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Thursday 24 December 2020

Two Poems. Christmas 2020

YB Yeats – The Second Coming (1919)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats wrote this poem in 1919 as the world lay waste in the wake of the Great War, and as Ireland held its breath to see how the British would respond to its independence movement, and as his wife lay sick in bed, apparently dying in childbirth, having contracted the Spanish flu. The poet expresses his real anxieties about both the future of the world, and about his personal and domestic peace.  What is to become of us, he muses, if the centre cannot hold, if the falcon can no longer hear the falconer’s voice, if every sense of order and meaning that one might have once counted on is no longer there? What if anarchy takes over and the notion of a common good is replaced by the rule of the angry mob or, worse still, the rule of  some kind of monstrous sphinx-like dictator who cares nothing for life or for common decency? Is the monster a man, or is it a virus, some kind of cosmic force? The poet doesn’t know. But he has a deep sense of foreboding and wonders whether an anti-Christ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born in a grotesque mockery of the birth of Christ. 

Greg Weatherby 'Birth of Jesus'
There are equally anxious voices out there in the ether right now, on this very night.  For it has indeed been the worst year many of us are able to remember. The Australian bushfires that raged from late December to mid-January were the most destructive on record, destroying 9 million hectares of forest, farmland, town and residential country in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. In some places, the fires burned so hot that stone structures melted and even the biomatter below the surface of the ground was utterly obliterated. Ecologists are now saying that in such places, nothing will ever be able to grow again. Even where this is not the case, in parts of the forest where regeneration is possible, whole ecosystems – millennia in the making - have been utterly laid waste. It is also estimated that over 1 billion native animals perished in the fires, many of them belonging to species already close to extinction such as koalas and mountain pygmy possums. A large portion of those animals apparently died either because the fires were travelling too fast or because they could not make their way through fences erected by property owners.  The response of government is to continue to bury its head in the sand and go ‘la la la la’ with regard to the now decades of warnings about climate change that have been coming in, across the airwaves, from scientists and Indigenous peoples alike.  2020 has been the warmest on record, and next year will be warmer, so get used to the Australia you know going up in flames or being washed away by floods and gale-force winds.

And then there’s the pandemic. Not the Spanish flu this time, but Covid-19. To date Covid-19 has killed 1.8 million people and sent the global economy into its worst recession since the early 1930s. The disease has been cruel in the choices it forces upon both governments and individuals. Some have continued to work, to keep their businesses open, to meet with friends and family in the same way as we’ve always done.  The cost of this choice is very often contracting the disease and passing it on; many who chose this path have died.  The other choice is not so good either, really. To stay at home, to cease working in the social way we have been used to, to stop meeting up with friends and family in order to slow the progress of the disease through the community. But, for many, embracing this second set of options – often in the name of caring for others – has unleashed unprecedented levels of loneliness, isolation and, for some, a life and death struggle with that equally merciless killer, depression.  To avoid one kind of pandemic, it seems, many of us have had to throw ourselves into the path of another.

Climate change. Pandemics of body and mind. We could go on to consider the impact of these things on the refugee crisis, the plight of Indigenous peoples, international students, casual workers and so on. We could talk about Trump and Sco-Mo and Boris, we could talk about populism as a symptom of anxiety. But I will refrain.  You get the point. There’s a lot of anxiety out there, and the anxiety is not a response to things that aren’t actually there. There are very good reasons to feel anxious.  There are good reasons to believe that the centre can no longer hold, that the order of things we have come to take for granted is about to go belly-up.  Very good reasons.

I want to point out, however, that when Yeats wrote his poem in 1919 he conveniently forgot a few things. He forgot that the British has been brutalising and starving the Irish for several centuries already, and that the prospect of a new crackdown on the independence movement was therefore hardly unexpected.  He also forgot that the Great War was not the first conflict to have devasted Europe. It was simply the latest in a continuous series of conflicts that had already killed or maimed millions and destroyed economies utterly. Hardly new. He also conveniently forgot that the Spanish flu was not Europe’s first pandemic. There had been plagues and 'black' deaths for centuries.  Again, hardly unprecedented.  All of which is to say that whilst Yeats brilliantly captures the anxiety he felt in 1919, his poem can hardly be taken as a witness to something entirely new or unforeseen in the story of humanity. 

Quite simply, there has never been a ‘centre’, some kind of cosmic or moral order, that is suddenly falling into rack and ruin. Rack and ruin has been the name of the game from the beginning. There has always been war, there have always been bully-boy politicians, there has always been poverty. There has always been illness and death. At the time when Jesus was born, for example, the Jews had been ruled by foreign powers for three centuries already.  They knew well that everything had gone to pot. The life-expectancy of your average landless male peasant was around 30 years, and just 40 years if you happened to have a trade, such as carpentry. Most of the Jewish population now expected that life would be short, and it would be brutal. You were born, you worked yourself to the bone to keep your family from starving, and then you died very young, and usually left a widow but hopefully some sons and daughters who could take over the family business and do it all again.  To a family like that, just like that, Jesus was born.

It’s easy to give into despair. Very easy. Most days, especially in the lead-up to Christmas, I am sorely tempted to go there. Afterall, my own people were colonised by the British and felt the savagery of the moral 'order’, the ‘centre’ they wished to impose. I still carry the trauma of that in my mind and my body. So, too, this stolen ‘country’: our lands, seas and waterways. There are deep wounds in our dreaming-places wherever you turn. But I don’t go there: to despair, I mean. And the reason I don’t is actually very simple.  I believe that in spite of all that is wrong, there is a power in the world for right. That is spite of all that is brutal and cruel, there is a power in the world that is caring, and knows how to offer love and succour to all who are hurting. I believe that in spite of the darkness and ignorance that floods our country and our lives, that there is a power in the world for light and life, and for living with country as kin, as family. That this power is here with us - that it is all around us, that it waits patiently to seep into our minds and hearts at the first indication that we are willing and in need - I can never prove to anyone. Not in the unassailable manner that many expect, anyway. But I can testify to its reality, to its power, and to its essential character: love, kindness, welcome, shelter, hospitality.  I see and feel and know these things every single day.

