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Sunday 23 August 2015

'The words I have spoken are spirit and life': the poetics of faith

Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ What is the Apostle talking about when he utters these enigmatic words?

In part, the Apostle is seeking to make a crucial distinction between what we can see, touch, hear and taste, and what we can’t. There are things in this universe, he wants to say, which we cannot sense in any ordinary way, and yet they are real¬ - as real as this lectern, or that book, or you and I. Let me elaborate a little.  Let’s pursue the example of that book. In one sense, it is just a book. It is made of paper, of pulped wood and chemicals. Perhaps there is a little leather. Certainly, there is a lot of ink, ink which is distributed liberally on the page to create words. A book, just a book. And yet it is not just a book, is it? For there, in those pages, resides the trace and the effect of a story and an event that is far bigger and more cataclysmic in their import than any mere book could be.  The trace and effect of that God who has made our world from nothing and passed through it in cloud and fire and a people liberated from slavery; the trace and effect of Holy Wisdom becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us, full of grace and truth; the trace and effect of life bursting forth from the tombs in which we would enclose it; the trace and effect of transformation, salvation, the liberation of the world from its bondage to death and decay. The trace and effect of things far larger and more deeply complexly interwoven than mere pulp and paper, vellum and ink could ever mean on their own. What we see and touch and taste is a book. But what we feel, especially when it is read aloud, is the shaking of the earth and the remaking of the cosmos.

So when the Apostle talks about rulers, authorities, dark powers of evil who dwell in heavenly realms, he is asking us to look beyond the surface of what things might mean and listen, instead, for the resonance and timbre of a great opera that has been unfolding since before the universe was made, a cosmic drama concerning good and evil, making and unmaking, faith in the God of life and the appetite of humankind for mayhem and destruction.  Here the Apostle wants to teach us what literature scholars call a ‘hermeneutic’, a strategy for rightly reading the times and places in which we live.

Take, for example, some of the events that dominate the news. ISIL kills many thousands of people in Iraq and Syria, most of them Muslims.  The Abbot government turns back another boat of desperate asylum seekers. A young Aboriginal woman dies in police custody. The disability pension is reclassified so that thousands of recipients lose their benefits.  A pop star goes into rehab for drug abuse. What are these events all about? What do they really mean? Some - usually journalists - might read them as examples of the ongoing struggle between the weak and the strong, the ones who will form the future and those who will not.  Such readings assume, all too pragmatically, that history is written by the strong, and that it is the strong who always win.  But if we read those same events in the light of that opera an Apostle might sing, they are about faith and disbelief, flesh and spirit, light and darkness. They are about the struggle of the people of God with forces that can never be reduced to mere flesh and blood, to bodies that are either weak or strong. They are about the struggle with an ancient and cosmic evil that would seek to enlist anything and anyone to its cause, and without caring whether those enlisted understand what is at stake or not.  By reading things this way, those of us who have heard the gospel come to understand that the events that dominate our televisions or, indeed, our own lives, have a cosmic significance. They are important not simply because these events apparently determine whether we can expect a comfortable future or not. They matter because they are traces and effects of God’s eternal desire to wrest life from death, light from darkness, faith from doubt.

Let me put all this another way. The world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s TV show from the late 90s and early Noughties is our world. Despite the claims of the eternally prosaic and unimaginative, we do indeed live in a world populated by creatures that want to suck our blood and remove our brains and hearts. We do indeed live in a world in which the scarcity of wisdom figures and wise mentors to show us the way forces most of us to simply do our best with the limited resources we have, effectively making it up as we go along.  We also live in the world of Harry Potter, JK Rowling’s series of novels. A world in which a dark lord would seek to re-establish the rule of ‘might is right’ and there is only a small band of courageous and principled neophytes to stand against him, this time, albeit, with the help of plentiful apostle figures.  We are indeed in the midst of a battle. Not a battle against mere flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities that are so pan-dimensional that they can barely be named at all.  The Jewish and Christian traditions name such powers variously as the devil, the Evil one, the demonic, the Father of Lies, Satan, Beelzebub. But these are names which can never entirely capture or domesticate what is really at work: evil, entropy, destruction, all that would make for death and meaninglessness and nothingness.

How does one battle such a slippery enemy? What resources can the people of God draw upon? Well, the writer to the Ephesians is no more prosaic in prescribing an antidote for evil than he is in naming evil itself.  Invoking the metaphor of a warrior, the Apostle encourages the people of God to don the full armour of God, including a ‘belt of truth’, a ‘breastplate of justice’, and ‘sandals of peace’, as well as ‘shield of faith’, a ‘helmet of salvation’ and ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’. Of course, we should never take these images literally, that is, prosaically. We should never make the mistake of thinking that the Christian is a soldier who fights the enemy as the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ fought Saddam Hussein or the Taliban.  If we make that mistake then we have missed the point of the struggle in the same way that many mistake the point of ‘jihad’ in the Qur’an.  Christians and Muslims alike do not battle flesh and blood, strong or weak bodies, we battle evil in all its guises - whether those guises be hunger, addiction and self-loathing or systemic injustice, the culture of economic rationalism or the totalising power of the rich.  And the weapons we use are not weapons that kill, they are weapons that bring life: weapons that are really elements of a vision, a grand story, about the desire of God to transform the world into a place where truth, justice and healing are realities for everyone and everything.

