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Thursday 29 August 2013

A Still-born Hope? Asylum-seekers in Australia

Texts: Genesis 7:11-17, 21-23; 8.1, 6-19; Romans 6.3-11; Mark 4.35-41

Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge and honour the Yallukit-Willam people, who have cared for the land on which this church was build for time immemorial. 

In the Jewish and Christian imagination, life is about the long and difficult pilgrimage of God’s people from a place of isolation, fear, despair and bondage to a place of community, love, hope and freedom.  The pilgrimage is long and difficult not because of God, but because of us.  We make it long and difficult by our ongoing attachment to the things and the behaviours which comprise the walls of our many prisons. If we were to finally let go of such ‘treasures’ and accept Christ’s free offering of forgiveness and peace, then things would change very quickly.  But, in point of fact, we don’t let go easily.  Because we actually love our chains – even to the point of worshipping them - and because we are therefore loath to take them off, we find the way to liberation very difficult. And this is true whether we are talking primarily about individuals or societies, about personal spiritual travail or the struggle of tribes and nations to become more just and humane.

In Holy Scripture, this long and difficult pilgrimage from death to life, from bondage to freedom, is most often symbolised as a difficult passage, either across or through a large body of water.  In the story of Noah, for example, God responds to the irredeemable wickedness of the world by hatching a Genesis project.  God takes the very best of this world – Noah’s family and breeding pairs of every species of animal - places them all in a boat, and floats it through the awful crisis of storm and flood that destroys the world utterly.  When the boat finally alights on dry land following the flood, its inhabitants spill forth to become the basis for a new world, a new humanity, and therefore the possibility of becoming a better –more just and peaceful - society.  From evil and despair, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace.

That pattern is repeated in the story of the Exodus of God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Canaan.  Under Pharaoh, God’s people a severely mistreated. They are slaves, and therefore have no control, whatsoever, over their own destinies.  Their bodies and souls are nothing but the playthings of power.  But Yahweh sees their suffering and sends his prophets Miriam and Moses to arrange their escape.  Through the waters of the Red Sea as they run from Pharaoh, and through the waters of the Jordan River as they finally enter Canaan, the Hebrews are slowly transformed from a people without hope or identity to a people who have both a destiny and a future.  From evil and despair, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace.

There is a boat story in Mark’s gospel as well, and it draws heavily on the Noah and Exodus narratives.  Here Jesus is with his disciples on a boat in the middle of the sea of Galilee.  They are on route from safe, familiar, territory, to the region of the Gerasenes where they will encounter a demon named ‘Legion’. All about them is a wild storm which makes the sea ferocious.  Now, we can glean from Mark’s larger story that this small tableau symbolises the vulnerability of Mark’s small church as it seeks to carry its gospel of peace and liberation into the midst of a hostile and militant Roman Empire.  When Jesus stands up to rebuke the storm, when he cries out ‘Peace! Be Still!’ Mark is therefore telling his church that they can survive their ordeal if they look to Jesus, if they can trust in the grace of his presence in their midst, and follow with perseverance his way of suffering love.  In the midst of evil and despair, through water, they will find their way - with Jesus - to a place of life and peace.

The church has drawn on these very stories, from its very beginning, to symbolise the pilgrimage from death to life that is conversion.  Not surprisingly, the ritual of conversion is a washing in water.  In baptism we die to the basic principles of this world. We are drowned to all that is evil and unjust and cruel and selfish in the world.  With Christ we are buried in the waters, entombed in their icy depths. Yet, through the power of God’s love, we are raised from that place with Christ, raised to live a new life, with new hopes, and with faith in the new way of love God has shown us in Christ.  The ancient pattern is therefore repeated again in this fundamental rite of Christian discipleship: from evil and despair, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace in the company of our saviour Christ.

Now, what if we were to map this Christian pattern of pilgrimage and conversion onto the long and difficult journeys made by asylum seekers? What if we were to see in their incredible journeys across land and sea something of the same desperate hope that motivates Jews and Christians to flee from all that is evil and seek, instead, the peace and joy that God has promised? What if we were to interpret their voyages by boat, especially, in the light of Christian baptism? What if asylum seekers who get on leaky boats are not, in fact, demons come to threaten our peace, but simply people – people like us – who are actually fleeing the terrible demons that rule their places of origin in order to find - on the other side of dangerous and uncertain waters, a new life, a founded hope, a place where neighbours can live in peace? 