Rather than rabbit on and on and on about love, and about Jesus as the way in which love shows itself to the world, I want to read another poem: a poem, this time, from a humble parish priest from the Welsh countryside, a place somewhat subaltern to the English seats of power. 

RS Thomas - The Coming
And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.

The Son did come here, to live amongst us, to teach us his way of love, and to save us from the worst excesses of our inhumanity and hatred of country. It is that coming, the coming of light and love and kindness and compassion, that we celebrate tonight, and to which we commit ourselves anew for a more hopeful future.

I wish you all a holy and most joyful Christmas.

Garry Deverell
Christmas Eve 2020

Saturday 12 December 2020

Not the Messiah, People!

 Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28

Well, greetings everyone. Thanks for having me back. It’s an unusual thing, people having me back to preach more than once. It’s possible, of course, that you may have forgotten just how excruciating my preaching can be.  If that’s the case, don’t worry. I’m here to remind you!

You laugh, but I’m only partly joking. My homily will, I promise, be an immense non-event for many of you. For what do folks reasonably expect from a preacher when they get along to church?  Words of wisdom for a topsy-turvy age? Sorry, if I ever knew how to dance wisdom’s tune, I’ve now forgotten the steps. Words of comfort for a hurting world? Nope, fresh out of those too. I have no idea what to do with my own hurt, let alone anyone else’s. Practical solutions for practical problems? Nuh, I’m famous for my lack of practical know-how.  One reviewer of my most recent book said: ‘Dr Deverell is very good at lamenting the problem, but offers very little by way of practical solutions.’ So, here we are. Two paragraphs in and things are looking pretty grim already.

Still, I have one competent-preacher trick to keep your attention. Name-dropping. When Nathan and I were discussing my visit during the week . . .   Sorry, just messing with you. I really meant to drop the name of that other famous Baptist. John. John the Baptist.  I have great affection for John, even though I’m an Anglican. Why? Because he, too, was a lamentable preacher.

According to the account we have from the other John, John the Evangelist, when some faculty members were sent from the Jerusalem theological college to ask who John was, he replied ‘I’m not the messiah’.  I’m Not The Messiah. Which is another way of saying, ‘Nuh, not wise. Struggling to see a big picture in all of this. Nuh, not a healer of hurts.  Not a doctor or psychologist, people. Nuh, no practical solutions to our social and political problems. Not a canny politician.’ Nope. Not the Messiah. Not the bloke with the answers. No-one’s saviour. Not me. Nuh.

Now, it is extraordinary to me that the Jerusalem theologians didn’t leave it at that and walk away. I mean, John had told them clearly that he was nobody special and that there was nothing to see here. But hey! They’re theologians! Not particularly bright! So they asked him two more questions about his identity: ‘Are you Elijah?’, ‘Are you the prophet?’ Remember, people, that these were crazy times. The Romans had occupied the countryside and folk were desperate for a saviour.  So people speculated about the coming of a messiah, a saviour anointed by God, who would rescue God’s people from their oppressors. There were rumours that a prophet, a great preacher, would arise to announce the messiah’s imminent arrival, and it was possible that this preacher would be Elijah, one of the greatest, returned from the dead. Perhaps John was that prophet? Perhaps John was Elijah? 

Well, ‘No. I am not.’ That was John’s categorical reply. And I don’t think he was lying. Because liars, in my experience, tend to present themselves as saviours. Like Trump telling his supporters, in 2016, that he would ‘drain’ the Washington ‘swamp’ of its political corruption when his real plan was to corrupt it even more. Or Peter Dutton promising, this week, to save us from terrorists by granting himself the power to detain people without judicial review, when his actual plan is to discourage dissent by creating a legal apparatus to gag journalists and whistle-blowers. John the Baptist wasn’t like the Donald. Neither was he like Dutton. He didn’t lie by presenting himself as a saviour.  Instead, he was up-front and disarmingly truthful: ‘I am not Elijah, I am not the prophet, I am not the messiah.’ (Sings ‘It ain’t me babe, no no no, it ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for babe’). Sorry, I digress.

Apparently John’s going all Bob Dylan just made the theologians even more curious. ‘Ok then,' they said. 'If you’re not Elijah, not the prophet, not the messiah, who are you? Give us an answer for those who sent us. For you wash people's sins away in the river, which looks like the kind of thing the prophet who announces the messiah would do.’ To which John memorably replied, and I quote:

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said . . . I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.

Ooh. Now this is getting interesting. ‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness’.  What does that mean? Can’t claim to know precisely, but that ‘voice’ reminds me of a couple of phrases in the 2017s ‘Statement from the Heart’, promulgated by a broad coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. Amongst other things, the Statement calls for the ‘establishment of a First Nations Voice’ to be ‘enshrined in the Constitution.’ This ‘Voice’, the statement goes on to say, would be there to ensure that in our relationships with settler communities are built upon truth rather than lies. Truth. Truth about what has happened in this land. The invasions, the stealing of lands, the massacres, the removal of children from their parents, the exiling of elders, the slavery, the stolen wages, the destruction of language and culture. The truth. A voice to ensure that the truth is told. A voice crying in the wilderness. The wilderness of lies and denial. The wilderness of Australia today.

Perhaps the voice of John the Baptist is like the voice proposed by the Statement from the Heart, which makes no promises about a saviour but, more modestly, expresses a hope that the truth will be told; that someone, anyone, will become a voice of truth. For whilst lies and denials cover everything in darkness, truth uncovers things, reveals things, bathes them in light. Remember what the evangelist says of John at the beginning of his gospel?