Another way to talk about all this is suggested by the passage we read from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus completes his long sermon about bread and wine with the words ‘The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life’.  Like the writer of Ephesians, John is here seeking to distinguish between literal or prosaic readings of the world, and those inspired by the more poetic renderings of faith.  As we have been learning in the last few weeks as we have together pondered the meaning of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, it is a merely ‘fleshly’ reading that concludes that Jesus wants only to feed the ordinarily hungry and the ordinarily thirsty.  On the contrary, what John has been helping us to understand is that Jesus himself is the ‘bread’ and the ‘wine’ that we need. He is the heavenly bread and wine which God has sent to satiate that longing in us for a form of life that truly at peace with both God and ourselves, a form of life the gospel calls, simply, ‘eternal’ life.  This is ‘spiritual’ reading of the events the gospel describes, a rendering of the feeding by the sea of Tiberius that in very real ways gave birth in the church to our celebration of the Eucharist.  Because of the ‘spiritual’ poetics of John, which he contrasts with more ‘fleshly’ readings, we have come to see that the bread and wine we share at the Supper is far more than bread and wine.  Together, the bread and wine are the Word make flesh, Jesus himself, who by our eating and drinking takes up residence not only in our bodies, but also in our minds and hearts.  By eating and drinking in this manner, with the eyes of faith wide open, John teaches us to learn a new way of reading the world and to take this poetics to ourselves as the only language that is able to give us life.  ‘Learn of Jesus in prayer’, says John. ‘Approach the table in prayer and see there the word of God made flesh in Jesus, who is able to inhabit your life by faith and give you hope and a future, despite what the cynics, the politicians and the journalists might say. Learn of Jesus in the operatic ritual of the Eucharist and learn to give thanks for God’s victory over all that would make for death, for darkness, for injustice or despair.’

So, if you got lost in all of that, don’t worry. Here comes the summary. How do we recognise evil? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts. How do we discern the difference between right and wrong? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts. How do we fight the darts cast our way by the evil one? By listening to Jesus and taking his wisdom into our hearts? How do we take Christ’s wisdom into our hearts? By prayer, by the reading of the Scriptures in a spirit of prayer, and by participation in the supper that celebrates his mysteries.

I close with a prayer by Leonard Cohen, a Jew who knows the poetics of the Christian faith better than many Christians that I know. Here he throws himself upon the mercy of God, as we all must if we are to find our way through the sufferings of this life to the life of resurrection that Christ promises.
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, I've forgotten I don't know
Show me the place where my head is bending low
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can't move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began.
This homily was first preached at Monash Uniting Church in August 2015.

Sunday 12 July 2015

The blessed martyrs

Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

In the story we heard this morning from Mark’s gospel, we learn that John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed because he spoke up against the law of a powerful family in the name of the law of God.  Herod, the Roman-appointed governor of Galilee, had ‘married’ Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, even though she was still married to Philip.  The priests and rabbis apparently tolerated this situation because they were afraid of Herod’s power.  But John did not.  Presumably he believed that officials who sat in the place of David in Israel had a special responsibility to set an example for others.  In the prophetic tradition to which John belonged, the king was also the pastor or shepherd of the people.  It was therefore intolerable that any heir of David should publicly bless and normalise any behaviour that trampled the love of both God and neighbour underfoot.  John clearly made these observations in the public arena and, having suffered imprisonment for some time, was finally executed for his trouble.

Although Stephen is properly regarded as the first Christian martyr, John the Baptist can be regarded as the prototype of Christian martyrs in that (1) his essential calling was to be a witness to the coming of the Christ, God’s anointed king; (2) he lived that calling out by loudly proclaiming the difference between the values of the messianic kingdom and the values of the socio-political reality in which he lived; and (3) he was executed for his trouble.  This is what Christian martyrs have done ever since, have they not?  Think of the famous martyrs of the ancient world, whose essential crime was a refusal to put aside the Lordship of the Christ for the sake of keeping things nice with the Empire.  Think of modern martyrs like Oscar Romero or Dietrich Bonheoffer, who did not consider themselves free to tolerate the oppressive power of Military juntas or Nazi Führers because of their Christian responsibility to love God and neighbour before even their own safety and survival.  Think of the less famous martyrs of the Philippines or of West Papua, humble pastors and church leaders who dared to confront the murderous greed of their governments in the name of God’s love for the poor.  These many lost their lives not because they were careless or suicidal, but because they felt compelled to bear witness to the faith, hope and universal love that had been revealed to them in Jesus Christ.

It is perhaps difficult for we distracted occupants of the world’s ‘most liveable city’ to imagine our way into the minds and hearts of the martyrs.  For the martyrs believe in God’s blessing so powerfully that they are willing to entrust themselves to that blessing even to the point of death.  They believe, with the writer to the Ephesians, that they are destined to received all that God has promised in Jesus, a share in that great company whose sins and failures are forgiven, a share in the inheritance that the gospels describe as the kingdom of God.  We, on the other hand, are so regularly unsure of God’s blessing that our faith stumbles at the first hurdle.  How can God be God, we ask ourselves, when so many of God’s people live as though God didn’t really matter?  How can God be God when the world is so full of pain and evil?

With thoughts like these we display our lack of genuinely Christian faith.  For we are not called to believe in the church or its self-made righteousness.  We are called to believe in the righteousness of God in Christ, and in his infinite mercy towards all who place their trust in him.  Nor are we called to believe in the evils of the world, as though they had some kind of substance of their own.  We are called to believe in the God who, in Christ, has disarmed the powers and led them captive in his train.  In Christ the powers are revealed for what they are:  hollow nothings which have no more substance than the fear and awe of those who are taken in by their lies. In that light, we are then called to be part of the antidote of God would apply towards everything that is evil, a people of compassion who love our neighbours genuinely, offering care and shelter in the midst of whatever has befallen them.