If we reframed their journeys thus, it would be no longer be acceptable to write so-called ‘boat-people’ off as ‘economic migrants’.  It would no longer be acceptable to tell them to ‘go back to where they came from’.  It would no longer be acceptable to imprison them for years at a time, heaping our own tortures on top of the traumas they have already experienced.  It would no longer be acceptable to build walls around our huge and wealthy continent and say ‘keep out’, ‘there is no room at this inn’.  Why? Because, as the book of Deuteronomy (10.19) so simply puts it:  ‘Show great love for the alien. For you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’  As Christians and Jews we are all boat-people, led by God from places of evil and despair, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace in the company of God’s redeemed people.  We are boat-people in a personal and psychological sense, and we are boat-people in the more communal sense. For most of our ancestors came here from across the seas seeking some kind of baptismal hope for a new and better land, for a place and a community of resurrection from the dead.  Who can deny it? We therefore have a responsibility, as people who are being loved and rescued by God, to love and rescue asylum-seekers. We cannot allow such hopes for life, life in all its promised fullness, to be still-born. It is as simple, my friends, as that.

Now, I am a person who has a better claim to this country than most. I am a direct descendent of Manalargenna, last chieftain of the Trawoolway clan whose traditional lands are in north-east Tasmania.  My family has lived in that part of the world for at least 25 thousand years, and for many thousands before that here on the bigger island.  But this I say to anyone who has come to these shores seeking refuge, asylum from the storm.  You are welcome here!  You are welcome! From the evil and despair of whence you came, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace in the company of God’s people, you are welcome!  And I promise you this. That I will do everything in my power to persuade our government to make you welcome also.  

This homily was preached at a service of lament with asylum-seekers at Williamstown Uniting Church in September 2013.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Prophets Awake!

Texts: Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17.

In 1988 I was privileged to meet a remarkable woman.  Her name is Rose Ruiz Durendez, and she is a Filipino from the island province of Mindinao.  I had opportunity to speak with Rose because she was one of the speakers at a conference on Phillip Island, and I'd somehow scored the job of driving her there from Melbourne.  She told me about life in the Philippines under the political leadership of 'the people's president', Corazon Aquino.  Though Aquino had been swept to power on a wave of 'people power' and of democratic protest at the martial rule of President Marcos, Rose reported that very little had changed in the Philippines since the changeover.  While Western governments were congratulating each other on yet another victory for 'democracy', the people of the Philippines were still being repressed by a fundamentally corrupt and cruel regime.  Most of the region's arable land was stilled owned by a few aristocratic families, of which the Aquino family was one.  Most of the people were still desperately poor, and their labour was still being exploited to boost the profits of unscrupulous multinational companies.  The Filipino army was still waging a war against any who questioned government policy.  And privately hired 'death squads' still roamed the countryside, killing and raping anyone who tried to organise the people to resist the rich oligarchies, the multinationals or the government.

Rose is a Christian teacher and theologian from the United Church of Christ.  Her husband is a Christian also, a lawyer specializing in the defence of human rights.  As we drove down the Princes Highway, I learned that Rose's husband was in prison for speaking out against the human rights abuses of Aquino's army.  I learned that Rose herself was accustomed to receiving daily threats on her life.  I learned of her friends and colleagues who had been arrested and tortured.  Or captured, raped and murdered by death squads in the dead of night.  All because of their Christian belief that the poor were beloved of God, and deserved a better deal.  In listening to Rose Ruiz Durendes, in witnessing her tears and her passion, I became aware that I was in the presence of one of God's holy prophets.  She had been given a word from the Lord, and she was willing to speak that word even though doing so put her very life in danger.

Jeremiah, too, was one of God's holy prophets.  He was consecrated for the task before his birth - so says our text for today.  Now Jeremiah knew very well what a prophet was called to do:  to stand before rulers and authorities and kings and call their self-serving policies into question; to critique the ethical practices of Hebrew society in the light of the covenant made with them by God; to call its priests and rulers to account for their treatment of the widow, the orphan and the refugee.  Not surprisingly, Jeremiah was not too keen on the job when the Lord called him.  He'd seen what Hebrew kings and landowners had done to other prophets.  Besides, he was set for a comfortable career amongst the prestigious priestly classes of Jerusalem.  Why would he want to exchange certainty and security for uncertainty and danger?  In the end, it seems, Jeremiah had very little choice.  He loved Yahweh, his God, and Yahweh had asked him to be a prophet.  His excuses about being too young for the job were never really going to cut it with God.  That was never the real issue.  In his heart of hearts, he was just afraid.  Afraid of what God's enemies might do to him.  Afraid of losing his life.  Afraid of being ignored.  But God knows his fear and gives him this assurance:  'Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you'.

