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Sunday, 27 May 2012

Come Holy Spirit, renew the church

Texts:  Ezekiel 37.1-14; Acts 2.1-21; John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15

“Mortal, can these bones live?”  That is what God asked Ezekiel as the prophet was taken in a vision to look over the valley where Jerusalem had made its last stand against the Babylonian armies.  The valley, we are told, was full of the bones of Israel’s finest—young men who had been sacrificed to their king’s greed—bones from which every trace of flesh had been removed, so that now they gleamed white in the sun.  But the vision of Ezekiel was not really about the fate of an army a hundred years before.  It was about the great sorrow that continued to undermine the hopes of Ezekiel’s people even now, as they languished in the cities of their enemies and tried to forget what had happened to them.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”  That is also a question that a senior minister of our church asked about his own congregation this week.  It is a question I often find myself asking about the church at large.  The title I chose for our service today is ‘Come Holy Spirit, Renew the Church.’  For it is not only the 'world', but the church as well, that stands in urgent need of  God’s renewal.   The main reason why this is so might be summed up like this:  the church stands in as much need of renewal as the rest of the world because the rest of the world has colonised the church.  Or, to put it another way, much of the church now thinks and feels and believes as though it were not the church, but the world.  Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

According to the New Testament, the church has been given a mission: to bear witness to the crucified and risen Jesus in both word and deed.  This witness is to be a public witness, a witness that everyone can see and hear and touch and taste.  If the witness is not public, then many will never encounter God’s lament about the state of our world, nor his word of grace and promise for a future that is better for us all.  The witness is also to be a common witness, a witness that the church renders as a community of people who have together discerned , through prayer and a listening to the word of God, how it is that God would have them share the gospel with their community.  More and more, however, the church is succumbing to a rather different understanding of its mission, an understanding that derives not from the pages of the New Testament, but from the imaginations of conservative governments (and I include the Blairite style of Labour in that as well).  For what neo-liberal and conservative politicians have successfully sold the church, over the past 150 years, is the idea that Christian faith and mission should be expressed not through a public communal witness, but privately and individually. 

Think about it for a second.  Why is it that most of our children and grandchildren do not, in any way, participate in the life of a congregation of God’s people, and yet continue to claim that they are Christians?  Why is it that so many of the people who request baptism for their children are quite immovable in their belief that it is possible to be a Christian without actually doing any of the things that the New Testament suggests that Christians actually do?  Or, to bring things a little closer to home, why is it that congregations no longer even try to identify a common mission in which all the members of the church will participate with both their time and their talents?   Why is it that most of us settle for privately conceived and executed modes of support for this cause or that?  In both cases, the answer is fairly clear, I think.  That the church has bought, holus bolus, the secular state’s understanding of religious faith or mission: something that you believe in the privacy of your own mind and home -  not something that you enact and perform in common with other people, or put at the centre of your public engagement with the world.  In this, the secular state has been extremely successful in rendering the reality and mission of the church largely invisible.  If we can only imagine ourselves as private individuals, if we can no longer even comprehend what it might be like to be part of a communal mission that is visible and effective in the world, then we are no longer the church, but simply functionaries of the neo-liberal imagination.  We are no longer the church, but the world.