So let us examine our lives and our faith in the light of the martyrs, their lives and their deaths.  For the martyrs are simply what we are all of us called to be:  ordinary people who trust themselves, absolutely, to an extraordinary God.  Make no mistake, the martyrs do not possess anything that you and I have not already received in baptism.  They have no super-human strength to withstand the darts of the evil one.  The martyrs are tempted in every way, like us, and their biographies are often littered with many failures along the way.  Yet the martyrs, like all the baptised, experience the call to cling not to their own works of righteousness, but to God, and to proclaim this mercy from God before the cruelty of powerful men.  For them, a time came to answer that call even to the point of endangering their lives.  In such a situation, every baptised Christian is forced to choose who they really believe in.  Do I believe in myself, and in the fears and anxieties that flood my body?  Or do I believe in the God of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen that my fears and anxieties, and even my death, may not have the final word?

We are fast coming to a time when even Australian Christians – who, for generations, have taken their freedom for granted  - may also be asked these kinds of questions.  With a government like ours – which so clearly despises God’s little ones who suffer because of persecution, poverty or illness - anything is possible.  The questions are certainly asked as we approach that time when our fragile bodies are no longer able to go on, and death suddenly becomes a reality we can no longer avoid.  But the questions are also asked in the midst of our lives, at the noonday of our powers.  I hear God asking these questions of me, every time I become obsessed with my own survival or success, every time I am tempted to worship at the idols of public opinion or economic aggrandisement, every time I am tempted to spurn the needs of another in order to sure up my own future.  When God comes to ask such questions of your own life, how will you respond?  Will you respond with the faith declared at your baptism, a faith in the love and mercy of God beyond even death?  Or will you cling, ever more tenaciously, to the shadows and illusions of the propagandists who dominate our meda?  That is the question for this day and this moment.  Think on the witness of the martyrs.  How will you respond?

Sunday 26 April 2015

'I lay down my life' - Centenary of the Gallipoli landing 2015

Texts:  1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18

How sweet and honourable it is to die for one's country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.

So wrote the Roman poet Horace in his Third Ode.  And if you visit the chapel at the Royal Sandhurst Military Academy at Berkshire in the UK, you will find the first line of Horace’s poem inscribed on the wall there, in the original Latin: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. This concise epithet has been trotted out to justify the deployment of every soldier in every major conflict involving European nations since Horace became the apologist of Roman imperialism in the first century BCE. It is an epithet that was deployed liberally in both the recruitment and conscription of soldiers for Britain in the Great War of 1914-18. It is an epithet that makes it very clear what a soldier’s life is ultimately about: the service of the nation and its interests, even unto death.

As a Christian, I am obviously deeply uncomfortable with any view of the world that elevates allegiance to the nation above allegiance to Christ.  In the ancient Roman empire, whose ideology Horace helped to both form and express, many thousands of Christians were martyred precisely because they refused to so worship the Roman state. The ancient Christian confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ has its origin in precisely this repudiation. If Jesus is ‘Lord’, if it is Jesus and his kingdom of peace to whom we owe our very lives, then there is no other power in heaven or on earth to whom we can legitimately bend the knee in service.  Especially if such service involves a repudiation of the fundamental Christian conviction: that the God who loves and forgives every sinner calls such sinners to love and forgive one another, even and especially those whom the state may designate our enemies.

The writings of John are very clear on this point.  If we have any claim to the Spirit of Christ, if we are to claim that Christ genuinely abides with us, then our behaviour must be consistent with what we know of Christ’s own way.  Because Christ our shepherd laid down his life for us – we who are least deserving, we who are spiritually impoverished – so we are called to lay down our lives in loving service. Not for emperor, state or tribe, but for everyone who, like ourselves, lives in poverty – whether a poverty of spirit or a poverty of material wellbeing.  For what ultimately motivates the follower of Christ is not the will to power and the maintenance of power – the will at the heart of every form of tribal nationalism – but the emptying out of any such power in the name of loving the last and the least.  And let’s face it – the last and the least for every single one of us is not our friends – those with whom we have most in common – but our ‘enemies’, those whom we regard as furthest away from our preferred way of life and of living, those who draw out of us our most self-righteous rage.

ANZAC day celebrates a collection of myths that enshrine a particular moral code, a moral code that considers it a great good that a man or woman should sacrifice their lives for the glory of the nation.  The ANZAC mythology also says that it is a good thing, a thing to memorialized and celebrated, that a man or woman should sacrifice the prohibition against killing another human being for the glory of the nation.  People who do this, so the ANZAC code of morality tells us, will be treated as heroes.  They will be given medals and honoured in parades.  Now I know very well that this is not ALL that ANZAC day celebrates.  I know very well that there is a legitimate mourning for fallen and traumatised comrades there in the mix as well.  But consider for a moment the terrible contradiction that recognition sets up, both for soldiers and for the nation.  On the one hand, the solider is told to kill other human beings, and to do so for the glory of the nation.  On the other hand, the soldiers who do so are then condemned to live with the terrible horror of what they have done for the rest of their lives.  Today the guilt and depression of that heart of darkness has been psychologised as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, but that name erases as much as it reveals.  It erases the fact that even the most prestigious medal and even the most honorific parade cannot take away the simple fact that to kill another human being is to disown life itself, ANZAC morality notwithstanding.