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

John’s baptism was meant to be a testimony to the light, to the truth. It had to do with repentance, a washing away of all the shitty lies we tell ourselves. Especially the lie that we ourselves are the light, the source of our own salvation, or that a charismatic man of passion like John is the light, or that your favourite church or preacher is the light.  Newsflash people. John was no saviour! He bore witness to the saviour. He pointed away from himself toward the saviour. For the light was the messiah who was yet to come. It was Jesus, who came and lived amongst us, who taught us his ways, who was murdered by the state and exulted to the right hand of God. Who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and whose reign of justice and peace will have no end. It is he who is the true speaker of the words Isaiah records: 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

One of the church’s most terrible mistakes was to take this passage to itself, as though it were we, the church, who take on the mantle of the messiah. We do not, not even as the ‘body’ or ‘temple’ of Christ in whom Jesus’ Spirit has come to dwell.  For the best way to ‘be’ the body of Christ is, somewhat paradoxically, to point away from ourselves to the Jesus who is not yet here, to the mystical, cosmic, body that has not yet entirely arrived. To be like John the Baptist. To tell the truth that we are nothing special, that our answers to the great questions are at best educated guesses, and that our ‘good deeds’ are worth little more than the thong of Jesus' sandal, so regularly do they fall short of the mark. But then we are called to look toward the horizon, toward the light that is coming into the world entirely of its own accord. And to encourage others to do the same, to follow our gaze, and to wait with eager expectation for the one who, alone, has the power to do some decent saving.

All of which is to say: If you’re looking for wisdom, look for it in Jesus. If you are hurting and in need of healing, look for the salve that is Jesus. If you need practical solutions to difficult problems, look for them in Jesus. Because your preachers and the churches that ordain them, we aren't really up to it. We can't be relied upon to know what we are doing. The most honest of us know that it is so, and cast ourselves upon the grace of God as our only chance for redemption. But some of us are also canny enough to point to Jesus, the first and only source of all such grace. Like a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread when you have none of our own. As every Baptist worthy of that name should.

Garry Deverell

This homily was preached at South Yarra Community Baptist Church on the 3rd Sunday of Advent 2020.

Sunday 6 December 2020

A voice cries out

Texts: Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85. 1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

Let me begin with a story, a might of been, with regard to that voice crying out in the Judean desert. Down amongst the ruins that used to be Jerusalem, a voice cried out:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . .
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The voice drifted on the morning breeze to where Joseph and Baruch were cooking their breakfast on a nearby hill.  ‘What highway’s he on about?’ said Joseph to Baruch.  ‘The highway of the Lord’, said the other.  ‘Apparently God is going to restore our fortunes.  He’s going to come roaring down this new highway they’re making, rebuild the city, and set up court in the temple as if he were Moses himself!’   ‘Somehow I doubt it!’, said Joseph, and their laughter pealed across the valley. 

But after the silence had taken hold once more, Baruch said:  ‘Still, that’d be nice, wouldn’t it.  A king in Zion who’d give blokes like you and me a go.  I’m blowed if I’m going to slave my guts out to keep these new bloody nobles in their palaces!’ 

Joseph chewed his tripe thoughtfully.  ‘Time for a year of . . .  ah, what did they call it?  . . .  Jubilee, that’s it.  Time for Jubilee, when all that’s been lost or screwed up get put back to rights.  You know, it was the grandsires of these new bloody nobles that confiscated our clan-land back in the time of Uzziah’.  And then his eyes filled with tears.  ‘I’d swear my troth to a Jubilee King.  Bloody oath I would.  Bloody oath’.  The cry of an eagle lifted their eyes to the sun, while, in the valley below, a shepherd led his sheep through the ruins.


‘So who is this Baptist fellow, anyway?’ asked Simon.  ‘A hermit’, said Uriah.  ‘He comes from a good family, by all accounts.  His father was a temple bureaucrat and he was being groomed for the priesthood.  But right in the middle of his training he had a bit of a turn and bolted for the desert!  Apparently he spent some time with that monkish crowd out near the dead sea.  What are they called?’   ‘The Essenes’, answered Simon.  ‘Yeah.  They’re pretty strange, by all accounts, waiting for their beloved Messiah to come!  My uncle Max (you know, the psychiatrist who trained in Rome) reckons that these separatist groups don’t have the ego-strength to mix it in the real world.  So they run away to the desert, where they can set up their own little fantasy.  Makes life simpler, I’m sure.  But it’s such a cop-out.  They could never cope with the real world that you and I know about, that’s pretty clear!’.

Uriah took a drag on his cigar and ordered another caráf of red.  ‘I went out for a look the other day’, he said, casually.  Simon nearly choked on his café-latté.  ‘You went out for a look?  My God, man, what possessed you to do something like that?  Surely you’re not having a mid-life crisis!  Not at the tender age of 35!’.  His laughter filled the restaurant, but Uriah didn’t join in.  Flushing, he stared into his drink.  Simon stopped laughing.  ‘I’m not sure why I went, exactly’, said Uriah, looking up and out, as if towards an empty sky.  Then he turned to look his companion in the eye.  ‘Listen, Simon.  This is going to sound weird, but . . .  I’m feeling a little jaded right now.  This ‘real world’ we live in, you and I, isn’t feeling like much fun at the moment.  What’s real about being part of the Jerusalem middle-class?  Most Jews live in landless poverty!  What’s real about doing legal work for the Romans? They’re the occupying power, for Moses’ sake!  I feel like I’m betraying my own people, stomping on their heads just to get a leg up!  Add to that the fact of my disaster of a marriage!  I work so hard that I hardly ever see my kids, and I really don’t know who Priscilla is these days, or what she gets up to  . . .’

Simon’s face has turned pale.  ‘Mate’ he said. ‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  Listen, life might not be all it’s cracked up to be at times.  But this is how it is!  This is reality!  This is reál-politics!  God Almighty!  What did that preacher say out there anyway?’   

‘”Prepare the way of the Lord”,’ said Uriah. ‘”Prepare the way of the Lord” . . .  that’s what he said.  He was baptising people in the river to wash their crappy lives away.  And he spoke of a Great One to come who would baptise not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.’  