What is it that changes an ordinary person into a Jeremiah?  How is that deep down fear of losing one's life overcome?  That's a question I've been asking myself for years.  How does a school teacher become a prophet who is willing to lay her life on the line?  How does the average pew-sitter become a disciple?  Well, I suspect the answer has something to do with little word which signifies a big revolution:  and that word is compassion. Compassion is what Jesus has plenty of when he cures a crippled woman on the Sabbath.  Imagine this woman's life.  For 18 years she has been bent and misshapen.  We are not told why, except that it was a 'spirit'.  'Spirit' or 'demon' is first-century shorthand for some kind of oppression.  Perhaps she was a woman under the heavy yoke of a cruel husband, or a slave-master.  Perhaps she had been forced to work with broom or needle until her spine would no longer straighten?  Whatever the cause, it seems that Jesus was sufficiently moved by the misery of her condition to put himself in danger.

For Jesus indeed had everything to lose in healing this woman.  He was a promising and innovative young rabbi.  That's why he'd got the gig in the Synagogue.  If he'd stuck to his guns there could have been a very rewarding career ahead.  Social prestige, comfortable living, moral security.  But no, when Jesus saw this woman all of that was put away for good.  So moved was he, that Jesus broke the rabbi code of ethics in order to heal her.  He interrupted his sermon mid-way through.  He touched a woman who was clearly ill, which made him ritually unclean.  He healed her on the Sabbath day, which was a big no-no at the time.  Jesus, it seems, allowed his com/passion (literally, 'suffering-with') to take the reigns.  Fear, no doubt was strongly present at that moment:  the fear of being censured by the Synagogue authorities; the fear of losing his future.  But compassion took the reigns.  For Jesus, it seems, loving someone is far more important that keeping yourself nice.  That's what makes the difference.  A prophet is an ordinary person who has been moved by love to give themselves away.  To take up their cross and follow the way of the crucified one.  To love, and not count the cost.  To love prophetically.

You and I are called to love like this as well!  The prophetic vocation is not just for the Jeremiah's and the Jesus's and the Rose's of this world.  It's for all of us.  To be a prophet, to follow after the way of Jesus, is fundamentally about giving yourself away for the sake of love.  It's about loving another so much that nothing else, not even one's own life, really matters anymore.  There is a story from Auchwitz about a young woman who was chosen one day for the gas chambers.  As her name was read out, she broke down before the whole company of assembled prisoners, sobbing and shrieking with fear.  But a young nun, a Russian woman named Elizabeth Pilenko, stepped forward to comfort her.  'Don't be afraid', she said, 'I'll take your place'.  Stories like that shake me to the very core.  They pull apart the fabric of my mediocrity and remind me that I belong to God, not to myself.  And God has called me to love.

What will you do with this call of God?  Will you clamber into your cocoon of fears and pray that the urge will pass?  I'm afraid that will never do.  For God has said that only those willing to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save it.  In the end, the cocoon of fear becomes a tomb from which there is no escape.  The one who clings to their fears is eventually strangled by them.  But I promise you this:  the one who makes the brave journey out from themselves into love, the one who is willing to suffer for another's liberation, will discover a kingdom that cannot be shaken.  And there you will meet a God who has, himself, loved - even unto death; a crucified God, who bears in his body the unspeakable crimes of humanity.  A God scarred . . .  by love.

This homily was first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in September 1998.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Living the dream of justice

Texts: Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56

Today's reading from the prophet Isaiah presents us with the image of God's people as a vineyard of the Lord's planting.  The site of the vineyard is chosen very carefully, on the side of a hill where the grapes will get maximum sunlight.  The soil is carefully turned over and all of the rocks removed.  A watchtower is placed in the midst of the vineyard to ward off any who might be tempted to steal the grapes.  A large wine vat is constructed, in expectation of a bumper crop of choice fruit.  And the vines are tended carefully and lovingly.  But the Lord is disappointed.  The grapes produced are not up to scratch; they are like wild grapes, the kind which grow without discipline and are entirely unsuitable for the making of fine wine.  Despite all God's tender and careful efforts, God's people were unable to become what God had hoped for.

