Search This Blog

Sunday 18 November 2012

Birth Pangs

1 Samuel 1.4-20; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8

This morning as we gather to worship, Israel and Palestine are again firing missiles at each other.  So far 40 Palestinians have been killed, including children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis have lost their lives also.  Overnight several of the buildings that house the Palestinian government have been destroyed and Israel appears to be readying itself for a ground invasion.  The Arab League has called for an end to hostilities, as has the West.  But neither government is so far showing any intention to do so.

The gospel text for today, tragically enough, also speaks about the destruction of a seat of government by a foreign invader.  Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem where they have been visiting the temple built by Herod.  It is a massive building, dominating the city’s skyline as well as its social, religious and political life. Being a ‘temple’, it is the centre of Israel’s religious cult, the place where the sacrifices are carried out day after day, year after year, to atone for the sins of the people.  It is the centre of Judea’s religious teaching also, the theological school where scholars read the Law and the Prophets and interpreted its meaning for the community at large.  Importantly for us, this morning, the temple is also the seat of government, the headquarters for the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council which no king of governor could afford to ignore.  From here the temple bureaucracy, the civil service if you will, sought to apply the political, social and administrative policies of the Council in such a way that stability was maintained in the midst of a potentially explosive international situation.  For Judea, like Galilee, is at this time an occupied land, a colony of the Roman Empire.  It is a powder keg waiting to go off.

The prophecy we read here from Jesus’ lips, that the temple would be destroyed, not one stone remaining upon another, should therefore be read as nothing other than the most dangerous talk imaginable.  In the religious and political context that was early first-century Jerusalem, such talk could be easily taken as evidence of both blasphemy and sedition.  Blasphemy, because in a society in which the will of the ruling Council and the will of God were understood as pretty much the same thing, prophecies against the temple could be interpreted as prophecies against God.  Sedition, because the Sanhedrin ultimately served its Roman overlords even as it sought to preserve some measure of national and cultural independence in doing so.  Words against the temple could therefore be interpreted by the Romans as words against themselves, an act of treason from a would-be usurper of political power. 

Subsequent events in Mark’s story bear this out. Within a few days, Jesus is brought for trial before both the Sanhedrin and the Romans, and his prophecy about the destruction of temple plays a prominent part in both hearings. He is condemned as a blasphemer by the Council and a traitor by the Romans.  He is tortured and crucified and, well you know the rest of the story.  Given the largely bad outcomes for both Jesus and his disciples, one is prompted to ask why Jesus chose to say what he said, and in the hearing of the public? Why did he not, at least, keep his views to himself and save himself and his friends a lot of grief?

Mark’s answer is this: that Jesus was indeed a prophet from God, and as a prophet from God he was called and constrained to speak the truth about the ruling powers no matter the consequences.  As a prophet, he had no choice.  This is what prophets do.  From Mark’s point of view, Jesus ‘blasphemy’ is not speech against God, but speech for God.  For the Sanhedrin and gone too far in its appeasement of the Romans.  Sure, it has managed to preserve the sacrificial cult of the temple, but in doing so it had rendered the more weighty matters of Jewish faith null and void, matters of ethics, of justice, and the love of one’s neighbour.  This gap between the Torah studied in the temple precincts and what was actually happening on the ground for the vast majority of the Jewish people was, for Mark, the presenting reason for Jesus’ condemnation of the Jewish authorities.   Similarly, from Mark’s point of view, Jesus ‘sedition’ is entirely justified.  For Mark and his community, there could only be one ‘Lord,’ one Emperor, and that was God.  Jesus, as God’s son and mouthpiece, therefore has a legitimate authority to condemn what the Romans did to the Jews, and to do so in the name of a ‘justice’ that the Romans knew nothing about, a justice based in vulnerable, covenant love rather than in naked power.

That Mark is the pastor of a community that has in fact lived through the destruction of the temple, and the whole of Jerusalem with it, is not insignificant.  He knows that the prophecy of Jesus has come true, that the temple is no more and that his own community is now a refugee community, running as fast as it can from the vengeance of the Romans.  In this place, the place of a refugee community that has lost both its temple and its prophet, Mark writes what he writes.  And in his writing we can find some wisdom even for ourselves, as we endure a time filled with wars and earthquakes and rumours of wars.

What Mark has Jesus say of times like this is that they are ‘birth-pangs’.  Birth pangs.  Some might read what is happening in the middle-east as the end of world, full-stop.  And I am very sure that for many who are sitting in the middle of it all, that is how it must seem.  Think of the Palestinians huddled in their houses in Gaza, the most densely populated strip of earth in the world, being bombarded from above.  It can’t be very pleasant to have members of your family killed as they venture out to find food or to visit a neighbour.  In such circumstances, when the power to the north – a new Roman empire to all intents and purposes – seems to want to destroy your entire country, the end of the world must surely feel as though it is indeed at hand!

