relic, but at a model for our own life and times.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Whose Image Do You Bear?

Texts:  Exodus 33.12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

The Greeks tell of a fellow named Narcissus.  He was very handsome, and loved to go down to the waterhole and gaze at his own likeness in the pond's surface.  After a while he became so enamored of the image gazing back at him, that he forgot himself and tried to embrace the handsome fellow in the water.  Of course, he fell into the pond, the handsome image disappeared in an explosion of broken fragments, and Narcissus drowned. 

Our own society, like Narcissus, is obsessed with images and illusions.  The media bombards us with images of shiny happy people in shiny happy settings with shiny happy cars and houses and friends and bank accounts.  But all this is illusion.  It has almost nothing to do with the real lives that each of us live in the flesh.  The Television set, which has become the preeminent mediator of these images, is rarely a mirror which reflects who we are and how we behave.  It is we who have become the mirror, the pond surface, which now reflects back the world constructed by Television.  Michael Franti, an American hip-hop singer, points out that most western children have watched 1200 murders on television by the time they are twelve years old.  Is it any wonder, then, that we are witnessing the emergence of a generation for which human life seems to have little value, a generation for which suicide and murder have become signatures of fashion as ubiquitous as McDonalds and Coco-cola? When the virtual world of images and illusions becomes more 'real' than the world of flesh and blood and bodies—bodies that are able to feel and know and breathe the air—then something has gone tragically wrong.  Because when flesh and blood people seek to escape their mortal conditions in favour of a world of fashionable surfaces and manufactured happiness, we lose our capacity for soul, for value and for meaning.  Like Narcissus, we awake to a reality which is so far away from who we really are, that we find ourselves 'all at sea', drowning in that tragic forgetfulness of our true identity and purpose in God.

I suspect that when Matthew tells the story about Jesus and the image of Caesar on a coin, he was already reflecting upon a version of these same difficulties.  You see the people who approached him to ask about paying taxes to the invading superpower, were themselves caught in a kind of twilight zone between reality and fashion.  They were the leaders of two significant political parties in Israel at the time, the Pharisees and the Herodians.  On the one hand, they wanted to see themselves as servants of Israel's God, people who bore the image and likeness of God in their bodies and, indeed, in all the business of life.  On the other hand, they wanted to present themselves as servants of the Emperor, whose image and insignia were everywhere in this occupied country—a constant reminded that Caesar would tolerate no rivals for the people's hearts and minds.  Jesus sees the ambivalence of his interrogators immediately.  The one who, in his Sermon on the Mount, had said 'you cannot serve two masters . . .  you cannot serve both God and Mammon' sees immediately their predilection for doing just that.  So he calls them 'hypocrites', because they are people who think that they can remain children of God, made in his image and likeness, even while they reach out to inscribe themselves with the image and likeness of the Imperium.  So when Jesus says 'Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor's, and to God the things that are God's' he is certainly not being ambivalent.  In the context of Matthew's gospel as a whole, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, it is clear that Jesus is issuing a challenge to his hearers, as well as to us: Whose image do we bear in this world?  Who do we seek to imitate?  Do we bear the image of the Emperor, seeking only to be what the dominant politics and commerce would make of us?  Or do we bear the image and imitation of God, who created us as free human people, purposed to love God and neighbour with a deep and liberating love?  Whose image do you bear?  According to Matthew, none of us may bear both.  We must all choose either one or the other.

But what does it really mean to reject the illusions begotten by commerce and bear, instead, the image of God?  When Moses returned from Sinai, having sat in the fiery presence of a fiery God for 40 days and 40 nights, his face shone (we are told) with the glory of the Maker.  One might say, then, that his body was indelibly marked with the image of God's awesome presence and power.  Now much of Christian tradition has represented this moment in the highly romantic images of a Cecil B. de Mille movie, which has Moses coming down the mountain a taller, and somehow more majestic and mystical figure than when he ascended.  I really doubt, however, that this is really the impression that the writers of Exodus wanted to create.  Elsewhere in Exodus, God is represented as a consuming fire who first appears to Moses in a burning bush, and then destroys the firstborn of Egypt, and then leads the people through the wilderness in the form of a fiery pillar.  When the people arrive at Sinai, God makes it clear that it is very, very dangerous to come into his presence.  For his holiness is like a fire which consumes all that is not holy.  The people are commanded, therefore, to make their camp some distance from the mountain where the fire has come to rest.  All of this creates in my mind the impression that Moses' glowing face, far from being transfigured after the manner of Jesus in the gospels, is more likely to have been burned or seared by the fire of God’s holiness, purged and purified as if by a refiner’s fire, so that by this uniquely close encounter with God he comes away not only with the wonderful commands of the covenant, but also with the visage of a saint who, by a long struggle with God and his darkest self, necessarily comes away bearing the wounds of God’s purging love.  Theologically speaking, Moses might then be understood to bear the image of God in a way which speaks of salvation through struggle and loss—a state of liberation and joy only attainable by human beings if they are willing to submit themselves to the refining fire of God's love.