Suddenly the space around the two men was different.  Something shifted, the world changed.  Even the sunset and the evening breeze seemed to speak in a different voice.  For a moment, Simon was caught there.  From a place deep in his people’s history he heard the mad voices of nomads, prophets and saints, crying out with anguish and longing for a world made new.  And for a moment, just a moment, he joined them in their longing.  But he shook himself free from the reverie, and rose from the table.  ‘Uriah’, he said, ‘you’re losing it mate’.  And away he walked.  Back to the real world.  The world of cafés and credit and weekends at the beach-house.


When you come to worship, why do you come?  Is it to escape from the real world, to run away from the awfulness of life?  Or is it the opposite.  Did you come, perchance, to enter, albeit for a moment, a world which is somehow more real, a world that takes your reality seriously, and addresses you where you are afraid, and hurting, and in need of healing?

If this Advent season is about anything it’s about taking the voices that cry in the wilderness seriously, the mad voices of nomads, Indigenes and saints, the voices that tell the truth.  And what is the truth?  Simply this: that the “real” world is a fake; that capitalism and the mad rush to accumulate and consume is killing us all, body, mind, and spirit; that entertainment and celebrity are stealing away our capacity to lives our own lives.  Ha!   I remember a schizophrenic friend being afraid to turn on the television.  “When I do,” he said, “the demons suck my spirit away.”  I thought he was dangerously unstable at the time.  But now I’m not so sure.  Now I reckon he was on to something.

The voice that cries in the wilderness tells another truth too.  “Things can be different,” it says, “Thing can be different than they are today.  Why?  Because the glory of God is coming!  It is on its way, and it is nearly here.”  You see, what John the Baptist promised people out there in the desert was not just change, but metamorphosis.  What’s the difference, I hear you ask?  Well, let me put it like this.  Change is when you swap from Pears shampoo to Decoré.  Change is when you sell up in Balwyn and move to Canterbury.  Change is watching “Sixty Minutes” instead of “Today Tonight”.  But metamorphosis?  Metamorphosis is when a Tootsie family in Rwanda is able to invite their son’s Hutu killers to dinner.  Metamorphosis is when Senator Macarius of Rome becomes a hermit monk, and plaits ropes for a living in the Egyptian desert.  Metamorphosis is when the colonist reliquishes power to the point of making treaty with the colonised.

To be metamorphosed.  In the Greek of the gospel the word is metanoia, and it is expressed and performed in the practise of baptism.  In the early days of the faith, when the church seemed to have more enthusiasm for change than we do today, baptism was taken very, very seriously indeed.  For baptism was not just a ceremony of change designed to welcome people into a church they can neither comprehend nor belong to.  Rather, it was a powerful sacrament of metamorphosis, a piece of method theatre in which the candidate bound themselves so intimately to Christ that everything they had been before they heard his call was literally cast aside in order to make room for the new life which Christ had promised them by his love and his grace.  In approaching the waters, the candidate would remove their clothes.  Then they would descend, naked, into the waters, where the priest would pronounce the sacred words.  Then, when they emerged, the choirs would sing and they would put on the new garb of white, which symbolised the glory of Christ.  No longer would they live from their own powers.  From now on, they were dead, marked with the scars of the crucified Christ.  The life they now lived in the body would be that of the Son of God, who loved them, and gave his life for them.  Here there was no gap between ceremony and life.  Life became baptism, and baptism became the life in Christ.

In baptism we pledge ourselves to Christ, to become his slaves, to give ourselves into his hands completely.  But in doing so we in respond to a love and promise that always already precedes our decisions:   Christ’s promise to always be there, on the other side of the waters, there to raise us from the depths, and array us in the splendour of the redeemed.  The promise assures us that our time of penance is ended, that it is God, himself, to now comes to work the forgiveness, freedom and deliverance we so long for.   Without this promise, all of our being sorry and all of our determination to change makes for nothing.

In this we find out what Advent really means, as the season of promise par excellence:  that within and beyond the appalling squalor of our greedy, consumption-driven lives; within and beyond our self-hatred and despair; within and beyond the awful inhumanity of our politics; within and beyond all this, Christ arrives.  Christ arrives with love enough, with peace enough, with hope enough to make things very, very, very different.

Glory be to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as in the beginning, so now and for ever, world without end.  Amen.

Garry Deverell

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Forword to Duncan Reid's book 'Time We Started Listening'

What distinguishes white theology from Indigenous theology? This is not as straightforward a question as it might appear. Take the term' white', for starters. What, or who, is 'white'? In common parlance, 'white people' (meaning people with pale skin) are routinely distinguished from 'black', 'brown', 'red' or 'yellow' people. Of course, it is often said that 'white' people invented the categories, but that is not quite true. In fact, the people who invented the categories described themselves simply as 'people', with no qualifying adjective. For they saw themselves as the paridigmatic model, and everyone else as just a little deficient, somehow.  Later on, when those of us deemed 'deficient' learned to play this game, we started to call the game-makers 'white', which was both a clever move and a stupid move, at the same time. It was clever because it brought into focus the hitherto repressed fact that human beings participate equally in the ontological quality of humanness whatever subsequent qualifiers one might then apply, whether that be skin colour, ethnicity, gender, or whatever. It was stupid, however, at the very same time, because by playing the game in this way we who were hitherto 'deficient' conceded the game. We conceded, that is, that both the game and its most basic rules were legitimate.  We found ourselves, therefore, in an ethical double-bind: play the game, but by no means play the game.

A similar dynamic is at play in the word 'theology'. Those who invented the word were apparently residents of Athens in the fourth century before the 'common era' (itself a problematic notion which I cannot address here).  It was a term that found its way into Jewish and Christian thinking because of the colonisation of multiple regions and peoples - including Galilee and Judea - by the Greek empires of subsequent centuries. Following the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in 70 CE, the franca lingua of Jewish and then Christian diasporas was Greek for many centuries: more permanently, of course, in the Eastern Roman Empire than in the West. But the Western (or Latin) forms, which came to dominate European Christianity from at least the 6th century CE, remained essentially Greek in character. Theology, as an intellectual discipline, might therefore be understood as a language game that is essentially colonial: an absorption and modification of first century events and stories from Roman-occupied Galilee and Judea into a larger hellenistic imagination. This leaves all Christians, even the few who remain in Galilee and Palestine to this day, with an unavoidable paradox: that the Jewish, aramaic-speaking, Jesus and his followers can only be encountered in their Greek versions. Which is to say, that the only Jesus we have is already a colonised Jesus. He is a 'jew-greek' hybrid. He is, as Derrida would say, onto-theological. Colonised by empire.