What Mark says, however, out of the experience of Jesus and of his own refugee community, is that the end of the world is not the end of the world.  The pains associated with wars and earthquakes – surely a metaphor for the shaking of our many certainties – are temporary pains that, like the pangs of childbirth, while severe and almost unendurable as they come upon us – do eventually pass and give way to something like peace and even joy.  I remember well the birth of my own children.  In the process of labour I watched on helplessly as my wife’s body was shaken by the most extraordinary waves of pain I had ever witnessed and, for the birth of our first child, these paroxysms went on for 16 hours or so.  I found it hard to comprehend how any human being could possibly endure more.  But when my daughter was finally born, all those hours of painful upheaval seemed to disappear into forgetfulness.  As the child was placed in my wife’s arms, all I could see was joy. 

The story of Hannah and Samuel is instructive in this sense.  Here we have a woman for whom life holds little joy because she is barren and cannot give birth to a son.  Even though her husband loves her regardless – which would have been quite a rare thing in patriarchal world of the ancient ear-East – she must endure the mocking of her fertile sister-wife and the disapproval of her family and friends.  For in that world, a barren woman was seen as a complete failure, a failure at her basic function in life, to provide heirs for the family and for the tribe, to guarantee its survival and its prosperity by doing so.  Because she cannot, Hannah is deeply depressed and, for her, it seems that the world is indeed at an end.

What she does about this, we are told, is not to rush off to IVF as we moderns do, but to visit the Lord’s shrine in Shiloh and pray for God’s mercy. She prays for a son and when she is indeed granted her wish, promises to give him into the Lord’s service for the rest of his life.  When Samuel is born, Hannah is filled with joy and sings a song about the love of God for all who are lowly and downtrodden, which becomes the basis, in time, for the revolutionary literature we know as the Magnificat, the Song of Mary at the birth of Jesus.  The point of this story, and the literature of revolution it spawns, is simply this: that in the economy and plan of God, even the end of the world is not the end of the world.  The end of the world, in which we lose homes and children and livelihoods, in which we may lose even our sanity and our very lives, is the onset of birth-pangs.  Such birth-pangs herald a new birth, the birth of a new world, a world no longer ruled by greed and oppression and poverty, where the strong destroy the weak for fun, but by the love who is God.

This is the faith of Christians and the source of our hope even when things look very bad indeed.  Our hope is in the one who was raised even from death by the power of this love who is God.  Our faith is built upon this firm foundation so that even when we grieve, we do not grieve as others grieve who have no hope. We grieve as people who feel the pain of our many losses, but who believe in a new birth, a new world, where what has been lost will be returned to us a hundredfold. Such is the grace of the one who has been raised.  I have a friend who lives in Bethlehem, Daoud.  He is a Palestinian Christian and a pastor to his persecuted community. The small Christian community in that part of the world is persecuted by the Israeli’s because it is Palestinian, and persecuted by many of its fellow Palestinians because it is not Muslim.  Daoud and Jihan Nassar do not have to imagine their way into Mark’s gospel and the horrors of a city destroyed like most Westerners do.  It is not a great feat of imagination to place themselves in the shoes of a persecuted community seeking refuge from violence.  Daoud and Johan live this experience every day of their lives. And yet when that community gathers each Sunday to listen to the world of God and share the eucharist, Daoud encourages the people to see their sufferings not as the end of the world, but as the birth-pangs of a new world that is yet to be born.

In this light, the writer to the Hebrews encourages Christians everywhere to never give up the habit of meeting together for encouragement and mutual support.  For each of us live in the time of the not-yet. The events of last night in Palestine and Israel make this very clear.  We are not yet at peace, we do not yet love one another, and we do not yet welcome each other as God has welcomed us.  In the time of the not-yet, we are encouraged to meet together as we meet together today, and to encourage one another with these stories of faith, the stories which are able to reframe the meaning of our most painful experiences as birth-pangs, the birth-pangs of the coming kingdom.

This homily was preached at St Columba's, Balwyn, on the morning of Nov 18, 2012.