A second example.  Some of you may be aware that we recently handed over the management of our Pre-School to an agency of the Uniting Church called UnitingCare Connections.  We did so at the direction of the Synod, which was itself following a directive from the government that there should no longer be any independently run Pre-Schools.  All Pre-Schools are now required to run as clusters, under the umbrella of a common management agency.  It’s cheaper and more efficient that way, or so the argument goes.  Since becoming part of UnitingCare Connections both the local committee of management as well as the staff of our kinder have been treated with little more than contempt.  Not only has Connections failed to manage the Pre-School in a competent manner, it has done so without caring.  There is little to no evidence that Connections gives too hoots about the children who come to the Pre-School, or the staff who teach the children, or the local committee members who work their butts off to keep the whole thing running.  And unfortunately this is not an isolated incident.  Over the past six months I have heard about similar experiences right across the church.  As UnitingCare moves in to take over local ministries and missions, usually with the promise of ‘lightening the load’ for local people, local people are being deprived of their capacity to share in the mission of the church.  Local workers are being sacked or ‘let go’—both those formerly employed by the church, and those who work hard as volunteers.  And why is this happening?  Let me suggest that this is another example of the church being colonised by the world.  As UnitingCare grows, as it takes on more and more governments contracts, it is quickly absorbing what remains of local ministries and missions.  In the process, it is also absorbing what remains of a New Testament styled church, gathered around the Eucharist and the word of God, and transforming it into an economically-driven instrument of the secular state.  UnitingCare is now doing to local churches and ministries what the Boards of Education of our former Methodist and Presbyterian denominations did with church schools—handed them over to the secular imagination so that every trace of Christian faith and practice is finally removed.  So the church is in pretty bad shape all round, I reckon.  And I know this is so because my colleagues, younger people like myself who have been in ministry for ten years or less, are at the point of collapsing under the weight of it all.  The weight of a church that is no longer behaving like a church.  The weight of the incredibly harsh opposition they feel when they do what they are called to do, preach the gospel of Jesus in word and deed.  The weight of inertia and denial and despair.

‘Mortal, can these bones live?’  Can the spent bodies all about, that speak of the church’s failure to be the church, ever be raised up and redeemed?  Can the church ever become the church that the New Testament promises and envisions?  More humbly, can even the Uniting Church begin to look, in reality, something like the church described in its own Basis of Union ?  Well yes, it can.  Against all reason or expectation, it can.  And it can, not because it believes in itself, not because it has generated a new vision for new times or developed a wonderful new program to render itself more attractive to the consumer culture of our times.  No, the wreckage of the church can be redeemed because of Pentecost, that is, because God does not abandon us even when we abandon ourselves.  

When the people of Judah languished in their shame and their grief in the great cities of Babylon, God sent forth the breath of his Spirit.  He raised up prophets and leaders like Ezekiel and Ezra and Nehemiah—prophets who were able to speak the truth about the failure of the people certainly—yet they were also able to speak of the burning hope that God had placed within their hearts, a hope for that future of peace and joy that God had promised of old.  What strikes me to the heart when I read these prophets is this—and it encourages me in my own ministry—is that God places a word of faith and hope on their lips, and compels them to speak and to act according to that gift, even when they, themselves, feel as though all is lost.  When their hearts lament, their lips speak of a glorious future.  When their bodies are weary, their voices nevertheless speak of God’s future as though it were already present.  In this way, the prophets wear in their own bodies, at one and the same time, both the truth of where the people are at that moment, and the truth of where God would take them.  In this they are like Christ himself, whose crucifixion, in John’s gospel doubles as the moment at which the times are overturned, and a new world begins.

‘Mortal, can these dry bones live?’  Yes they can, because God sends the Spirit upon any church that is willing to wait, patiently, for the breath of life, the dunamis or dynamism, than comes from God alone.  If we try to deny the impossibility of what we face by pretending that all is well, or that things are not as bad as they seem, then we shall continue, of course, to live in the imagination of the secular state.  We shall not realise our great need of God, the God who alone sends forth a Spirit that is able to give life.  We shall continue to believe that we can generate such life for ourselves.  Note that in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the Spirit as one who throws into relief the confusion of the world with regard to what is right and wrong, and what is just and unjust, and about who God is.  The Spirit comes to demythologise all our fantasies about a humanity that can fulfil its destiny apart from the truth that is revealed in Jesus Christ.  The Spirit comes to uncover the lies we tell about ourselves:  the lies about privacy and individuality.  The Spirit comes to create in us an imagination that is able to resist the confusions of the world in which we live, to form us into a people who are able to live out a communal imagination, and testify to this imagination visibly, that is, before the prevailing powers of this world.  The Spirit comes to unweave the web of lies into which we have all been spun, and replace it with the word of truth, who is none other than Christ himself.

‘Mortal, can these bones live?’  Yes, they can!  If we will finally come to the end of ourselves, if we will stop trusting in the gods of this world, and renew our trust in the God of Jesus Christ.  Yes they can!  If we will allow God to renew our minds and hearts in the image of his Son.  Yes they can!  If we will stop resisting the Spirit, and decide to put out the welcoming mat instead.  Yes they can, yes they can, yes they can!