The idea – endlessly invoked in the two world wars - that a Christian can fight for ‘God, king and country’ must therefore be subjected to the most careful theological suspicion.  Fighting for God is, for Christians, simply a contradiction in terms: at best, the Christian is called to fight, with Christ himself, against any tendency to judge or condemn our fellow human beings rather than to love them.  And while Christians are certainly not republicans, nor can we serve the kings and chieftains of any tribe, nation or state. For the very notion of the tribe, the nation and the state contradicts the vision of a universal commonwealth of peace with justice, which Jesus proclaimed to us under the name of the ‘reign’ or ‘kingdom’ of God.  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, laid down his life for that vision. He sacrificed himself for the sins of the nations so that they would never have need, again, to take up arms against one another. How quickly ‘Christian’ Europe forgot Christ’s legacy! How quickly the pride of nations reasserted itself! Forgetting Jesus’ sacrifice - in the first and second world wars, certainly, but also in the many other wars that followed them – nations have instead chosen to sacrifice their young people on the blood-red altars of national pride.

I’d like to conclude today’s sermon with a poem written by Wilfred Owen, perhaps the greatest of the poets of the First World War.  An English soldier, he served in France and was ultimately killed on the front line in November 1918, just one week before the armistice that ended the war.  His reflections remain for us a permanent reminder of war’s absurdity.  I read it now as an act of grief and of mourning for all who have been sacrificed on the altar of state.

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Garry Deverell
Centenary of the Gallipoli Landing
April 25, 2015

Sunday 19 April 2015

I am myself

Texts: Acts 3.12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36-48 

When, in Luke’s version of the story, the risen Jesus first appears to his closest friends and companions, they are not entirely convinced that he is Jesus, the man they had known and loved. At first they think he is a ghost, some kind of other-worldly apparition who has come to harm them. They start to believe only after Jesus has said, ‘Look, I am not a ghost, I am myself’ and invited them to touch the wounds in his hands and his feet. A few moments later he eats some fish in the presence, again to show that he is himself, ‘in the flesh’ as it were. This story, and the one before it about the encounter on the road to Emmaus, have always intrigued me. Not because of their apparently miraculous elements (I have never really struggled with the idea that the God who created the universe can also alter its rules) but because they model for us that rather paradoxical process by which Christian selves become yet more themselves by dying to themselves. So, that is what I should like to talk about this morning: becoming who you are by letting go of who you are in order to become a new self that is like the risen Christ.

According to Luke’s story, Jesus was not always himself. Which is not to say that he was not recognisable as himself. His name was Jesus, he was a son to his mother and a brother to his siblings. He grew up in Nazareth and learned a trade, which he then used to support his family. Everyone who knew him over a period of years could have identified him as himself, even if they had not seen him for some time. Even after his baptism by John in the Jordan, even after Jesus left his home town in pursuit of a new and dangerous vocation, Jesus was recognisably Jesus. And yet. And yet Jesus had not yet become entirely himself. Even at the point of his death on the cross, Jesus was not yet what God had promised he would be. He was not yet the risen one, who could shake off the power of sin, evil and death. He was not yet the new kind of human being that the disciples encounter in our story: a flesh and blood person who could nevertheless appear and disappear as though he were no longer subject to the limitations of time and space. For much of Luke’s story, then, Jesus is not yet himself in the sense of having become who God had destined him to be.

Crucially, in the story, Jesus is only able to become truly himself by letting go of a whole heap of cherished dreams about his future, some originating in his own imagination, and some in the imagination of others. His mother, being a Jewish mother, probably hoped that Jesus would become a successful merchant or, even better, perhaps a lawyer or rabbi. She, and he, had to let go off such dreams. His friends and companions hoped that Jesus would become a political leader, a leader who could oust the Romans and restore the fortunes of Israel. They, and he, had to let go of that plan. And from the story of the garden of Gethsemane, we can surmise that Jesus himself would really have preferred to live rather than to die, to retire quietly to some regional small business perhaps, rather than to suffer the wrath of the Jewish Council. Yet, in the end, he makes a crucial decision which makes all the difference. ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ he says. He says that to God, his Father. And by that decision he lets go of his own hopes and dreams in favour of his Father’s hopes and dreams, which ultimately enables God to complete the process of his becoming. By this death, Jesus becomes the Christ, the one anointed by God to bring a new kind of life in the world, a life so new that most of us still have trouble coming to terms with what it all means.

But that is how it is for all of us, as well. We shall never be truly ourselves until we are able to let go of ourselves—the usual hopes and dreams planted in us by family, friends, and culture—grasping, instead, the self that God wills and promises for us, the self that is Christ. The Christ-self, as the First Letter of John tells us, is ‘righteous’. Not ‘righteous’ in the sense of a self-interested hiding away from the rest of the world or a sitting in judgement upon it. No, the Christ-self is righteous in the sense that Jesus was ‘righteous’—an engaged embodiment of the mercy of God, a tough kind of love that is centred on other people and refuses to simply abandon them to the powers of death, despair or banality. According to John, we shall never be entirely ourselves until we are like the risen Christ, the new human being, the revelation of what God intends for humanity in general. ‘When he appears,’ says John’ we shall be like him’. This is God’s promise, but like all God’s promises, it is not a promise that can be fulfilled apart from the choices we make. God created us for freedom. To become who we are, we must choose the path that Christ would choose.