And what were God's hopes, precisely?  What fruit did God look for in these chosen people? The answer is plainly and unambiguously stated by the prophet in verse 7 of chapter 5:  'the Lord expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry of distress'.  What God expects from Israel may be summed up in these two words: justice and righteousness.  And this is what God expects and hopes for in us as well.  We are not exempt by virtue of our distance from the events of Israel's destruction, in the context of which this sermon was first preached.  No, God's hope and dream for his people remains the same:  that we may be a holy nation, characterized by the qualities of justice and righteousness.   In Hebrew, of course, these terms are equivalent.  I have heard some preachers say that 'righteousness' refers to personal morality - things like what we do with our sexuality - while 'justice' refers to the public morality of political life.  But that is to misunderstand the Hebrew mind entirely.  For the Hebrew people there was no such thing as private, personal, morality.  Everything a person did or thought, no matter how private, was understood to have its public and political ramifications.  I think the Hebrew analysis of ethical life is still the best one.  Why?  Because it recognises, as modernist or neo-liberal analyses do not, that every life on this planet is connected to every other life in an intricate web of connection.  So that even the smallest of actions in one part of the web has significant effects and consequences in other parts.  Let me give you a relevant modern example to illustrate.

A child's sneakers wear out, and so her father goes into a local shoe shop to buy some new ones.  He scouts around for some shoes which will provide both value for money and a degree of quality.  Eventually he decides to buy a pair of Nike shoes.  They are made of strong leather, but their price is comparable to that of less satisfactory brands.  Now, modern neo-liberal ethics would say that this man has made a private choice based upon private values, these being a desire for quality balanced against the need to preserve the family budget.  And, according to neo-liberal ethics, that is that.  But a Hebrew ethicist, like the prophet Isaiah would disagree.  He would point out that there is a bigger world to be taken into account when one purchases shoes.

You see, these Nike shoes were produced by a 16 year old girl in a factory in Fiji.  For each pair of shoes she produces, she is paid the equivalent of 50c Australian.  She is the only person in her family who has a job, because the traditional family land has been taken over by a multinational sugar company.  Without its land, the family can no longer produce its own food, and there are not enough factory jobs to go around.  So this young girl must work very long hours hunched over a sewing machine in order to earn enough money to keep the wolf from her family's door.  As a result, she is suffering spinal problems.  When she is unable to work, she will not be compensated for injuries sustained on the job.  She will be sacked.  Consider this:  the pair of shoes she produces is sold in Australia for, say, $100.  She is paid 50c.  Where does the rest of the money go?  The shoes only cost $5 to make, and another $5 to sell on the Australian market.  The rest goes to Nike and their retailers in profits.  The shoes are being made by a child in Fiji because it is cheaper to run a sweat-shop of slaves in Fiji than it is to produce the shoes in an Australian factory under Australian law. 

A Hebrew analysis would be inclined to conclude that buying shoes is far from simple, if one is prepared to consider the ethical consequences of that action.  Indeed, it may well advise that buying such shoes is wrong, on the grounds that it perpetuates an unjust and systematic abuse of our responsibility for other people.  Buying these shoes supports the unscrupulous business of a company which profits from a form of child slavery.  You may be interested to know, by the way, that the prominent international Aid agency, Oxfam, is currently campaigning against Nike on precisely these grounds.  And so is a Uniting Church agency known as Fair Wear.  I can tell you more about all that later, if you wish.

When Isaiah condemns the leaders of Israel for their lack of social responsibility, this is precisely the kind of thing he has in mind.  Throughout the book which bears their name, the Isaianic prophets continually point out that Israel has ignored its covenantal obligations towards all who are poor in the land, all whose lands and livelihoods have been whittled away by unscrupulous people who happen to be more powerful and more greedy.  The prophets condemn all who benefit or profit from such exploitation, and promise that God will judge them for their sins. 

Now these prophets were not thanked for their message.  They were not swathed in garlands and announced to the halls of power as Israel's saviours.  No, many of them were persecuted, tortured or even killed for their troubles.  They were the kinds of saints we hear about in the later part of our reading from Hebrews.  They were saints who suffered terribly for being faithful to their vision.  They imagined a world in which all could share equally in the bounty of the land, a world in which people shared with one another without concern for the health of their private profit margins, a world where people gave up fighting with one another and took to more productive tasks like tilling the land and promoting peace.  Why did the prophets hang on to these visions, even when they were laughed at or persecuted?  Why did they persevere in their preaching, even when the whole world thought they were mad?  Because they had faith.  They believed that it was God who longed for this world, and they were prepared to stake their lives on it, no matter what the consequences.