Sunday 11 November 2012

God's Revolution

Psalm 127; Hebrews 9. 24-28; Mark 12. 38-44
In the Four Quartets T.S. Eliot wrote this:
. . .   In order to arrive there,
to arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
        You need to go by a way in which there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
        You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
        You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
        You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

There is a revolution from God, an impossible turning in which the very worst that may visit us in life is able to reconfigure itself as the very best.  It is a revolution that resists explanation or representation.  It happens in our experience.  We know that it happens, and we can recognise it when it happens to others.  But we struggle to understand or tell it, to name its dark contours even for ourselves.  To my mind, the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus is our best telling of this revolution.  “Best” because here the story unfolds from our lips and imaginations, from the lips and imagination of the church, and yet it does not come from us.  We hear it, first of all, from God.  What we confess with our lips and know in our hearts begins not with our own hearts, but with an event that happens in the heart of God. 

The gospel story of the widow who gave all she had, all she had to live on, is a version of that telling.  Although we have it here, in Mark, as a story about discipleship - an allegory and paradigm example for us of what a disciple of Jesus would do - its context in the larger gospel story suggests something else.  Since Jesus himself is about to be arrested, and everything taken from him through the humiliation of torture and crucifixion, and since Mark casts this great loss as a willing loss, a sacrifice or gift on the part of Jesus and his Father for the life of the world, so this simple act of a widow’s offering is not primarily about what disciples do, but what God does.  In the larger story about Christ’s offering, God’s gift, the woman’s willingness to part with everything that she has to live on prepares the reader to hear the story of the passion: that she is like the God who loses everything, but willingly, in the encounter with human evil. 

Consider, if you will, what has happened in the story so far.   In chapter 1 we read that Jesus had come to inaugurate a kingdom, the kingdom of God.   In chapters 2 through 7 we read stories about the signs of that kingdom’s arrival:  the preaching of good news, healings, exorcisms, and (not least) the shattering of human traditions about what is right and what is wrong.  In chapters 8 & 10, Jesus tells his disciples that salvation comes only for the one who is willing to die, to be baptised into death, to become the slave of all.  Also in chapter 10, in what I take to be the key utterance of the gospel, Jesus declares that salvation, while impossible for human beings, is indeed possible for God.  Can you see where Mark is leading us with that story-line?  To suffering and to crucifixion, as a direct and necessary consequence of God’s encounter with human beings.   But also to the revolution revealed there, that strange turning in which death becomes life, poverty becomes riches, and the loss of self the key to a newly made identity that God gives freely.  So what Mark is trying to tell us in this stark story about a widow who gives away even the little she has, is nothing other than what he is telling us in the gospel as a whole.  That one can never be saved from life’s cruelties unless one is willing to confess and acknowledge one’s own involvement in the system that perpetuates those cruelties, giving oneself over, instead, to a different logic, the logic of God which is called by the beautiful name of grace.

What I mean is this.  For Mark – and, indeed, for the Letter to the Hebrews before him – there are two powers or logics in the world:  the power of religion or karma, and the power of the gospel or of grace.  In Mark’s world, as in ours, it was the power of karma that appeared to reign supreme.  Karma is the power of necessity, you know, the compulsion we feel to ‘get ahead’ by paying our dues, working hard, and keeping our patrons happy.  Of course, we would not feel such compulsion unless we believed in karma ourselves, if we did not want to get ahead, if we were not already invested in the very system that enslaves us because we believe it will reward us.  Yet this is where most of us are.  Compelled, entranced, invested.  Yet, the karmic system can only ever lead us to despair, for it condemns us to reap only what we sow.  It is like capitalism, which delivers to us only what we produce ourselves – images of the real, but not the real itself.  The real eludes us, for we are not God.  We cannot create even ourselves, let alone what we need for happiness or peace!  This widow of Israel, for example, was probably caught in a double-bind, a circle of despair with no exit.  Like all good Jews, she longed to be part of the people of the redeemed, those who were acceptable to God because they obeyed the priestly law.  Yet, she wanted to survive as well, to live.  When her male patrons died or put her aside, she had to turn to activities condemned by the law in order to feed herself and her children – to prostitution or stealing or slavery in the houses of idolators.  The only way to achieve both ends, to stay alive and ritually clean at the same time, was to accept a form of moral blackmail, to pay the priestly caste a large portion of her ill-gotten earnings in return for their acceptance and protection.  Unfortunately, her willingness to do so almost certainly kept her in a state of perpetual want and need.  It also perpetuated and repeated the very system that oppressed her, so that nothing was able to change.  She reaped what she sowed, her poverty and need creating nothing but more poverty and more need.