Ego eimi autos . . . I am myself. That is what the risen Christ said to his disciples. And we shall only be able to say that ourselves if we are prepared to do what Jesus did, to take our baptism into his death seriously as a very real dying and a rising. We shall be ourselves when, by faith, we have allowed Christ to take away the fear of what others may think, and the desire to conform to all that is conventional or common-sense. We shall be ourselves when we are prepared to risk both security and sense for the sake of a gospel of outrageous love. We shall be ourselves when we stop believing that there is nothing we can do to transform this crazy world of economic and scientific rationalism. We shall be ourselves when prayer has become a more familiar habit that watching TV or surfing the internet. We shall be ourselves when we are able to attend to the needs of others (‘needs’, note that, not ‘wants’), even if that means putting aside what we think we might need for ourselves. We shall be ourselves when we are able to surrender ourselves to Christ and say ‘not my will, but yours’. Now, I am very aware of not yet being myself. And you, I know, are aware of it too. But in faith I believe that Christ will complete the work that he began when I was baptised. He will do it for you to. If only you, and I, will surrender. If only you, and I, will let go.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley.

Sunday 1 March 2015

The blessing of faith

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.23-31; Romans 4. 13-25; Mark 8.31-38 

In the land of Israel and of Palestine there is a war. Despite the current truce, people are being killed daily, and not only those who carry weapons. Non-combatants are losing their lives also: men, women, and children. Over these past decades since the creation of Israel as a modern state many thousands of families have been left to grieve for their loved ones in numbers that most of us would find unimaginable. I remember an interview with one of those Palestinian women who survived the 1983 massacre carried out by the “Christian Militia” in southern Lebanon, a massacre that was clearly engineered by Ariel Sharon as Israeli Defence minister. With eyes that, even 18 years later, had not done with crying, she described how the militias had entered the one-room house of her family at night. They shot her father and brother immediately, and while they were still alive but helpless, proceeded to rape her mother and herself. She was only 12 years old at the time. Then, after they had killed her mother also, the militias left. 

It is these kinds of atrocities which fuel the resolve of the suicide bombers. For many there seems no better way to honour the dead than to take from the enemy ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life’. And let’s not kid ourselves here. While the war between the Israeli military and Hamas is certainly political, and certainly ethnic, it is also, and most importantly, a religious war. It is very much a religious war: a struggle between two religious laws, the law of Moses and the law of Mohammed, each striving for supremacy over the other, each claiming the land for itself in the name of the God who gave it, and each doing so to the absolute exclusion of the other. The Israeli government has said, on many occasions, that there shall be no Palestinian state while the suicide bombings continue. Hamas, on the other hand, will accept nothing less than the total exclusion of Israel from the occupied territories and beyond. And Hamas is willing to fight for that end with the only effective weapons it appears to have, the bodies of its young. How does one resolve such a deadlock? How does one break this cycle of retributive and summary justice, especially a justice that seems so deeply religious in its culture and derivation? A difficult question, a very difficult question! But one I believe to be essentially religious and theological in character. For whether the individual combatant and his or her superiors have a personal religious commitment or not, all of them speak and think and act within a complex web of religious and theological meaning. Each of them act out their sense of vengeance and of justice within a language and code that is religious to the very core. So there will be no solution to this conflict without that solution being also a religious and theological solution.

Read in the context of this clash of two religious laws, each of them claiming an exclusionary legitimacy over the other, the letter of Paul to the Romans takes on an extraordinary poignancy. For Paul writes as a Jew who sees serious flaws in the use of religious law to make any such claims. Listen to what he says to his fellow Jews in Romans chapter 2, verses 17-24:

If you call yourself a Jew and rely on the religious law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you not commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you not rob sacred places? You who boast in the law, do you not dishonour God by breaking the law?
And then again, in chapter 3 verses 28-30: 
For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the religious law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not also the God of non-Jews? Yes, of non-Jews also, for God is one; and God will make righteous the Jew on the grounds of faith and the non-Jew too, through that same faith. 
Can you hear what Paul is saying here? The difficulty with believing that one’s own religious law is superior to another’s, and therefore worth opposing to that other’s by whatever means seem necessary, is simply this: that any religious law worthy of that name is impossible to keep. Its righteous demands are way beyond the capacity of even the most devoted of worshippers. Now, if that is so, then the promotion of that law as the highest law of God, the only law, the law to which all other codes must bow in submission, ends up in a profound and tragic irony. God is actually dishonoured by the ones who promulgate that law in his name. And so the law also condemns the very one who would keep it! So what is the law for, according to Paul? Not to save, he says, but to condemn. Not to exalt the one who believes in the law over those who do not, but to humble such a person to nothing beneath the impossible demands of divine justice. And doesn’t this analysis describe the situation in Israel and Palestine so very well? The Jewish law condemns the Jews for their murder, and the Islamic law condemns the Muslims for theirs. And yet the war continues, because these respective laws are applied only and exclusively to the ones perceived as the enemy! 

There is only one way beyond this tragic situation, says Paul. And that is to relinquish all belief in the efficacy of one’s religious law, whatever its contents, to establish your superiority over another. In fact, says Paul, no human being is able to claim superiority over another because all of us are justified, made righteous and whole, not by the works prescribed by the law, but by faith in the mercy of God to all, and for all. Now, this is where Paul makes a very interesting and clever move, a move that has the potential, even today, to dissolve the power of religious conflict. He invokes the story of Abraham: how God promised that he would be the father of many nations, and that his descendents would live in the land which we today call Israel or Palestine; how Abraham was made righteous and whole not by his obedience to a religious law, which has not yet been given, but by his faith in God’s promise, even when such promises seemed no more that a foolish dream. And that is how it is for us too, says Paul, whether Jew or Gentile. None of us are made righteous and whole by our obedience to a religious law, but rather by our faith in God’s merciful promise. 