They are a great challenge to us, these prophets and saints and martyrs.  When I reflect on my own life, I become aware of how soppy and sentimental my privatized kind of Christianity actually is.  I mean, what effect does God's vision of a new world have on the way you live your life?  How does the faith effect the decisions you make about buying food or clothes or shoes?  How does it effect the way you make your career choices, or how you will spend your time?  How will it effect the way you vote in the coming elections?  Do you ever see a conflict between the common wisdom and your faith?  Remember that Jesus talked about bringing not peace but a sword, that families will be turned against each other.  Here he was talking about the way in which the vision of justice disrupts the false peace of the everyday, and calls into question the common consensus about what's important in life.  The gospel of peace and justice for all is a dangerous gospel.  It threatens the powerful.  It threatens the rich.  It threatens the common wisdom.  And when people feel threatened, they look for someone to sacrifice.  One of those sacrificed was Jesus.  He threatened the powerful with his vision of a kingdom for the poor.  And he paid the price.

Allow me to conclude with this. The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to cast off the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race before us.  We need to persevere because the race is long and hard.  It is relatively easy to be a pewsitter in church.  It is easy to go along with the crowd.  Anyone can do these things.  But it's very difficult to be a genuine follower of Jesus.  I, for one, find the way very difficult indeed.  But I take the advice of the Hebrew epistle.  I keep my eyes on Jesus, who, enraptured by the power of his vision, endured the cross and its shame and finally attained to the fulfilment of his vision through resurrection from the dead.  He is the one who articulates the vision of justice for me.  And he's the one I look to when things get tough.  If Jesus could stick to his principles, so can I.  I earnestly pray that you can too - for the sake of God, and for his vision of a world reborn to justice . . .  and to peace.

This homily was first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in August 1998.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Holy Longing

Texts: Isaiah 1.1, 10-20; Ps 50.1-8; 22-23; Hebrews 11.1-3; 8-16; Luke 12.32-40

The God we encounter in today’s lections is, in many ways, a pretty angry God.  In the passage we read from Isaiah, the Lord tells Israel that he is sick and tired of all its hypocrisy.  ‘Sure,’ says God, ‘you turn up to worship regularly, you bring along the sacrifices prescribed in the law of Moses.  But your heart isn’t in it.  You have blood on your hands.  You neglect and mistreat the poor, the widow and the orphan.  Unless you get your act together,’ says God, ‘unless you stop doing evil and start doing good, I will put you to the sword.’  The Psalmist echoes these same sentiments when he has God say (and I paraphrase):  ‘Listen up, all you hypocrites who take my covenant on your lips and turn up to worship with the prescribed offerings.  I don’t care how many offerings you make, or how many promises you make; unless you walk the walk as well as talk the talk, I’m going to tear you apart.  What I want most of all is an attitude of thanksgiving, and a people who will actually do as they have promised.’

Now, there have always been some Christians who are very uncomfortable with all this anger from God.  From the second century there was a crowd known as the Marcionites who wanted to excise the Hebrew Bible from the Christian canon altogether.  In their view, the God of the Hebrew bible was not the God of Jesus Christ.  The God of the Hebrews was an angry demiurge who breathed fire and vengeance, while the God of Jesus was loving and forgiving, always regarding human foibles with a smiling tolerance.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a characteristically northern European distaste for strong emotions of any kind, many learned theologians and ministers argued that it was wrong to associate anger with God—for God is our best name for all that is calm and peaceful in the cosmos, a kind of mystical still-point around which the chaos and anger of the universe turns.  In more recent decades, a whole swag of theologians have argued that the biblical anger of God should be dismissed as nothing more than a projection of our all-too-human anger.  ‘God does not get angry,’ they argue, ‘WE get angry and then anthropomorphise God so that we can enlist God to our cause.’

What are we to make of these claims?  Well, what can I say except that even the most appalling theology has some truth in it!  Marcion wanted to emphasise that God was a God of love, which—surprisingly enough!— I think is right.  God is love, and God does love us.  That is the clear message of both the New Testament and the Old, I would have thought.  But stay with me now.  Isn’t it precisely because God loves us that God gets angry with us sometimes?  Wouldn’t a God who never got angry be evidence that God is actually entirely indifferent to what we do—cold, unaffected and distant like the stars in the sky?  I think so.  Indeed, these days it is widely recognised by both Jews and Christians that the kind of theology that wants to remove every apparently ‘human’ characteristic or emotion from God is dodgy theology, for it fails to take account of the deepest meaning of the biblical covenants: that is, that God has thrown God’s lot in with us, for better or for worse, that God has chosen to become corrigible, indeed vulnerable, to all that human beings decide and do. 