This sermon was preached at St. Luke's Uniting Church on Pentecost Sunday, 2006, in the midst of a very controversial takeover of our local kindergarten by UnitingCare Connections. You can probably tell that I was not impressed with the way in which this was done!

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Love and revelation

Texts:  Acts 10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17

This morning I want to lead you in a criminally brief meditation about love.  ‘Love’ is a word that has almost come to grief in our modern world.  Used so often, and with so many different interests and agendas, it is in danger of becoming empty: no more than a vacuous vessel into which both speaker and spoken-to may pour any kind of meaning they like. 

Depending on the context, love turns out to mean so many things.  In Hollywood, love is a feeling of euphoria, a chemistry between people which (like the weather) can come and go.  While that euphoria is around, life is great.  But when it departs, there is no longer any reason to persevere with a relationship. In some sections of the Australian military, love seems to mean being willing to stick by your mates even if your mates are using and abusing you.  Love means keeping silence while your ‘mates’ do with you as they will. It means remaining loyal to people who actually hate you. In the middle-class suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, love so often means no more than ‘being nice’, that is, keeping up the appearance that we all get on with each other (even though we don’t) or pretending that we have a common view of the world (when actually we don’t).  Love, in this context, means to avoid talking about anything that may raise our passions, for fear that the other person’s passions may come back at us in unpleasant ways.  This is ‘love’ as the avoidance of difference, or conflict, or strong emotions, or the possibility of working toward a common truth.  Love is being polite, even to the point of living a lie. I suspect this is the creed of many of our churches as well.

The Christian meaning of love is rather different.  Christians are not bound to love after the manner of our many secular religions.  Christians have been freed to love in a very particular way: the way of Jesus, the Son of God.  Where the secular versions of love are as manipulable and as whimsical as the many contexts in which they appear, the love of Christ has a strong and consistent content in any place or time.  Why?  Because love, in the Christian lexicon, is not something we may define and embody according to our usual lights.  It is a way of life that comes from before and beyond us, from the God whose very being is love.  It is a way of life that is nevertheless available to us in our human bodies and cultures by the action of the Spirit, who permeates and suffuses the Christian community in exactly the same way that she permeated the life of Jesus, the Son of God, when he lived and died amongst us more that 2000 years ago.  The meaning of Christian love is therefore tied, not to the constantly shifting fashions and fabrics of human culture, but to the living story and character of a particular man:  Jesus, the Son of God.

John the Evangelist has Jesus say this, and I quote:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love . . .  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing.  Instead, I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have learned from my Father.

I want to make just three observations about this extraordinary passage.  First, that the love of which Christ speaks does not wait for human thinking or culture to fill it with meaning.  No, the meaning of this love is always already established:  it is an imitation of Christ’s radical form of friendship, the willingness to lay aside one’s own life in order that another’s life may flourish.  It is, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, the apprehension that the other person has a claim on me, and that I am no longer responsible only for myself, but that I share in the responsibility to ensure that the life of my brother or sister is able to flourish as well, to become what God intends that it may become. 

A second point now.  The language of laying down one’s life refers, of course, to a particular history:  the real event of Christ’s crucifixion.  It should be remembered, however, that the crucifixion represents not just the love of a singular man at a particular time, for a particular community.  The crucifixion is a sign in the world of the love of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit for every single creature, in every time and place.  The cross enacts in human history what God is like, and will always be like, for eternity:  sheer love.  We are talking here about the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father; the love that is able to welcome and cede its place to the other; the love that is willing to lose that another may win; the love that able to long for another’s flourishing and give that longing both form and body.  All that Christ did in the world, he learned from his Father.  Now the Father and the Son have come to us anew in the Spirit, that the love which properly belongs to the Father and the Son may be spread abroad in our own, oh-so-human cultures, relationships and bodies.