Thankfully the repressed is never entirely erased, and those rendered 'deficient' still have some agency. The crucified and risen Jesus was able to escape his colonial bonds and inspire multiple movements of liberation and release. Here in the lands now called 'Australia', Indigenous people are rising up to claim what has been repressed, destroyed or stolen: country, kin, dreamings. In doing so, some of us are claiming Jesus as an ally. For the colonised Jesus who, in the hands of missionaries and colonial gubbas alike, became a whip to keep us down, is also a gift from our creator-ancestors, a gift which can be deployed against our captors. In our hands, the Greek Jesus can become Jewish again by first becoming Indigenous. For he is like us, and we are like him. Together we belong to the great company of 'deficients' imprinted with his paschal story: 

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
                                                                                                      (2 Corinthians 4.8-10)

This tiny example of Indigenous theologising reveals, I hope, two things. First, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will never entirely escape the fact that we are a colonised people. I write in an Indo-European language. I am educated in European intellectual traditions. I am as much Irish and British as I am Aboriginal. I am a Christian.  But the second thing my theologising reveals, I hope, is that I have not entirely lost my trawloolway identity and responsibility to country. I am seeking to re-read, to re-interpret, to re-imagine as much of the colonial inheritance as I can within that frame, for the sake of my people, and for the sake of our captors. For our colonial overlords are as much the victims of their Greek thinking as we are.

I am privileged to be alive in an era when a small handful of Euro-Australian theologians have decided to re-evaluate their faith through the eyes of First Peoples. Some of you will know their names: John Harris, Rob Bos, Norman Habel, Mark Brett, Chris Budden, Grant Finlay. To that very short list may now be added the name of Duncan Reid. In what follows, Duncan listens to what we are saying, treats what we are saying seriously, and seeks to articulate some measure of understanding. He is motivated, it seems, by a profound sense of crisis around the impotence of European theological traditions in the face of genocide and, especially, our global environmental catastrophe. I congratulate Duncan for this beginning, for it is only a beginning, and encourage both he and his readers to stay the course into deeper and yet more challenging waters.

Garry Deverell

Sunday 18 October 2020

Whose image do we bear?

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

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

Our own society, like Narcissus, is obsessed with images and illusions.  The media bombard us with images of shiny happy people in shiny happy settings with shiny happy cars and houses and friends and bank accounts.  But all this is illusion.  It has almost nothing to do with the real lives that each of us live in the flesh.  Social media, which have become the dominant mediator of these images, are rarely a mirror which reflects who we are and how we behave.  It is we who have become the mirror, the pond surface, which now reflects back the world imagined by social media, a world in which a person’s ultimate value depends entirely on how many ‘likes’ or other responses they can marshal in response to whatever fashionable fiction they are presenting about either themselves or the world. When this virtual world of images and illusions becomes more 'real' than the world of flesh and blood and bodies—bodies that are able to feel and know and breathe the air—then something has gone tragically wrong.  Because when flesh and blood people seek to escape their mortal conditions in favour of a world of fashionable surfaces and manufactured happiness, we also lose our capacity for soul, for value and for meaning.  Like Narcissus, we awake to a reality which is so far away from who we really are, that we find ourselves 'all at sea', drowning in a tragic forgetfulness concerning who and what we are for God.

I suspect that when Matthew tells the story about Jesus and the image of Caesar on a coin, he is already reflecting upon a version of these same difficulties.  You see the people who approached Jesus to ask about paying taxes to the invading superpower, were themselves caught in a kind of twilight zone between reality and fashion.  They were the leaders of two significant political parties in Israel at the time, the Pharisees and the Herodians.  On the one hand, they wanted to see themselves as servants of Israel's God, people who bore the image and likeness of God in their bodies and, indeed, in all the business of life.  On the other hand, they wanted to present themselves as servants of the Emperor, whose image and insignia were everywhere in this occupied country—a constant reminded that Caesar would tolerate no rivals for the people's hearts and minds.  

Jesus sees the ambivalence of his interrogators immediately.  The one who, in his sermon on the mount, had said 'you cannot serve two masters . . .  you cannot serve both God and Mammon' sees immediately their predilection for doing just that.  So, he calls them 'hypocrites' because they are people who think that they can remain children of God, made in his image and likeness, even while they reach out to inscribe themselves with the image and likeness of the Imperium.  So, when Jesus says 'Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor's, and to God the things that are God's' he is certainly not being ambivalent.  In the context of Matthew's gospel as a whole, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, it is clear that Jesus is issuing a challenge to his hearers, as well as to us: Whose image do we bear in this world?  Who do we seek to imitate?  Do we bear the image of the Emperor, seeking only to be what the dominant politics and commerce would make of us?  Or do we bear the image and likeness of God, who created us as free human people, purposed to love God and neighbour with a deep and liberating love?  Whose image do you bear?  According to Matthew, none of us may bear both.  We must all choose either one or the other.

But what does it really mean to reject the illusions begotten by worldly empires and bear, instead, the image of God?  When Moses returned from Sinai, having sat in the fiery presence of a fiery God for forty days and forty nights, his face shone (we are told) with the glory of the Maker.  One might say that his body was indelibly marked with the image of God's awesome presence and power.  Now much of Christian tradition has represented this moment in the highly romantic images of a Cecil B. de Mille movie, which has Moses coming down the mountain a taller, and somehow more majestic and mystical figure than when he ascended.  I really doubt, however, that this is really the impression that the writers of Exodus wanted to create.  Elsewhere in Exodus, God is represented as a consuming fire who first appears to Moses in a burning bush, and then destroys the firstborn of Egypt, and then leads the people through the wilderness in the form of a fiery pillar.  When the people arrive at Sinai, God makes it clear that it is very, very dangerous to come into his presence.  For his holiness is like a fire which consumes all that is not holy.  The people are commanded, therefore, to make their camp some distance from the mountain where the fire has come to rest.  