Now this is really important stuff in the midst of the religious wars in the Middle East. For the three religious traditions which hold Jerusalem to be holy are also traditions which look to Abraham as the first witness to a God who is one. And Abraham, in a cycle of stories which all three traditions regard as authoritative, is one who is justified not by his obedience to the law-giving of Moses, or of Jesus, or of Mohammad, but by his faith in the merciful promise of God! Can you hear the hope in this proclamation? Can you see the potential there for demolishing the very ground which justifies this war? If Abraham is our common father in faith, witnessing to the one God in whom we all believe, then cannot Jew and Christian and Muslim sit down at table together, not as enemies, but as siblings? If we are justified and made whole not, first of all, by our obedience to the law as we find it in our particular traditions, but by our faith in God’s mercy, than can we not share, humbly, in the wonder of that gift together? And finally, if God promised Abraham that his descendents would live in the land and become a blessing to the whole world, can we not share, as daughters and sons of Abraham, in that inheritance? For the text of Genesis 17.7 is quite clear. The promise is for all Abraham’s offspring, not for Jew alone, or Christian, or Muslim. It is for all Abraham’s seed.

So, let me encourage all of you to prayer. Let us pray, along with Jews and Muslims who share these convictions, that the stories of Abraham may be read and reread in the schools and markets of the holy land. And not only there, but in the parliaments and palaces of Iran, Iraq and Libya; in Mosul where ISIL is holed up; in the White House and at 10 Downing Street; at Kiribilli and at the Lodge; and in the homes of both Meshaal & Netanyahu. Most of all, let us pray that the story of Abraham’s faith may penetrate even into the training and education of soldiers, that they may learn the lesson at the heart of all our faiths: that Shalom, the within and between peace of God, comes only to those who are willing to die – not in conflict with one’s enemy – but to the very idea of the enemy. Only by dying to the basic principles and claims of this dark world, says Jesus, may we rise with him to the peace of our Father’s kingdom.

This homily was first preached at Ormond College on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2009.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Fear death by water

Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

In 1922 T.S. Eliot published what many still consider to be the most important poem of the 20th century. ‘The Waste Land’ presents itself as a series of scattered images of Europe in the wake of the First World War. Ranging from the author’s memories of childhood visits to Germany, through cockney conversations in a London pub and walks along the Thames, to fragmented recollections of classical stories from Rome and India, the poem depicts a world in which the ‘nymphs’ – that is, the coherence of things – ‘have departed.’  Nothing is left, says the voice of the poet, except ‘voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells’.  The poem is also about the author’s own ‘death’ – figuratively speaking – that is, his incapacity to make all these images of European meaning cohere in a way that can sustain his life.  ‘Fear death by water’ says a clairvoyant the poet consults early in the poem.  And by the end the poet is so desperately dry and thirsty in the wasteland of his imagining that he has actually begun to search for the water by which he is convinced he will die, yet it is unclear if the poet has found it, or no.

The images offered us by the first Sunday of Lent are not entirely unconnected to what Eliot saw and experienced in London at the end of World War 1.  The Noah story is about a similar cataclysm, a flood, which – like the First World War – completely did away with the world as it has previously been known. One day everyone was going about their business, sure of the foundations on which they walked and the meaningfulness of the directions in which their lives were taking them. But then, suddenly, rain began to fall. And – absurdly, irrationally, inexplicably to most - the rain didn’t stop.  Indeed, the rain kept falling until all life on earth – all except that preserved by God in the ark – was no longer alive, but dead.

And then there is the story of Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan. If there was ever a time and a place in which the phrase ‘fear death by water’ rang with portending truth, it was the ancient Mediterranean where literally thousands of souls were sent to a watery grave by the wrath of the gods made manifest in ocean storms and the monster Leviathan who lived beneath the waves.  The rite of baptism deliberately invoked the universal fear of these apparently cosmic forces, that sense in which one could never be the master of one’s own destiny because the gods were always more powerful. Yet baptism sought, also, to both modify and transform that fear by invoking a phenomenon still very strange and foreign in the ancient world, the phenomenon of a God who seeks to influence the world solely by the grace of unconditional love.  

In the baptism of Jesus a peculiarly Jewish logic about the meaningfulness of things is therefore brought to both its zenith and conclusion. For the semitic peoples of the ancient world both shared and did not share in the pagan fear of catastrophe that obsessed their neighbours. Like their neighbours, they believed that the power of nature - the power of water, if you like - signified everything in the universe that could take one’s life away, everything that could render one’s plans and schemes both null and void, everything that could make a mockery of the notion that we are the masters of our own fate.  Unlike their pagan neighbours, however, who were constantly seeking to do deals with the gods to secure their protection against catastrophe, the Hebrew preachers believed that the power behind all power was essentially both good and gracious, and desired nothing other than the good of the people, and desired this good unconditionally.

The Hebrew stories about death by water were also, therefore, stories of LIFE by water. A flood comes to consume the earth and all its wickedness. Yet God preserves the seeds of a new world in an ark that floats upon the receding torrent for 40 days and 40 nights.  The angel of death is sent to destroy all the firstborn of Egypt. Yet God’s people are preserved by walking through the depths of the Red Sea and trecking, for 40 years, through the wilderness until they cross into the land of their freedom via the Jordan river.  Jesus’ life as a carpenter and compliant citizen of the Roman state is put to death in that same river by baptism that he might rise to live the life ordained for him by the God who claims him as his beloved Son.  He receives, at that moment, the Spirit of God, who immediately drives him into the wilderness so that he can really learn what it means to do away with one’s own dreams and embrace the dreams of God.  For 40 days and forty nights Jesus learns what it means to repent, to change one’s mind and heart, for the kingdom of God has indeed come near.