Thank God there is another power in the world, the power of grace!  Grace, as I have been preaching for some time now, is the opposite of karma or religion or myth.  It is like the blessing of children of which the Psalmist speaks.  Children cannot be produced by the machinations of our human longings, needs or planning.  They are not a reward for our labour or a right to be possessed.  Children come, as many of you know very well, as a sheer gift from God, without reason or foretelling.  Children are therefore signs to us of grace, that condition of blessedness and peace which comes not from ourselves but from somewhere other, from God.  Grace is that which comes to question, to interrupt, to displace and even destroy the cycle of despair which is karma.  With the gift of grace, we reap what we have not sown, and live in the power of that which we have not produced or made for ourselves.  In grace we experience the love of God shown in Christ’s self-sacrifice.  In Christ, God is totally for us, even to the point of so identifying with us in our karmic cycle of despair that he suffered the full consequence of what that cycle produces:  nothingness, and only nothingness.

Of course, having given itself over to nothingness and to death, grace is not exhausted.  It rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its own destruction, and proceeds to infect the karmic system like a virus which cannot be quashed.  In the gospel story, this power or property is called resurrection.  It is the perseverance of love in the face of death and despair, the never-depleted surplus of possibility over necessity.  In Mark’s world, the widows of Israel were forever caught in a web of karmic despair.  In trying to escape its demands they succeeded only in fulfilling its demands.  Not so, we are told, with the widow who gave her all, all she had to live on.  In the context of the gospel as a whole, we must understand this act evangelically, that is, as a picture or metaphor of salvation.  As for Christ himself, and for all who follow his way of the cross, it is only by finally allowing the karmic system to have what it seeks – our very lives – that we shall find ourselves free of its determinations.  For while she, and we who are Christ’s, indeed give our lives daily to the system we inhabit, that system need not possess us thereby.  For we are Christ’s, and our truest selves are hidden with Christ in God, as the apostle says.  Therefore we are being freed from the desire to get ahead, to succeed in terms determined by the law of karma.  We are people who know a love which is stronger even than death, and the gift of a life and future we have not produced.  Therefore we choose, over and over again, in all the minutiae of life, to serve our neighbour without thought of cost or ego.  For the price is already paid.  What can karma take from us that Christ cannot return a hundredfold?

The movie known as Matrix: Revolutions, can be read as the third volume in a three-fold re-telling of the gospel as I have proclaimed it todayIn that story, it is at the precise moment when the new Son of Man, Neo Anderson, gives himself over to the power of karmic inevitability, that the revolution begins.  As he lies crucified upon the power of the machines, absorbed, it seems, into the power of the same old thing, a miracle begins to happen.  What was absorbed begins to absorb.  What was dead now begins to infect the whole system with life.  What had been given away now returns more powerfully to inhabit all the world, bringing light and life and peace where once there was only darkness, death and enmity.  So it can be for us.  Jesus promises that if we will face our deepest fear – the loss of our very souls – and if we will trust in his love, then we shall live, even though we die.  “In my end is my beginning,” wrote T.S.  Eliot.  Let us give thanks that it is so.

Friday 2 November 2012

The gift of death

Texts:  Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21.1-6a; John 11.32-44

Because I could not stop for Death,
he kindly stopped for me.

There is something arresting about these lines from Emily Dickinson.  When read out loud, they send a shock-wave through one’s body because their subject is . . . death.  Death, that shadow, that reality which so many of us would rather avoid thinking about.  Death, that end to all our powers, that blind assassin of achievements, whether they be evil or good, lies or truth.  Death, that destroyer of suburban dreams, that terrifying democrat who respects neither our station in life nor the tapestries of intimacy we weave therein.  Death is indeed one whose piercing gaze we would rather not countenance.  The truth is that few of us have any time for death.  We are busy.  We would rather not stop.  And yet . . .  isn’t it strange that Dickinson speaks of death’s ‘kindness’ in choosing to stop for her?  How could death ever be regarded as kind?

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking of that paradigm example of modernity called medicine, and its unfortunate practise of keeping a person breathing when they’d rather slip away, that brand of so-called ‘care’ which insists on keeping our bodies alive, when, at the same time, our deepest spirit longs for nothing else but quiet, peace, and an end to the pain.  Many of you will have stared this experience in the face.  And many of you will have recoiled in horror, and prayed earnestly that God would grant the kindness of death, a death which comes, quietly, to liberate a loved one from the coils of despairing mortality.  In circumstances such as these, death can indeed be seen as a kindness.  But this morning I would like to push us beyond circumstances such as these, and explore a far more difficult proposition. Might there be a sense in which death as such, any death and every death, might actually be regarded as a gift from God?