Bearing the image of our God, you see, is both glorious and painful.  It is glorious, as Paul says to the Thessalonians, because it bears witness to our release from the false images and idols of this world, and to our newfound freedom and joy in the Spirit of God.  But it is also painful, because the true image of God creates controversy and persecution for all who bear it.  And this is clear from the story of Jesus himself.  No-one bore the true image and likeness of God so perfectly as Jesus our Lord.  The great hymns of Colossians and Hebrews call him the true ikon or image of the Creator, the exact representation of God’s being.  But bearing God's image clearly did not exempt Jesus from the storms of human fragility and pain.  Indeed, if one takes the message of the gospels seriously, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus suffered and died precisely because he bore God's image, because he loved the poor and the godless with such a genuine sincerity and compassion, because he showed in his own being and behaviour the height and depth and breadth of God's love for our world.  Because of these things he was persecuted, tortured and murdered.  Wherever the true image of God's love is present, you see, the economic and political powers become very, very paranoid.  And they lash out to destroy it.

Friends, let me summarize what I am saying to you very simply.  To bear the image and likeness of God is to love, and keep on loving, for God is love.  There is freedom and joy and peace in this, a peace which goes deep, like a river, to satisfy our longings and quench our thirst.  But there is also pain.  Paul said to the Galatians 'may I never boast of anything, save the cross of the Lord, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the life of the world' (6.14).  This 'world' of which Paul speaks is not the world of mountains and streams and all in human culture that it noble or beautiful or true.  It is the world of lies, of the false images of the good life; it is the world where the weakest and most vulnerable are trashed in the wine-presses of corporate greed.  If we are people who bear the image of a loving God to a world such as this, then we must expect that they will try to crucify us.  And we must be prepared to crucify those false images and idols in ourselves by confession, prayer and the worship of the crucified One.

Be of good courage, my friends. Be of good courage you imitators of Christ.  For the one who was crucified is risen!  In the power of his resurrection, Christ overcame the world, and created for us the space to love and be loved in the eternal circle-dance of the Trinity.  In his power, and for the sake of the world he loves, we are called to bear his image in these jars of clay, and to bear in our bodies the scars of Christ's compassion.  It is a high and difficult calling.  But God is faithful.  I am convinced that neither height or depth, nor angels, nor demons, nor powers, not principalities, nor the present, nor the future, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Impulse for Images

Exodus 32. 1-14

While Moses was on the sacred mountain, talking to Yahweh, the people below grew restless.  They came to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and asked that he make gods who would go before them on their journey to the promised land.  Aaron agreed to do so.  From the trinkets of the people he forged the image of a golden calf and, when it was done, the people acclaimed the calf as the god who had brought them out of Egypt.  The next morning they arose to worship the calf-god with the offerings of grain and live-stock that Moses had commanded for Yahweh.  And what did Yahweh think of all this?  Well, to understate things just a little, he was not amused!  Our story recounts the Lord’s words to Moses:  “I have seen this people, how stubborn they are.  Leave me now, so that my anger may burn hot against them so that they are consumed utterly”.  God only changes his mind, we are told, because Moses takes the part of the people, interceding for their lives by reminding Yahweh of his promise to their ancestors, that this tribe of misfits would become a great and noble people in the land that God would give them.

The Hebrew prohibition against the making and worshipping of images for God  is very ancient.  Although the story we recounted just now was most likely written during the late monarchy of the separated kingdom of Israel, its theological message is very much older than that.  The classic statement of the prohibition belongs to the very beginnings of the Yahweh cult, and may be found in Exodus 20.4-5, as the second and third of the Ten Commandments:
You shall not make for yourself an image, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God . . .
 Note that there are two separate prohibitions here.  The first is against the making of an image to represent Yahweh, and specifically against that image being taken from the created world; while the second warns against the worship of any such image in the place of Yahweh. 