For Christians, of course, this covenant logic reaches its fulfilment in the fleshly career of one Jesus of Nazareth.  What we learn from Jesus is that it is in the very nature of God to become human, and therefore vulnerable to all that being human actually means.  Like getting hurt and disappointed in love, like becoming angry and wishing that one could die.  Every one of those emotions, and a whole lot more, were seen in Jesus of Nazareth who, in Christian theology, is the best picture of God that we have.  And if the best picture of God that we have is a human being, why should it be wrong to think of a God who is vulnerable to all that we do or don’t do in response to divine love?  Love, you see, does not make one strong and indifferent.  It makes one vulnerable to being hurt.

A few years ago I threw a ‘Thank-God-I-survived-my-doctorate’ party.  Some of you were there.  Now you have to understand that this was a very important celebration for my family and I.  It’s not everyday that a kid who grew up in poverty earns a doctorate, you know.  That night therefore represented a wonderful celebration of what God is able to do in us. But I had one disappointment.  A close friend, a friend whom I love a great deal, did not turn up even though she had promised she would.  I looked for her all night, but my looking was in vane, and the excuses she gave after the fact were really, really lame.  I still feel rather hurt and angry about that.  I will get over it, of course, but I am hurt and angry nevertheless.   Love is like that.  If you get close to someone, if you make yourself vulnerable, you can experience great joy.  If that someone betrays you, however, the wound goes very deep.  For when your guard is down, the knife strikes much deeper.
That is how it is with God, too, I think.  God loves us more deeply that anyone.  God has come so close to us, in Christ and in the Spirit, that God has rendered Godself almost powerless in the face of our wavering loyalties.  When we make a promise to God, but then we break it, God is really affected.  The cross of Christ is our best icon or image of this, for there God is not only wounded by our faithlessness, but mortally so.  In Christ God dies the horrible death of unrequited love.

The good news, of course, is that love is not without its own power.  It is, as the very heart of who God is, actually stronger than death.  The same passages that present us with a hurt and angry God also assure us that God will always be waiting to forgive our faithlessness and renew the relationship.  God is not one, we are told, who will hang on to the bitterness of God’s disappointment forever, real and visceral as that disappointment actually is.  God’s holy longing for us indeed makes God vulnerable.  But our sin does not, we are told, kill off God’s longing altogether.  God never will become cold and indifferent.  God will always be waiting for that time when we come to our senses in a far-off country.  God will always be waiting to embrace us in forgiving, reconciling love.  God will always stand before us and beside us, in Christ, to show us what a truly redeemed humanity actually looks like.  In Christ, you see, God has been pleased to place in our hands the very kingdom of God, which is gospel-speak for God’s own self.

The strictly theological point to make from this is, of course, that while God may indeed be different to human beings, and we should therefore be very careful to avoid making God into whatever serves our ideological purposes, a very large part of that classical problematic stems from the fact that, in Christ, God is actually more human than we are.  In Christ, God shows us what a human being infused by divine love actually longs for in the face of the very great inhumanity that shadows our world.

Let me conclude by pointing out that this precisely human longing of God also finds a mirror and embodiment in the longing of God’s baptised people for justice, peace and reconciliation in the world.  The dismay and anger that we, as God’s people, feel in the face of the troubles all about us reflects the dismay and anger of God.  The longing we feel for that ‘better country’ described by the writer to the Hebrews, may be understood as an expression and sacramental embodiment of God’s own longing.  For, in the end, it is not that God is slow in bringing about the revolution we so long for.  It is not that God has made a promise but is slow to keep it.  In the end, our longing is that longing which God has placed in our hearts.  It is a longing that motivates us to get off our backsides and do something for this world which God loves so passionately and for which Christ died. 

The challenge for each of us this morning is therefore this.  As God’s child, God has placed God’s longing in your heart.  Will you allow that longing to take flesh, as Christ has taken flesh?  Will you engage the world anew, with all its soiled relationships, in the faith, hope and love of Jesus?  Will you go from this church and actually keep the promises you made in your baptism, to turn from evil and do good, to stop being part of the problem and start becoming part of the new humanity inaugurated in Christ?  Will you care enough even to become hurt and angry?  It’s up to you.  Remember that God is not the kind of God who will bully you into anything.  God will rail with anger, certainly, remonstrating passionately with all in your life and your world that is less than the humanity revealed in Jesus.  But the choice, and all that follows from that choice, is still with you.  The way of God’s Spirit in the world is that of longing and lamenting, of hoping and imagining.  So, will you answer God’s prayers?  Will you light your lamp and keep it burning, that the world may be transfigured in love?