All of this creates in my mind the impression that Moses' glowing face, far from being transfigured after the manner of Jesus in the gospels, is more likely to have been burned or seared by the fire of God’s holiness, purged and purified as if by a refiner’s fire, so that he comes away not only with the wonderful commands of the covenant, but also with the face of a saint who, by a long struggle with God and his darkest self, now bears the wounds of an encounter with holiness.  Theologically speaking, Moses might then be understood to bear the image of God in a way which speaks of salvation through struggle and loss—a state of liberation and joy only attainable by human beings if they are willing to submit themselves to the refining fire of God's love.

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

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

Be of good courage, my friends. Be of good courage you imitators of Christ.  For the one who was crucified is risen!  In the power of his resurrection, Christ overcame the world, and created for us the space to love and be loved in the eternal circle-dance of the Trinity.  In his power, and for the sake of the world he loves, we are called to bear his image in these jars of clay, and to bear in our bodies the scars of Christ's compassion.  It is a high and difficult calling.  No doubt. But God is faithful.  I am convinced that neither height or depth, nor angels, nor demons, nor powers, not principalities, nor the present, nor the future, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

Garry Deverell

Saturday 10 October 2020

The Idolatrous Impulse

Exodus 32. 1-14 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer, of course, is peculiarly Christian. Allow me to quote from the letters to the Colossians, and to Timothy:
He is the icon of the invisible God . . . for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1.15, 20).

There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all (1 Tim 2. 5, 6).
The letter to the Colossians speaks of Jesus Christ as an image of God. The specific term used in the Greek is ikon, a visible reality by which the invisible communicates itself to human sight and understanding. In Christian understanding, Christ is exactly this: a human being—visible, fleshly and real—by whom we may have a relationship with a God who has chosen freely, in Jüngel’s memorable phrase, not to be God apart from human beings. In this sense Christ, like the Ark of the Covenant, honours the Exodus prohibition against images made by human beings because he is God choosing for himself not only a human image, but in that image also revealing what humanity itself might be. In that very movement, God comes near enough to be our companion, advocate and friend. For the 1st Letter to Timothy makes Christ into a second Moses, a mediator who speaks for human beings before God. He understands our weakness and reminds God to be merciful for his own name’s sake. Just like Moses. And so, for the Christian testament, and for those of us who own this testament for ourselves, God is both the one who prohibits and the one who saves, the one who is judge and the one who ransoms himself for the life of the world.

So, if we were to read these specifically Christian insights back into the Hebrew text of Exodus 32, we might find there a dispute or conversation between God and God. On the one hand, Yahweh is the mysterious and free God who can tolerate no rivals, no pretensions to understanding from the human side. On the other hand, God is the one who exercises that freedom by making a covenant of love with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, such that Moses may claim that covenant in his intercession for the idolators amongst his people.

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

Sunday 4 October 2020

The Stone the Builders Rejected

 Texts:  Exodus 20.1-4; Psalm 19; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46

When a rock begins its long and tumultuous journey from the mountains to the sea, it is rough and jagged.  As the waters of many seasons push it along its way, the rock starts to lose its jagged features.  They are worn away by a continual process of bumping and bouncing against other rocks.  After an age, when the rock finally gets to the mouth of the river, most of its edges are gone.  Its surface is smooth and silky, like the texture of the water in which it has journeyed.  And it sits, with other rocks, amidst the debris of its own making, gleaming with the splendour of its own peculiar colours and personality. 

The reading from Matthew refers to a stone which is at first rejected for a building project, but later recognised as the quintessential stone from which to assemble the whole building, the ‘key’ or ‘cornerstone’, as it was sometimes called.  The stone, in Jesus’ story, is the messiah whom God sends to collect the fruits of the harvest, whom the Jewish leaders beat and kill. It is Jesus, the one who will rise from death to become the cornerstone of a new community and a new creation. 

All people are like stones, are they not?  As rocks emerge from the mountains and make their way to the sea, so the newborn baby is destined to pilgrimage.  And who can tell what is ahead, or where the journey will end?  Along the way we are inexorably changed.  In a relentless dance of choice and circumstance, we wander through the landscapes of becoming.  Sometimes we are able to choose the next move.  We can decide how to change.  At other times, we are pushed and cajoled by the forces of heredity and environment, beaten into a new shape by violence or indifference.  Who can tell what will happen next?  The past is irrevocable, the future is uncertain.  But change rolls on like a tidal wave.  Note this too, there is no such thing as a painless change.  With each change there is loss, and grief at what is lost, and the struggle to grasp hold of all that is new and the different.  

For many people, change is simply change.  It has no meaning or purpose.  The years roll by.  The landscape changes and so do people.  But there is no sense of destiny in it all.  There is no purpose.  From the perspective of faith, however, every life has an identity and purpose.  God holds us in divine care, so that no matter what changes come, we are known by God and purposed by God to be what we are, and to become what we will become.  

This is what God purposes for each of us: that we might become like Jesus, the stone the builders rejected.  When Paul says that he wants ‘to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ he is saying that he wants to become like Jesus – truly, madly, deeply like Jesus.  He is saying that this goal has consumed him, that all else in his life –every other goal or pursuit – has become as rubbish compared with this yearning to be joined with Christ in a mystical sense of co-identity.  For that is what ‘knowing’ means in this extraordinary passage.  The Greek ‘gnosis’ draws on a rich field of meaning which emphasises not knowledge about some reality, but an active participation in, and engagement with, that reality.  To know Christ, then, is to walk with Jesus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  To be born with Christ.  To grow and to wonder with Christ.  To be tempted and perplexed with Christ.  To teach and to heal with Christ.  To be angry with Christ.  To love with Christ.  To be rejected and betrayed with Christ.  And to die with Christ in that impenetrable sense of abandonment.  To know Christ is to become his mother or his friend, the one who walks with him all the way to Golgotha, there to witness the wonder of his resurrection.