A final observation.  The love of God, as I have been saying, is not without substance.  It has form and shape and a particular history in the world, and that is really what the language of ‘commandment’ is about, in this passage.  We are commanded to love not because God is a bully and we are his slaves.  On the contrary, as Jesus says here, we are no longer slaves but friends; but this is only the case insofar as we are willing to love.  The command to love, you see, is also (and somewhat paradoxically) the means by which God frees us from our bondage to self.  If we did not love, we would still be slaves to all that we are apart from Christ—a series of basic, and seemingly irresistible, drives-toward-power derived from DNA, from family, from our peer environment, or where ever.  In love, however, we learn to listen for another voice, the voice of God, who alone knows how it is that human beings may flourish.  The command to love is therefore, in its most basic form, an apprehension of the pressure God exerts towards our freedom, our liberation towards a life lived not only for ourselves, but for the people around us as well.  The command to love reminds us that love cannot be what we want it to be.  Love can only be what God is.

So then, let us love one another.  Not after the manner of fashion or convenience, but after the costly manner of God in Christ.  Let us love one another as if we had a claim on each other.  Let us love as though nothing else really mattered.  And whatever we do, let us not turn love into that kind of law that is unable to forgive and set free.  For the love of God is the capacity to forgive most of all.  Let us therefore love and forgive each other from the heart, just as in Christ God has loved and forgiven us.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Abiding in God's love

Texts: Acts 8. 26-40; Psalm 22.25-31; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15. 1-8

Just now we heard from the reading of Scripture that our love for God is shown and demonstrated in the love we have for our fellow human beings. John says to us:  

Those who say they love God and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Now, while I’m certain that everyone here would want to affirm that with all their hearts, I nevertheless find myself wondering why so many of us in the Christian Church seem not to care particularly for people beyond the circle of our immediate friends and family. On the one hand, we genuinely believe that our love of God is also a love of neighbour, while on the other we trace an unconscious circle about us, a circle which divides those worthy of being regarded as 'neighbours' from those who are not. Despite years of Christian teaching, I suspect that most of us still believe that the “brothers and sisters” the apostle calls us to love are none other than those people with whom we are most comfortable. Our closest friends and relations.

But these are not the people the apostle is talking about, at least not first of all. Very early on in the Church's history, when the Christian community was composed entirely of ethnic Jews, it was forced to ask the same question that we are asking this morning, “who are our brothers and sisters?” Luke’s story about Phillip and the Ethiopian official answers that question in a way that radically undermined the Jewish status quo, and threatens to do the same to our own. We are told that an angel came to Phillip and commanded him to head south from Jerusalem to Gaza. On the way he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is treasurer for the Queen. Clearly he is sympathetic to Jewish faith, and has probably been to Jerusalem to participate in one of the Jewish festivals . . . but there is a problem. According to the Scribal law of the time, a male person could only become a Jew through circumcision. But this man was a eunuch, that is, his genitalia had been completely removed, probably as a child in slavery. So, although he probably believed in Yahweh and loved the Hebrew Scriptures, and though he clearly desired to be part of the great company of God people, he could not. The Scribal law had effectively constructed a huge wall in front of people like him, with a sign on the gate which said “Keep out, God does not want you”. Imagine his joy, then, when Phillip shares a new interpretation of the Jewish faith with him.

Beginning with Isaiah’s account of a suffering servant who, like the eunuch, was denied the chance of passing on his name to future generations, Phillip spoke of a God who vindicated the servant’s just cause by raising him from the dead so that his name, and his cause, would live forever. And then Phillip invited the eunuch to become part of God's people, not through circumcision, but through faith in Jesus and the alternative Christian rite of baptism, in which we relinquish our future into the hands of Christ, and are raised with him to the right hand of God! In the preaching of Phillip the man hears about a rather different God, a God who loves and welcomes everyone who believes, no matter what their ethnic or religious heritage (or, indeed, the state of their genitalia!). And in the background of the story Luke, the theological innovator, is telling his hearers that because God love those outside the circle, so should they. And so should we.