Death as a gift.  The idea just seems so contradictory, especially if you’ve been raised, like me, in the Christian church!  Because so much of our theology seems to regard death as the enemy.  And with good cause.  I think of the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden.  For many years I imagined that human beings were created immortal by God, and that death came into the world as a form of punishment for our pride, our believing that we could be like God.  Emphasis on the word punishment.  And that is certainly one way to read the story . . .  if you want to ignore the following details.  That Adam and Eve were not created immortal, and that their expulsion from the garden of Eden is effected so that they will never eat of the ‘tree of life’ and become immortal.  In the actual Genesis story, as opposed to the imagined one, the expulsion from the garden is not a punishment, but a measure to ensure that the plan for human beings continues according to God’s intention.  And that intention explicitly includes mortality.  Death.

But what of that other famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15, where the apostle Paul speaks of death as the ‘last great enemy’ that God will overcome?  Indeed, how can we Christians not see death as the enemy, if we believe that God wills that our ‘mortal bodies put on immortality’, that our fleshly bodies become ‘spiritual bodies’, as Paul says?  Today’s reading from Isaiah would seem to echo that sentiment as well.  There the prophet describes death as the ‘shroud’, the ‘sheet of sorrow’ that covers the people, and promises that God will ‘swallow up death forever’.  And again, in Revelation, the writer imagines a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ in which death, along with sorrow and pain, have been done away with forever.  Surely, then, death is not part of the plan of God.  Surely it can only be seen as an enemy to be done away with: the last enemy; the last, and greatest, evil.

Again, it is possible to read the story that way if you are happy to do away with the more subtle character of the narratives in question.  It is important to notice, in Paul for example, that while death will ultimately be done away with, in the meantime it performs a crucially important function. For Paul, death is the indispensable means by which we put aside our own will to make room for the will of Christ.  By our baptism we are buried with Christ in death, so that we may be raised to a life no longer controlled by the desires of our own egos, but by Christ.  Now this is very important.  Here the ordinary, ‘common-sense’, understanding of death is subjected to a radical deconstruction, a veritable transfiguration.  No longer is death simply death, the cessation of consciousness, of life, of biological functioning. No, death is also a radical decentring of personality, an act of the will by which, paradoxically, desire and personal ambition are done away with so that the desires and ambitions of God might take up residence in that very same personality.  Here death is indispensible to what John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’, the profoundly disturbing loss of all that one thinks or knows or feels in order to make room for that which is unthought, unknown, and unfelt . . .  for God, who is all that we are not.

If all that is difficult to take in, then listen again to the story of the death and raising of Lazarus.  Except, this time, listen not so much for the events of the story, but for the theological images  evoked by Lazarus’ death.  Can you hear Jesus say that, by Lazarus’ death, the glory of God will arrive? . . .   Can you hear him say that, with this death, there is an end to knowing and a beginning to believing? . . .   Can you hear Thomas say ‘Let us go with Jesus, that we may die with him also’?  . . .   This whole story imagines death, not just as the cessation of life, but as the occasion of salvation.  By the death of Lazarus, all concerned engage the reality of their own deaths as well.  In weeping, they experience the death of their ‘seeing’, which, for the Greeks, was a cipher for knowledge.  According to John, God cannot be known in the same way as we know other things.  Indeed, it is only when we are prepared to lose our capacity to ‘know’ that we may see God’s glory.  Only when we die to ourselves, may we rise to God, and find our true selves.

Death, then, is a gift in this sense.  By coming to the end of our powers, we make room in our lives for the power of God.  By coming to the end of our knowing, we make room in our minds for the knowing of God.  By coming to the end of our desire, we make room in our hearts for the desire of God.  By coming to the end of our capacity for peace, we make room in our hearts for the peace of God.  If the coming of God in any of these ways is a good thing, then death may be seen as a gift.  Indeed, one might even say that death is God’s gift of grace for all who would be released into the radically new way of being alive which we call being ‘in Christ’.  And while I believe that my actual and final death will also be my passage to God, I also believe that in meditating upon the fact of my death right now, while I’m alive, I might be persuaded to die a little now, and so become more fully alive than I have ever been before.

Thomas Merton once prayed with these words.  I’d like to make them my own today, in honour of the saints who have lived and died before us, and who model for us the way to salvation:

My hope is in what the eye has never seen.  Therefore, let me not trust in visible rewards.  My hope is in what human hearts can never feel.  Therefore let me not trust in the feelings of my heart.  My hope is in what human hands have never touched.  Do not let me trust what I can grasp between my fingers.  Death will loosen my grasp and my vain hope will be gone.[1]

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, New York, Noonday Press, 1958, p.39