Lil and I saw a fantastic film a few years ago, a film called Good Will Hunting.  It’s about a young man who grew up in the Irish precinct of Boston, whose mother died when he was very small, and whose alcoholic step-dad beat him black and blue with a wrench whenever he came home drunk.  The boy, whose name is Will, grows up protecting himself from every kind of intimacy, from every possibility of challenge or change, because he believes, deep down, that love will always turn to abuse, eventually.  He is a very smart young man, who happens to possess an eidetic memory and an extraordinary gift for mathematics.  He has read, and can quote verbatim, many of the great works of history and philosophy.  But all of this is used not to explore the world and be transformed, but to build a shining barrier which can protect him from relationship with others.  But the day comes when Will has to make a fundamental choice.  After beating a guy up, a guy who used to do the same to him when he was a kid, he finds himself in jail.  And the only way out is to agree to meet with a therapist for an hour a week.

The therapist turns out to be a fellow called Sean, played brilliantly by Robin Williams.  Sean is no theoretical therapist.  He is a man who struggles, daily, with his own pains and griefs.  But he does so with courage and truthfulness. Sean is able to challenge Will to get out of his armour, which, while very effective at keeping the pain of the world out, is just as effective at locking Will inside a private hell. Through a difficult and dangerous journey, Will is cajoled and persuaded to be truthful and confront his fears about relationship.  Eventually, with Sean as guide and friend, he finds the courage to enter the real world once more – the world of love, intimacy, risk, and vulnerability.  And it is an amazing journey to witness.  Like a rock making its way down the mountain, Will is beaten and bruised.  But all the while, little by little, his beauty emerges.  His individuality, his uniqueness, his infinite value.  And all because a wounded man pressed beyond his own fears and reached out with care and compassion.

Sean is a clearly a Christ-figure in this movie, for Christ is one who, with love and courage, reached beyond his own fear and panic and woundedness to love God and care for his neighbour.  He is one who embraced the world and was changed.  He is one who suffered the pain of change.  But in the process he found his deepest self, a self hidden in the life of God.  This is what God wants for all of us, too.  To respond to life in all its fullness, after the way of Jesus. This is the meaning of our existence.  This is what we are here for.   We are not here to accumulate wealth.  We are not here to acquire or even yearn after our neighbour’s property.  We are not here to kill, maim or lie about the ones who will not do as we wish they would do.  No, we are here to love and to honour God in the way that Jesus honoured God.  Even unto death.  

When a stone reaches the mouth of the river, it is no longer the stone it was at the top of the mountain. By dying to what it once was, it is able to come alive to the goal and the purpose of its becoming. We are the stones of God.  God want to build us into a holy temple, which is beautiful to the eye, and able to host the symphonic music of all that it means to be creatures beloved by God.  But we can never become what we are purposed to become unless we put away our self-centred ambitions and submit to the way of Christ, ‘becoming like him in his death, so that, somehow, we might attain to the resurrection of the dead’.  Today I challenge all of you.  Stop hiding inside your fears about change.  Allow God to embrace you with his love and his care.  Be transformed.  Be healed. Become fruitful for the sake of the kingdom.

Garry Deverell

Saturday 19 September 2020

The Last Will Be First

 Text: Matthew 20.1-16

On Easter Monday, 1996, at the famous Stawell Gift Athletics Carnival, an extraordinary running race was held. It was the 400m handicap race for women. Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the language of athletics, the word ‘handicap’ does not here refer to a race for people with an identified disability.  It refers, instead, to the practice of spacing the runners out as the race begins so that the ones with the strongest pre-race record start at ‘scratch’, that is, the starting line, and the other, weaker, runners are given a variety of head-starts further along the course. In theory, this means that were everyone to run their personal best times, they would all finish with a dead-heat at the finish line. On this particular occasion one runner, Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman – a sixteen year-old Kuku Yalanji girl from Woorabinda in Queensland - was the only runner to start at scratch, and the next closest runner was placed a full 54 metres ahead of her as the race began.  Some old and grainy footage of that race has been ‘going viral’ on social media over the past couple of weeks and it is worth a look. For it shows the young Cathy Freeman not only catching the field of white runners ahead of her, but also enduring a big shove from one of them as the field passes the 350m mark.  Amazingly, Cathy keeps her form and comes home to win the event by a whisker. 

That Cathy did so, and went on to become both a world and Olympic champion in this same event, is something of a modern miracle. For she is Aboriginal. She belongs to a people whose lands and waterways were stolen at the point of a gun, whose ancestors were massacred, poisoned, raped, shackled, removed from country and kin, enslaved in missions, orphanages and individual homes as domestic servants, and now continue to be the single most disadvantaged ethnic group in the country on any measure. Twice as likely to be living with a disability. 4 times more likely to live with a chronic disease. 4 times more likely to take their own lives. 37 times more likely to be imprisoned than any other Australian. 1000 times more likely to die in police custody. On that Easter Monday in 1996 Cathy was at the back of the line on handicapping. But she was also at the back of the line when it came to the likelihood that she would even be there to compete. That she was able to slip pass every single white runner, including the one who tried to take her out of the race with a physical shove, is absolutely amazing. From last in the race to first. From last in this country to sporting royalty. 

The story we read just now from Matthew’s gospel also talks about the last becoming first. In one of Jesus’ most intriguing parables, he says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who has a vineyard. The landowner goes out at dawn to the marketplace in town where willing labourers are most likely to gather. He hires those who are there after agreeing to pay them the usual daily wage, a denarius, and they head over the vineyard to pick grapes.  But there are not enough labourers to secure the harvest, so the landowner goes out again at 9, 12, 3 and 5 to hire more workers.  Each are hired on the promise that they will be paid ‘what is right’ for their time. Now, at knock-off time, each of the workers are paid, beginning with the last hired, and finishing with the first. Those hired at the beginning of the day are incensed to learn that all the other workers, even those hired at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, are to be paid the full daily wage, just as they are. They complain bitterly about these latecomers ‘being made equal’ to themselves, even though they have worked longer. But the landowner responds ‘Did you not agree to work for a denarius? That is what you have been paid. Are you calling me evil because I am generous towards these others?’ And so, says Jesus after he tells his story, ‘the last will be first and the first will be last’.