However . . . like so many things in life, this is easier said than done. I think it has to be frankly admitted that it is very difficult to move with genuine love and concern beyond our own circle, the circle of our own comfort. If we have grown up with a particular way of living life, and thinking about the meaning of our lives, it can be very threatening to be exposed to other ways of life, to other ways of thinking. We feel safe amongst those who know us and understand not only our language, but also our basic assumptions about what is important and what is not. So much so that when, on the odd occasion, we find ourselves bumping into people who look and speak differently to us, and who clearly have quite another set of values to us, we become quite naturally uncomfortable, or even afraid. Why? Because the existence and perseverance of these ‘other’ ways, these ‘other’ people, implicitly calls into question our own ways, our own assumptions about life. As a consequence, our foundations may feel less steady.

Alongside that, psychologists tell us that in modern life, where we’ve all been seduced into tearing around all the time, we have significantly less energy for engaging with people who are different to us. We tend to conserve our energy by sticking to interaction with a small, stable group of family and friends. Rarely do we find the energy to move beyond that circle. And when we do, the shock of the new is all the more a shock because we are tired, and therefore more vulnerable to having our foundations rocked. No wonder we stick to what we know. No wonder we stick to who we know.

For all these reasons and more, I have a great deal of empathy with any who say to me: “I haven’t the time or the energy to move beyond my own circle of friends, I haven’t the time or the energy to engage with other ways of worshipping God or thinking about the meaning of my life”. I understand that. I know that it is difficult and scary and energy-zapping to do so. Its like asking people to break out of cocoon, or to leave the safety of our mother’s womb. Yet . . . this is precisely what God calls us to do. God says “If your really knew me, if you really had my love down deep inside of you, then you'd want these 'others' to share in that love too. And you'd be willing to open yourselves to the rich ways in which my life is manifested in their strange and beautiful ways . . .”

Today's readings challenge us to so locate ourselves in this love of God for those beyond the circle, that we absorb God's own compassionate drive, and own it for ourselves. There is an interesting interplay in the passages from gospel and epistle between the language of abiding in God and the language of being sent beyond the circle to “bear much fruit”. The love of God is described as a love which is not self-interested or self-directed. Rather, it is the kind of love which looks upon the other, the world of people and their sins, with compassion. The Father sends the Son into the world to be its saviour. Yet even there, in the mist of the smeared, bleared world of darkness, betrayal and death, even in this place so very far beyond the circle of God's presence and power, the Son yet continues to abide with the Father, and teaches his people to abide with the Father as well. How marvellous! Here John is teaching us that abiding in God's love is not about locking yourself in a safe place and feeling the warmth, but actually taking that safe place with you beyond the circle, into the land of the 'other' which is not safe. The image of the vine and the branches is instructive. The branches of a vine can grow a very long way from their source. They are ‘sent out’ from the source in order to be fruitful, and they cannot be fruitful unless they are sent. Yet even in their great distance from the vine, in the act of bearing fruit, they are nevertheless connected with the vine in a vital way. Without this connection, they will die, they will bear no fruit. So it is with us. God sends us out beyond the circle to bear the fruit of love and justice in a world which has ceased to believe that these are possible. It is not safe outside the circle. Yet it is safe, safe because we carry the love of God with us, and the perfect love of God is powerful. Powerful enough to cast the fear from our hearts and disarm our enemies. It is the power of the resurrection, which is stronger even than death.

So let us examine our lives. Are we able to go out from the comfort and safety of our own circle of friends, and our own ways of making meaning, into the alien territory of those who need God's love just as much as we do? Are we able to befriend the person from a different ethnic group, with a view of the world which is harsher and more angry than ours? How deep is our faith? How much do we trust in the abiding love of God - a love which promises to hold us in life, even in the midst of alien terrain? While it is absolutely true that God asks us to do an impossible thing, God seems not to be as troubled as we are by impossibilities. God has promised that if we stay connected to him, then he will give us the power we need to do that impossible thing. I am certain that if we abide with God in prayer, and in the reading of the Scriptures, and in the faith and communion of the church, then we will find that God also abides with us as we risk moving out from our comfort-zones into more difficult territory.

It is appropriate, I think, that in this week leading up to the week of prayer for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, that John the elder should have the final word: ‘Little children, let us love not in word or speech alone, but in truth and action’.
This homily was preached in a rural congregation in the context of a national debate about how harshly we ought to enforce so-called 'border protection' again people who would seek political asylum in our country.