It is important for our purposes this morning that we note the ways in which the theologians and priests of Israel interpreted these injunctions after the fact.  First, it is very clear that Israel did not feel constrained to ban every image of God.  If that were the case they would never have made the Ark of the Covenant, a rectangle box of acacia and gold, with angelic beings placed on its uppermost surface.  The biblical record speaks of the Ark as the ritual place where Yahweh is most intensely real, a kind of throne for the divine presence.  Moses, we are told, listens to the Ark as if to God himself (Ex 25. 22).   It is placed in the inner sanctuary of tabernacle and temple, a place which is so full of God’s presence that not even a priest may enter, except by the blood of atonement, and then only once each year (Lev 16).  In later years, the Ark was carried into battle.  When the soldiers could see the ark, it stood for them as a sign that God was with them.  But when the Ark fell, it seemed to them that God had abandoned them (Joshua 6.4; 1 Sam 4).  It is clear from these accounts that the Ark became for Israel what the pillars of cloud and fire were for them in the exodus: a tangible sign and image of God’s presence and protection. 

A second point follows from this, that the general prohibition of images in fact makes a distinction between those chosen by Yahweh to represent himself, and those chosen by the will and inclination of human beings alone.  The biblical texts make it clear that the Ark, the stone tablets of the Covenant, and indeed the whole liturgical cult of Israel, were chosen and instituted by God.  What the prophets rail against, on the other hand, is the making of images for a worship instituted not by God, but by human beings.  And the essence and goal of this false worship is said to be the illusion that human beings can manufacture their own wholeness or salvation, quite apart from the merciful intervention of God.  The classic statement is that of Isaiah, in the 44th chapter:
The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine.  He takes a cedar tree, which he uses as fuel to cook his meal.  The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!”  Thus, he feeds on ashes.  A deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?” (44.13, 14b, 15a, 17, 20).
In this prophetic perspective, the problem with images is not so much that they are images, but that they are images by which human beings seek to represent the possibility of salvation apart from God. Or, to put it in a slightly different way, the sin of idolatry is simply the belief that God’s way and will can be reduced or domesticated to the themes and forms of an independently human desire and imagination. It is the sin that confronts us in the story of the golden calf.

Still, what I find most interesting in this story is not so much the sin, but the all-too-human impulse which gave rise to that sin.  The story tells us, you see, that Aaron made the golden calf in order to relieve the sense of distance that the people feel between Yahweh and themselves.  Yahweh, let’s face it, is not particularly user-friendly.  He appears in the Exodus stories as a bush that does not burn, as an angel of death, as a pillar of fire or of swirling cloud.  He is a dangerous and fiery God, who consumes any who draw near without the proper sense of respect.  When Yahweh speaks, his voice is like a thundering that none may understand.  None, that is, except Moses:  Moses to whom he revealed his name and his law, Moses by whom God saved the people from Phaoroh, Moses by whom God parted the sea and provided miraculous food and water in the wilderness.  But now Moses was gone from their presence, so it felt to the people as though God had abandoned them as well.  The calf is made to fill that sense of absence, to bring God close where God felt far away.  Here I must dissent from the view of the many interpreters who tell us, over and over, that the golden calf was a god of Egypt or of Canaan, a god whom the people chose to worship instead of Yahweh.  For the evidence clearly points to something different. The calf is acclaimed with the words “It is Yahweh, who brought us out of Egypt”.  The intention here is surely not to worship a pagan god, but to bring the distant Yahweh closer in the form of something that God had made - an intention I would see as not only human, but legitimately human.  What, then, are we to make of the anger of Yahweh in this passage?  Is Yahweh a God who has no compassion on such oh-so-human needs?

To my mind, one must look for an answer to such questions not in the individual passage at hand alone, but in the witness of Scripture as a whole.  Scripture itself was born of the experience of a lack in the sacred stories.  When new questions were asked, questions not contemplated by those who first told the sacred stories, more stories were told, or old stories were re-told in order to address newer concerns.  In time, these newer formulations became Scripture as well.  They became part of the deposit of faith to which later generations addressed their spiritual searching.  Still, in the search for a compassionate God, a God who is close to us and understands, we must not simply ignore the prohibition against images which we find in the Exodus account.  That prohibition, as we have seen, has a legitimate function in the life of a genuinely Jewish or Christian faith community.  It reminds us that God may not be reduced to the terms of our own desires or imaginations.  God is free to be God, and only a free God can save us, for a God of our own making would simply repeat our mistakes, and we would be condemned (as Feuerbach noted) to forever to write our desires upon an empty heaven.  So where can we find a God who is both free and compassionate?  Where can we find a God who is close enough for us to love, and yet free enough to be our saviour?