This homily was first preached at the Uniting Church's Centre for Theology and Ministry in 2010.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Hidden with Christ in God: a message for the Aussie bloke

Texts: Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21

You have heard the saying 'If you're too heavenly minded, you'll be no earthly good'.   Many of us have been used to taking that saying as gospel, as a word of cautionary wisdom about not getting too carried away with religious stuff.  It's a very Australian approach to life, if you think about it.   Particularly so when we recognise that what usually passes as 'Australian' is actually a caricature: the white, working-class, bloke.  This bloke likes to think of himself as a practical person who acts according to the plain and simple maxims of common-sense.  He doesn't like anything that is too way out, too unfamiliar or too foreign.  He knows what he knows, and likes what he likes.  'And that', he says, 'is good enough for me, mate'.  And that's why the archetypal Australian bloke is supremely suspicious about religion.  Religion represents everything that can't be nailed down in life.  As such, it has the unnerving capacity to call one's common-sense, everyday, view of things into question. Given too much credence, religion has the potential to up-end  the Australian bloke's sense of where things ought to be. Incredibly, the religion of Christ asks him, and all of us, to invest not in the concrete stuff of house, car, footy and a boat for going fishing, but in the rather less tangible matters of love, justice, ecology and intimacy with God.  For the archetypal Australian bloke, this stuff is too airy-fairy and too foreign.  And because we've all been influenced by this approach to life (even if we're not male, white or working-class), Paul's message to the Colossians must, at times, sound like utter nonsense.

In this part of Colossians, Paul actually rails against the common-sense approach to things, the view of life which says 'If you're too heavenly minded you'll be no earthly good'. Indeed, he pleads the opposite:  to set one's mind not on earthly things, but on the things of heaven!  And then he says some rather strange things: religious-sounding things.  He says that all Christians have ‘died’, and that our lives are now ‘hidden with Christ in God’.  He says we've taken off the old self, like you take off a coat, and put on a new self which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  The upshot of all this appears to be that Paul wants us to stop living according to the common wisdom, and start living this 'hidden' life with Christ.  'Now what', I hear the typical Australian bloke say, 'is the blighter on about!'  What does all that mean?  And why should I take his advice anyway?  I'm quite happy with my life the way it is, thank you very much!'

Well, let me surprise you all by taking those two questions absolutely seriously.  They are very good questions.  They're good questions even if you're not a fan of the archetypal Australian bloke, which I (if you hadn't guessed already) am not.  And they're good questions for two reasons.  First, they call Christian people to give a genuine and credible account of their faith which can be understood by people who do not belong to the church.  In theological terms, we hear in these questions the call to bear effective and relevant witness to our faith in the society and culture of which we are part.  This implies a second reason. Our strange and peculiar language points to a strange and peculiar experience - the experience of finding one's true identity and vocation in Christ.  Our mate's questions are a stern reminder that unless that experience is genuine - truly, madly and deeply genuine - then we really are just kidding ourselves.   In that case our typically Australian mate would be absolutely right in dismissing us.  According to Paul, we are called by God not to believe a series of doctrines and belong to a club called The Church, but to be disciples of Jesus Christ:  to live radically new lives with our whole minds, bodies and experience . . .  but I run ahead of myself.

Allow me to return to the first of those questions the archetypal Australian bloke might ask of Paul's message to the Colossians:  'what is the blighter on about!?'  What does Paul actually mean when he talks about putting off the old self and putting on the new?  And what's all that mysterious stuff about having died but living a life 'hidden with Christ in God?'  Well, this is where I reckon the parable of Jesus about building bigger barns comes in handy.  I suspect that a lot of us are like this fellow who dreams of building bigger and bigger barns to put all his stuff in.  The modern, suburban version might talk about elegant clothes and houses, flash cars or yachts on the river.   These are the modern symbols of wealth and success, of having made it in the lucky country.  Few of us ever get there, but most of us dream of getting there.  That's why so many of this nation's poorest folk spend so much of their modest incomes on gambling and tattslotto tickets.  It's the lure of the dream they've been sold by the advertisers. 