Friends, the 40 days and nights of Lent begin with these stories of death by water in order to set our course aright. 40 days and nights hence is the beginning of the paschal Triduum, the Great Three Days which commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus' own baptism: his death on the cross at the hands of evil powers, and his rising to life as a sign of God’s final triumph over such powers by the power of what we rightly call love.  We look forward to this time because in Jesus’ rising is the possibility of our own rising. In Jesus’ triumph is the possibility of our own triumph. In Jesus' victory is our own victory.  Easter is therefore our goal and our destination.  

Yet, and this is very important, these stories of death by water also remind us that there can be no rising without a dying; there can be no prize without a willingness to give up on the very notion of winning; there can be no victory without a submission to complete and utter loss.  For Lent is the process of getting to Easter by a dying to ourselves and a living to God. Lent is about confessing the truth about ourselves and our world, the truth of our utter helplessness to make for either sense or for good apart from a divinely given sensibility concerning the good.  Lent is about the art of repentance and surrender, of turning from what is evil and giving ourselves only to what is beautiful and noble and true. Lent is about forsaking the business of getting by and learning to walk in the byways of God. It is about crying through the night and welcoming the joy of dawn. Lent, in short, is designed to kill everything in us that keeps us in chains so that God can free us, can redesign us, and fill our ‘empty cisterns’ with a new resonance for salvation. And we speak of these things in image and metaphor precisely because they are far too important to leave to the prosaic, rational, flat language of the prevailing discourse.

I pray you all a blessed and holy Lent.  In the name of God . . .

This homily was first preached within the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist, North Melbourne.

Sunday 8 February 2015

Christ the exorcist

Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-11, 20c; Mark 1.29-39

According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus did a number of things after he was baptised. He travelled around the cities and towns of Galilee, preaching that the reign of God was at hand, so everyone had better get ready. He also healed many who were sick, beginning with Simon Peter’s mother in law, who was in bed with a fever when Jesus came to visit her. But what Mark seems to be overwhelmingly keen to tell us about Jesus is that he was an exorcist, a man who casts out “unclean spirits” or “demons”. In the passage we read a moment ago, all the city of Capernaum came to the house where Jesus was staying, bringing their sick and their demon-possessed. There, we are told, he ‘cast out many demons, commanding them not to speak because they knew him’. Towards the close of the passage, as Jesus prepares to travel around Galilee for the first time, Mark has Jesus say that he is off to preach and to exorcise. This, then, is Mark’s summary of Jesus’ mission: to preach the good news and to cast out demons. To preach and to cast out demons.

Now I’m not sure what you imagine these unclean spirit or demons to be, but I hazard a guess that, like me, you’ve had different theories at different stages of your life. When I was a child I imagined that a person was a bit like a car, with a personal soul or spirit sitting at the wheel making sure that the driving went smoothly so that there would be no accidents. What happened with demon-possession, I thought, was that some other soul or spirit, some personality that didn’t belong in the car, would jump in on the passenger side at a set of lights and lunge for the steering wheel. What followed, I surmised, was a titanic struggle between the personality that belonged and the personality that didn’t belong, to get control of the car. I also theorized that if I was ever possessed by a demon, I would not be strong enough to get rid of him, so I would have to call on Jesus to help me. And Jesus would. 'Cause demons were afraid of Jesus. The bible said so.

When I’d grown up a little and was reading lots of pop psychology at Uni, I developed my theory a little further, largely in dialogue with a book called People of the Lie, by M. Scott Peck. In that book, Peck argued that there were two kinds of demons. One was not that dissimilar to the one I already believed in: a disembodied personality which came from somewhere else with the express purpose of taking over the running of someone’s life. Peck, a psychiatrist, claimed to have come across such personalities on more than one occasion. But the other kind of demon he talked about was not of this kind. It was simply a human personality gone seriously wrong. A human personality, inhabiting a human body, who did evil things but without any trace of regret or pangs of conscience. An example he gave in the book was of a man who gave a gun to his teenage son for his 16th birthday. Now, in American culture that is not such an unusual thing, especially if you live in the rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ southern counties. The difference in this instance was that the boy’s older brother had shot himself with that same gun . . . on his 16th birthday.

The idea of a human personality turned evil whittled away at my demon-theory for a few years, especially while I was studying pastoral psychology at theological college. There I read the psychological theories of Carl Jung, along with the many theological theories of personality which Jung had clearly influenced. For these writers, the demonic was an aspect of every person’s personality. Hidden in shadow, hidden in each person’s unconscious, were undesirable forces that usually went unacknowledged, and yet were very much part of us. Most of the time, said Jung, we “project” these forces onto others; that is, we dupe ourselves into thinking that it is other people who behave badly or with evil intent, when in fact it is ourselves. By blaming others we avoid having to acknowledge the fact of our own responsibility. The goal of spiritual growth, says the Jungian school, is to “withdraw” our projections, or to “make friends with our demons”, a difficult process that involves acknowledging that one can never rid the world of evil without first acknowledging one’s own evil tendencies. Much of contemporary practise in both pastoral counselling and spiritual direction takes its lead from these insights.