The answer, of course, is peculiarly Christian.  Allow me to quote from the letters to the Colossians, and to Timothy:
He is the icon of the invisible God . . . for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1.15, 20).
 There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all (1 Tim 2. 5, 6).
The letter to the Colossians speaks of Jesus Christ as an image of God.  The specific term used in the Greek is ikon, a visible reality by which the invisible communicates itself to human sight and understanding.  In Christian understanding, Christ is exactly this:  a human being—visible, fleshly and real—by whom we may have a relationship with a God who has chosen freely, in J√ľngel’s memorable phrase, not to be God apart from human beings.  In this sense Christ, like the Ark of the Covenant, honours the Exodus prohibition against images made by human beings because he is God choosing for himself not only a human image, but in that image also revealing what humanity itself might be.  In that very movement, God comes near enough to be our companion, advocate and friend.  For the 1st Letter to Timothy makes Christ into a second Moses, a mediator who speaks for human beings before God.  He understands our weakness and reminds God to be merciful for his own name’s sake.  Just like Moses.  And so, for the Christian testament, and for those of us who own this testament for ourselves, God is both the one who prohibits and the one who saves, the one who is judge and the one who ransoms himself for the life of the world.  
So, if we were to read these specifically Christian insights back into the Hebrew text of Exodus 32, we might find there a dispute or conversation between God and God.  On the one hand, Yahweh is the mysterious and free God who can tolerate no rivals, no pretensions to understanding from the human side.  On the other hand, God is the one who exercises that freedom by making a covenant of love with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, such that Moses may claim that covenant in his intercession for the idolators amongst his people.   

Why am I telling you all this?  Simply because this morning, in this place, we worship our God with words and images from the imagination of human beings.  And we have made this fact more obvious by our use of colours and sounds and pictures and smells.  In certain traditions, this would be seen as blasphemy, as a deliberate attempt to make God in our own image.  In others, it would be seen as inevitable, because if God exists at all, he cannot be understood, and so we may as well get on with creating our own because there is nothing else we can do!  But actually, we are doing neither.  Because although our words and images are indeed ours, and we must take responsibility for what we are doing and saying, we believe also that God is not God apart from these things, that God speaks and enacts God’s very own self in the midst of our worship.  For as in Jesus we encountered a God who showed us how to be more fully human than we could ever be on our own, we believe that God can take even what we say and do this morning and speak to us in a voice not our own and images not our own, such that we hear, even in what we have ourselves created, the substance of a creativity which has its truest origin in God.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Sharing in God's Gift

Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46 

Ministry is not, of course, for so-called ‘ministers’ alone.  We are all called to share in Christ’s ministry by the commissioning we received at our baptism, albeit in different ways.  In recognition of the fact that the particular shape of that ministerial offering can change from time to time, it is a good idea for congregations to annually call upon its members to prayerfully consider how they might contribute to the ministry of the church in the year to come.  There are two main ways to contribute:  (1) by serving on a group that carries out Christ’s ministry—either locally, or in the wider community; or (2) by providing the church with the financial support it needs to carry out this ministry.  One hopes, of course, that every member will contribute in both these ways!  Still, I recognise that the circumstances of life sometimes make it impossible to do as much as you would like to do.  Ill-health or poverty, in particular, have an impact on what one may contribute.  I  know that, the church knows that, and God knows that.  So please don’t hear anything that follows as some kind of law that you have to obey in order to obtain the favour of God.  If you are sick or short of money, you have burdens that are difficult to carry.  In those circumstances it is the rest of us who are called to help carry those burdens.  For the church is, most of all, a community in which the concerns and difficulties of the one become the concerns and difficulties of the many.

As many of you will know, the proper resourcing of the church’s ministry is guided by the ancient Jewish concept of stewardship.  Stewardship, in a nutshell, is a use of resources which understands that those resources do not belong to oneself alone, but are given by another for a particular purpose.  Stewardship is sharing in another’s resources in a way that honours the spirit in which they are given.  You can see the stewardship principle at work in the story we heard just now from Matthew’s gospel.  Here Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who invests heavily to set up a working vineyard.  He then invites some people to run the vineyard on his behalf.  Together they form a covenant in which both parties will reap the fruit that the vineyard produces because both parties have contributed to the resourcing of the vineyard.  The managers agree to act as stewards for the landowner, to run the place so that it will produce a bountiful harvest in which both parties can share together.  For Jesus and for Matthew, the parable is a picture of the relationship God has formed with his people.  God is like a landowner who has entered freely into a covenant with human beings, a covenant that will bear abundant fruit for us all so long as the land is managed wisely, according to the landowner’s intentions that is.