The bad news is that this dream is killing us.  It's killing the poor, certainly, because being poor means you'll never possess the material symbols which prove you're a success.  So you spend your days feeling like a failure, battling a low self-image and wondering whether there's any point.  Or you get angry at those who do seem successful.  And you learn to hate them, or you rob from them, or you abuse or perhaps assault them.  Because you wish you had what they seem to have: the money to be free and happy.  But those of us who are relatively well off, whether rich or middle-income earners, are being killed by the dream as well.  Because the dream promises happiness if you get this stuff, but when you get it you don't feel happy.  You feel empty and ripped off.  It’s like someone stole the punchline to the world's funniest joke.  At base, you see, is the reality that all things must die.  All things pass away.  If we invest our sense of personhood and wellbeing to things material, then we're already dead.  Because material things are dead.  They don't have life, and can't give us the things which fill life with meaning and purpose.  And it doesn't matter how much of that stuff we accumulate, it won't give us the magic.  And when we face death, whether that be sooner or later, we're all confronted with that stark fact.  When you're dead, the symbols of wealth and success spell a big fat zero.  When I worked as a chaplain at the Epworth hospital in Melbourne, I met a number of high-flying business men who had gained the world but lost their souls.  It wasn't until their run-ins with death that they awoke to this fact.  And it was terrifying.

So when Paul says 'you have died', when he talks of 'putting off the old self', he's talking about this experience exactly.  Some folks are confronted with death through accident or mis-adventure.  And they are forced to change their lives, to put to death old ways of being and embrace new ways.  But Paul says to us, don't wait until that happens to you.  Put to death the deeds of common-sense wisdom right now.  Because the ‘common sense’ is a lie.  Put to death the version of success you've been sold by the advertisers.  Put to death the dream of happiness from wealth and comfort.  Put it to death.  Put it all to death.  Let it all go into the dark.  If you let it go, then you've got a shot at finding out what life is really about.  If not, you'll just be whistling in the dark until the day your body catches up with the despair and desperation you already feel in your spirit.

But where is this new life to replace the old?  And how do I find it?  Well there is mystery here.  That must be frankly admitted.  Paul says, 'you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God'.  He also says that the new self is one which 'is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the creator'.  There are clues and traces here, traces of God and of transcendence.  But not answers of the kind we've been conditioned to expect -  water-tight answers, complete answers, answers available right now, like the results of a google search.  Nevertheless, the clues are exciting!  Paul encourages us to look for the answers in a person, a person who lived and died on this earth of ours, a person who now lives in the heart of God.  Somehow he blazed a trail for us: a trail by which he suffered the dark night of death and a profound renunciation of the common way; a trail that broke through to the other side, the side where God is.  And this person, who is called Christ, the 'anointed one', somehow found his own true identity and purpose in God, and became one with God.  And so it is Christ who holds the secret of who we are in his home in the heart of God.  Paul encourages us to seek, and walk, after the way of Jesus Christ, who is the image of the Creator who made him, and made us.  In following him, we are promised a new self that, like Christ, is forged in the image of the one who made us.

But what of our Australian mate's second question?  'Why should I take Paul's advice?  I'm happy with my life just as it is!'  Perhaps there is a sense in which many of us are happy with being unhappy.  We've become so used to feeling like life has passed us by, or that we've been failures in life, that we've become numb to any new possibility.  Many of us, I suspect, find it less scary to sit in our misery than to contemplate the possibility of transformation.  Eric Fromm, the eminent psychotherapist, called this numbness  ‘the fear of freedom’.  Many of us are scared to face the new or the unknown because we're afraid to die.  There is no new person or new world without the passing of the old.  Deep down we all know that.  And many choose to stay put.  That is the greatest tragedy of life, I think. Not earthquakes.  Not famines.  The tragedy of inertia, portrayed so beautifully by King Lear in Shakespeare's marvellous play.  Here was a man who knew he was going to hell, that he was already in hell.  But he decided to stay there because the prospect of changing was too much too bear.  Here, too, the message of Christ has something to say.  'Perfect love drives out all fear'.  Perfect love drives out all fear.  We Christians believe, you see, that Christ's path through death to life was not entirely of his own making.  We believe that God chose him and loved him before the creation of the world, to be the one who would suffer and die to make a way to God for us.  God did this because of love, love for every single one of us.  So there is no need to be afraid of change.  If God is for you, who can be against you?  In the end, you see, the journey to a strange place is actually a return home.  The new identity is actually an old one.  The person you will become is simply the person you already are, deep inside.  So don't be afraid, my Australian mate.  Surrender to God and set yourself free.

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