Of course, I have changed my mind again. One does. One must, in order to grow. But this time the change comes from another direction. Not from the latest psychological theories, although I’ve read some of them. This time the change has come through a re-engagement with the Scriptures, and with the stories of Jesus’ ministry and mission in particular. What I realize now is that while there is certainly a great deal of truth in the various psychologies I’ve mentioned, it is not necessarily the truth as the Scriptures understand it. And I am convinced that what the church needs now, more than anything else, is a reengagement with the riches of its own truth, preserved for us in Scripture and tradition. For without a deep and transformative engagement with this truth we may still, perhaps, be human beings, but perhaps we shall not be the human beings that God promises we may be. Certainly, we shall not be Christian human beings, full of Christ, possessed (if you like) by him alone.

So, what does Mark, the writer of the first Gospel, say about demons? Well, he says a number of things, if you are prepared to read carefully. What he first says is that demons are bad for people, and they are very common. As common as sickness. They are oppressive spirits which, like sickness, make people’s lives miserable. Note, if you will, the way in which Mark talks about demon possession and sickness as if they are almost the same thing. They are not the same thing, not exactly, which is why Mark distinguishes them by name. And yet he mentions one in a pair with the other on most occasions; and on some occasions—as with today’s passage, where Jesus ministry is summarised as the twofold activity of preaching and exorcism—demon possession seems to represent sickness as well. Why is that? Because demon possession is like being sick. It can happen to anyone. It’s not something you necessarily choose for yourself. But the effects are awful, painful, miserable.

The second thing Mark says about demons is that they are often multi-voiced or multi-personalitied. Take, for example, the story of Jesus first miracle, an exorcism in the synagogue. Here the possessed man calls out to Jesus in a multiple voice: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1.24). Compare that with the story of the demoniac amongst the tombs of the Gerasenes. When Jesus asks the demon’s name, it replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many” (5.9). This last story is particularly revealing, I think. For it tells us that demons have something to do with a people being colonised by foreign powers, foreign armies. Let me explain.

You will remember that Jesus ministry took place in a police-state, much like the police state of, say, Chile under Pinochet, or Russia under Stalin. No citizen could walk more than a couple of blocks without running into a Roman soldier, a legionnaire, who belonged to a massive force of men who had occupied the countryside, and ruled it with absolute power. The people suffered terribly under this yoke. They suffered like Russian citizens suffered under Stalin. A woman or boy could be raped or otherwise molested by a solider, and have no recourse against him. A Jewish man could be commanded to carry a soldier’s pack for him, or to murder someone for him, or to do almost anything that solider wanted, and that man could do nothing about it. Jewish people were paid to inform on each other, to betray each other in order to save themselves from trumped-up charges. In an environment like that, people could not avoid the constant sense that they were not the masters of their own bodies. Their lands, their homes, even their bodies and minds, had been colonised and possessed by the Roman hordes. Like ants, they overran the land in Legions, and the consequences were truly awful.

So what does Mark mean, when he talks about demons? One should remember that he is most likely writing his Gospel just after the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. For Mark, the demons symbolise the devastating effects of the Roman colonisation of his own, Jerusalem-based community. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Mental illness. Despair. Distrust. Lies. Envy. Greed. Murder. War. The kinds of demons one can still see today in Africa, in the Middle East and South Asia, and even here in Australia, amongst Aboriginal people and seekers of asylum. The kinds of demons one sees amongst the colonised.

It is instructive to note that it is not only Mark who took this view. It was also the view of the Christian communities that survived the destruction of Jerusalem, but continued to live under the yoke of Rome. In the second, third and fourth centuries, as the Church developed its baptismal rituals, an important part of the preparations was a regular liturgy of exorcism. Here the baptismal candidates, or catechumens as they were called then, would be questioned by the bishop with regard to the way they lived their lives. Here the key question was, “Are you living your life under the fear of Rome, or are you giving your life into the freedom of Jesus?” At each questioning, as the many layers of Rome and Roman influence were uncovered, there would be an exorcism, a liturgy in which the colonising demons would be symbolically cast out, and the catechumen’s ears and eyes sealed with the cross against the reinvasion of the hordes.

As we approach Lent and (in a few protestant churches) our own rituals of exorcism, let me ask you this. In what ways have the demonic forces of our own culture and time colonised your lives? In what ways have they whittled their ways into your heart and made you afraid, afraid perhaps for your financial future, or for your social and vocational “success,” or that of your kids? How have you taken on board the values of these demons, acceding to their demands because you feel there is no other way—no other way than to live as under-resourced nuclear families, stuck in under-supported bubbles which put both marriages and childrearing practices under unbearable pressure; no other way but to buy unaffordable houses a very long way from where our friends and neighbours and support networks live; no other way but to work longer and longer hours and build bigger and bigger prisons, and protect ourselves against the practise of hospitality and compassion?

If the demons have indeed colonised your own heart and mind, as they have colonised mine, then I have a message for you, a message from Mark’s gospel. This is not the only way. There is another way, another possibility. For what Mark also says about the demons is that they know Jesus, they fear him, and they obey him. Jesus has the authority to drive the demons away. For in the end, they are chimera, shadows which recede when the light of Christ’s truth is brought to bear. The Lenten season, which approaches fast, is an invitation and an opportunity; for in Lent we hear the call of God to take our baptismal vows seriously— to turn from evil, to cast aside the colonising influences of our culture and times, and turn instead to Christ—his will and his way. The promise of Easter lies before us: that if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him; that if we lose ourselves, our colonised selves, for the sake of Christ and his gospel, then we shall find ourselves anew, in a new form of a human life and community we could not have imagined before. So. If the demons have hold of you, turn to Christ. He will drive away the demons and fill you with his Spirit. His truth will set you free.