Now. I’ve used this story in bible studies across twenty-five years of ministry, and I can report that almost every white, middle-class, person who hears the story for the first time responds, like clockwork, ‘but that is so unfair!’ This has convinced me that many white-middle class people tend to identify most strongly with the people hired at the beginning of the day. Why? Because they are raised from birth to believe that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, and that justice is primarily about getting what you deserve because of your hard work.  If you work hard, you rightly expect to be rewarded in proportion to the amount of work you have done. Since justice is proportional, it follows that those who work less than you should be paid less than you. Now, if that is what you believe, if life is most properly a meritocracy in which the hardest workers take the lion’s share of the rewards, then the behaviour of the landowner in our parable is guaranteed to offend. For it strikes at the very heart of this white, middle-class, work-ethic.  It questions, and possibly even mocks, that ethic’s certainties about what is fair and what is just.

Of course, if you are white and middle-class, there are probably a lot of things that you cannot see.  You may not be aware, for example, that you have a disability, an ailment that quite a few scholars are calling, very simply, ‘white-blindness’. White-blindness is an incapacity to see what life might be like for people who are not white and middle-class, for people whose very different social location may teach them really quite different lessons about the world and how it works.  For when I, an Aboriginal man, read this parable, I identify not with the people who were hired at the beginning of the day, but with those who were hired at 5 o’clock.  For I know, deep in my marrow, that those who are ready to work at 6am in the morning enjoy a long list of advantages that I simply cannot count on. They, for example, are most likely able-bodied. They are four times as likely as I am to be able-bodied. Which gives them a significant advantage when it comes to being job-ready. The fact that they are ready to work at 6 o’clock in the morning almost certainly means that they also enjoy good mental health.  I, on the other hand, do not. Generations of racism from the most powerful towards my people means that I carry with me a weight that is very, very difficult to slough off. It is difficult to get up each day with a certainly that I will be treated fairly when multiple generations before me were not. And that has been confirmed, many hundreds of times over, in my own experience. Simply by being Aboriginal, I am three times more likely to regularly experience high levels of psychological distress than other Australians, and that makes getting out of bed in the morning quite difficult, sometimes. I won’t go on, but I hope you are getting the picture.

From a biblical studies point of view, it is clear that those who are more latterly hired by the landowner are very likely to have been the most marginalised members of Judean society at the time. Landless peasants who are continually exhausted because most landowners exploit their labour for pittance. Widows or ‘unclean’ women who have no male patriarch to protect them. Aboriginal people like the Canaanite women we encountered in chapter 15, the one whose daughter was tormented by a demon, a demon some scholars happily name ‘colonisation’. And so on.  They are late to marketplace because they have learned – through cold, hard, experience – that there is little to be gained by being there early. They are outcasts, they are rarely picked for the work available, and therefore there is little point in turning up at all.

If you read the parable from that point of view, then the point of the story is not about the proportionality of justice, as white middle-class social programming might suggest. It is not even about a failure of such justice. It is about grace, grace here defined as an excess of loving generosity toward the last and the least.  To all who believe that justice is satisfied by getting what you deserve, this might come as very bad news indeed!  Because if you believe in meritocracy, grace proclaims the very opposite: that it is the last and the least, those who are least deserving in the eyes of the meritocracy, who can expect to receive the love and mercy of the creator and landowner of all the earth.  

For the vast majority of people who live on this planet, who are not white and middle-class, the grace at the heart of the parable is actually the very best of news. For it tells us that while the world run by white people may have forgotten us, if it even acknowledges our existence at all, God has not forgotten us. From the lips of Jesus, the very son of God, we learn that God will take us from our customary place at the very back of the field, and help us along, with Cathy, to the winner’s podium.  The last, those who get barely enough work to get by, will nevertheless be made equal with those who can depend on work every day.

Let’s be clear, however, that none of this happens by magic. Faith will not, for example, immediately deliver the poor and the oppressed to the front of the queue. Faith, rather, will assure the poor one, the enslaved one, that she or he is loved, accepted and free in Christ. And this knowledge, in turn, will give her the confidence and courage to have a go, and keep having a go, even if the chips are down and the system is against you. You know, when Cathy won her gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 she had some help. She said that her ancestors rose up from the ground beneath her feet to fill her with the strength and confidence she needed to prevail against the odds. Here Cathy is speaking in an Aboriginal way about the divine. For us, the divine is at work in our ancestors, who live in the earth and flora and fauna, all about us, just as the Holy Spirit lived in Christ and now lives in his church. Cathy is saying, therefore, that the confidence and help of her ancestors filled her with everything she needed to run, and to run without giving up. The divine does not run the race for us. God gives us the power and courage, rather, to finish the race as equal partners in the gospel with all who have had a better start in life. 

For, in the end, it is grace that saves us all, through faith, whether we are at the bottom of the social pile, or in the middle, or at the top. It is not our work, nor our status, as the most powerful would measure it. Such is the way of Christ. Such is the way of the gospel. So, on this Social Justice Sunday I leave you with just two simple challenges. If you are poor, God in Christ has come to raise you up, so trust that his grace will get you there, even to the banqueting halls of heaven. If you are wealthy, then God would have you leave those chains behind for the sake of the poorest and least. For by emptying yourselves of such riches (as Christ did) and sharing your wealth with the least (as Christ did) you will become rich in the eyes of God.

Glory be to God – Creator, Son and Holy Spirit – as in the dreaming, so now, and for ever. Amen.

Garry Worete Deverell
Social Justice Sunday 2020