By analogy, the Christian tradition has always gone on to say this:  that nothing that you own and no skill or talent that you possess belongs to yourself alone.  It belongs to God as well.  God is the co-owner of what you have because God is both its creator and enabler. What you have was given you according to a particular covenant or agreement:  that you take what you are given and use it only to bear the fruit of faith, hope and love in the world.  So, while we are free to be as creative as we like with what we are given, in the end our gifts will only bear truly good fruit if they are managed according to the Maker’s instructions.  If they are not, or if we get greedy and deny the Maker his share in what we produce, then things will eventually go bad for us.  According to our parable, the Maker will one day call us to account for what we have done with his gifts.  Why?  Because the nature of the gift is this:  it can never be possessed and hoarded for one’s own benefit alone.  Like the manna God gave in the desert, if you take more than your fair share, the gift will go off and disappear.  Gifts are given so that they will remain gifts, freely given over and over again, so that the whole community can benefit and not just those who are strongest or brightest.

In turning to the writings of Paul, we find that all the gifts and talents we are given can be summed up in a single word:  Christ.  For Paul, Christ is the gift that reveals what all God’s gifts are ultimately for—our transformation from people who feel we must compete with one another into people who accept ourselves and one another.  Let’s look at the psycho-theology of this for a moment.  In the passage we read from Philippians, Paul contrast his former life with that he now lives, albeit incompletely, with Christ.  His former life was lived according to ‘the flesh’, which means that he built his sense of being worthwhile in the world upon the social and cultural expectations of his time.  As a Jew of Palestine in the first century, there was a particular way to get ahead, to become a winner.  First, one had to have been born a Jew.  A non-Jew didn’t have a chance.  Second, one needed to join the Pharisees, a political and religious party that wielded great influence and power on the basis of its claim to truly understand what was right and wrong.  Third, one needed to be zealous in making life difficult for anyone who didn’t share one’s views of what was right and wrong.  In Paul’s case, this meant persecuting the earliest Christians. 

At the time when Paul writes this letter he has, however, become a Christian.  Now he considers all those pursuits, all those ways of establishing one’s worthiness in the world, to be nothing more than ‘rubbish’ (in the Greek it is more like ‘excrement’).  Why?  Because at some point he came to realise that no matter how hard he worked on the matter, he would never establish, completely and unassailably, that he was a good and acceptable fellow in the eyes of his fellow-Jews.  There would always be someone whom he both respected and envied who could look at him as an inferior, a person who was not yet what they were.  There would always be—if I may translate into a more contemporary idiom—more fashionable, more wealthy, more laudable people about, who could make him look and feel unworthy by comparison.  For that is what this phrase ‘the flesh’ means for Paul: a social and cultural system of written and unwritten laws which is designed to make us all failures. 

Now what the gift of Christ did for Paul is what it can do for all of us as well:  release us from our bondage to any social and cultural assessment of our worthiness or unworthiness.  How?  By declaring that God loves and accepts us just as we are.  By untethering our sense of worthiness or unworthiness from what other people may or may not think.  By measuring our ‘rightness’ not according to the winds of social, or even religious, fashion but according to the love and forgiveness of God made manifest in the gift Christ made of his very life.  Paul promises that if we are prepared to die with Christ to the basic principles of this world—its pecking order, it fascination with wealth and status, its tendency to make us all unworthy—then we can also be raised with Christ into a world in which everything is a gift, and therefore no-one can claim to have worked their way to the top via some kind of meritocracy. 

The prize Paul strains towards is therefore a rather funny kind of prize.  It is not the prize that our society and culture values—the prize of houses and cars and superannuated luxury.  It is the prize of being freed from the compulsion to own and possess everything we see.  It is the prize of knowing that everything one has is a gift, and can therefore be given again.  It is the prize of detachment from the values and material acquisitiveness of one’s society, because Christ has already given us the only thing that it truly valuable:  God’s love and forgiveness. 

In this perspective, perhaps you can see that the responsibility to consider, prayerfully, how you will serve Christ’s ministry on an annual basis has little to do with any law or expectation.  On the contrary, I would encourage you to see your reflection on such matters as an opportunity to give tangible form to nothing other than God’s amazing grace.  Freely you have received from Christ all that you need and more.  You are free now to give what you have received, without in any way losing anything that is truly valuable.  For in Christian perspective, it is the giving itself that is also our freedom.  If we cannot give what we have away, we are still in chains.  It is not we who possess the thing, whatever it is, but the thing that possesses us.  By giving we are released from this possession.   And we receive into ourselves the gift of Christ’s very self, a self that is the pure gift of God’s acceptance—never measurable according to the scales of our world, never quantifiable according to our usual measure of success of substantiality.  And yet . . .  is there anything more real and valuable in all the world?  I think not.