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Wednesday, 3 June 2020

The Absurd, Laughable, Grace of God

Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.8

An old man, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah, lived in their tent by the forest of Mamre.  One day they are visited by three strangers.  Being people who believe that God sometimes roams the earth in disguise, Abraham and Sarah welcomed the strangers, giving them food, water and rest.  As Abraham chatted with them over a lovely outdoor dinner, one of the strangers said to him, 'Where is your wife, Sarah?'  'She is in the tent, helping to prepare our food', Abraham replied.  At that moment one of the men leant forward and whispered, 'We will return here at the same time next year, at which time Sarah will have given birth to a son'.  At that, Abraham's mouth fell open.  What an extraordinary thing to say!  Abraham and Sarah were very old, already decades beyond the age of childbearing.  And from the nearby tent, as if to underline the absurdity of the idea, Sarah let out a laugh.

The idea of having a child when you are a hundred years old is, indeed, quite funny.  And it is funny because it is absurd.

Have you ever reflected on the intimate connection between absurdity and humour?  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, absurdity is that which is unreasonable, ridiculous, irrational or illogical.  The absurd comes into being when two realities which are usually understood to have little or nothing in common, are forced to come together in a rare moment of comparison.  Like old age and giving birth.  Like monks and the Ku Klux Clan.  Like bureaucracy and caring.  When such comparisons are dropped on us, our first and most natural response is shock or surprise.  The foreign, the unexpected or the undreamed of, suddenly arrives in our reality.  A piano falls from the sky into the lemon tree in your back garden.  An elephant runs through the front yard.  An insurance assessor asks how you feel about the burglary.  When the silliness or absolute absurdity of such situations dawns on us, we laugh.  Because laughter is our body’s way of embracing experiences of irrationality or paradox.

When God's grace comes to call, it is very often quite irrational.  It surprises and shocks us. It seems silly or even ridiculous in the face of the harsh realities of the daily grind.  Yet such grace helps us to find the laughter and rejoicing in life.  In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul reflects on the absurdities at the centre of Christian faith.  Take this one, for starters: 'While we were still sinners, Christ died for us'.  It is oftentimes difficult for we Anglicans, who have heard these words so many times before, to register the surprise and shock Paul's original hearers would have experienced.  So let's translate the statement into a more contemporary mode.

‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ For moderns, this would be like hearing that while Hitler was still sending Jews to the gas chambers, a senior Rabbi offered his life to the Allies in exchange for Hitler’s.  It's like hearing that while Martin Bryant was still shooting people at Port Arthur, one of the wounded was already negotiating Bryant's freedom in exchange for his own internment.  It’s like reading that the sole survivor of one of many frontier massacres here in Victoria has offered amnesty and forgiveness for the murderers. Can you hear the scandal in that?  Can you hear the absurdity? 'While we were still sinners, Christ died for us'!

The surprise of God's grace is that it interrupts our despair.  It cuts across our hopelessness.  It relativizes our worst fears for the future.  God comes to one whose self-image has been destroyed by glossy magazines and says 'You are special, I love you'.  God visits the person who has failed an exam or lost a job and says 'I believe you are a winner.  Let's explore how together.’ God whispers to the newly disabled ‘You still have a contribution to make’. God stands beside the compulsive liar and says 'You can tell the truth about yourself'.  God visits the greedy and immoral person saying, 'You are capable of giving without thought of yourself, and I will stake my life on it'.  In every case, such divine visitations are downright absurd if you look at them from any rational or logical point of view.  We are all addicted to our sins; and whether we are personally aware of it or not, those of us who are financially comfortable are the beneficiaries of an economic order that exploits and steals from the vulnerable.  That is the reality we live in and have become accustomed to.  Yet, God is inclined to bring an entirely different reality to bear upon our situation.  God is inclined to treat us as though we were not addicts and exploiters, but saints.  And that, my friends, is a laugh.

At first, like Sarah, we laugh at God's foolishness.  How can God be so unrealistic?  How can God be so morally irresponsible?  How can God promise the impossible and the senseless like that?  Yet, in time, and with faith, we come to laugh with God.  We begin to see ourselves and our sinfulness in an entirely new light—in the light of grace, which is the power of God's unconditional love.  In that love, the suffering, the despairing and even the sin-sick may aspire to sainthood.  And that, my friends, can make one laugh—not with scepticism now, but with rejoicing!  Paul describes the process thus: 'We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us'.

You will have noticed from our Genesis reading that the strangers returned to Abraham and Sarah's tent after a year.  And the apparently impossible and absurd had indeed come to pass.  As Abraham turned one hundred years old, Sarah gave birth to a son, whom they named 'Isaac'.  In Hebrew, Isaac means laughter.  But this time, when Sarah laughs, it is not with incomprehensibility, but with joy.  This time she laughs with God, not at God: 'God has brought me great laughter,’ she says, 'and all who hear this story will laugh with me'.  Sarah, like every reluctant and surprised convert in the history of this planet, has been bowled over by the grace of God.  First by its strange absurdity.  But then by its joy.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Sober Reflections during National Reconciliation Week

          ‘What I did not steal must I now restore?’ 
                                                                       Psalm 69.4b

In Australia, National Reconciliation Week (NRW) runs from May 27 to June 3 and is immediately preceded by Sorry Day on May 26.  The dates are significant. The 1997 report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, Bringing Them Home, was tabled in the federal parliament on May 26.  Sorry Day has become an annual observance inviting Australians to reflect on the genocidal policies which sought to destroy Indigenous families and communities and to renew community resolve to avoid ever enacting such policies again.  May 27 commemorates the date of the 1967 referendum in which the Australian constitution was changed to recognise the existence of Indigenous peoples and June 3 recalls the 1993 ‘Mabo decision’ of the High Court of Australia to overturn the racist legal fiction of terra nullius. Beginning as a week of ‘prayer for reconciliation’ within some Australian churches, the week has now been taken up in some sections of the wider community as a way to encourage the building of bridges between Indigenous and other Australians. 

I have to say that, to this Aboriginal Christian leader, National Reconciliation Week appears to be struggling as a tool to extract a more just settlement for our people. It is struggling, I think, for two reasons. First, instead of encouraging the colonial establishment to address issues of justice for First Peoples persistently and all-year-round, NRW has become a way in which organisations may signal their virtue in this area for one week per year, largely for PR reasons, but effectively ignore our concerns at every other time. Second, it has become increasingly clear that it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves who are expected to do most of the work of Reconciliation Week, just as we are expected to do most of the work of reconciliation itself. Which means, simultaneously, that our prophets grow weary and sad at the lack of progress on justice for our people whilst our colonial gubbas congratulate themselves for their virtuous attention to the politically correct, all the while refusing to lift a finger to actually change anything.  Which leads us to ask, with the Psalmist, ‘what I did not steal must I now restore?’ Must we who did nothing to create Indigenous suffering now be the ones who must do all the work of healing and restoration? Why cannot those who have benefitted from the dispossession of our people take responsibility for putting things right?

Many others have written about the consequences of conservative government for the reconciliation cause, pointing to the extraordinary lack of progress on matters like a voice to parliament, incarceration rates, health outcomes, family integrity, meaningful employment, access to country, housing and the preservation of language and culture. I don’t intend to add to that commentary. Rather, I want to point out that the very churches that initiated the week of prayer for reconciliation have now, very clearly, abandoned the cause in any meaningful sense. 

The Uniting Church has long enjoyed a reputation for leading the way on matters of reconciliation. And there are plenty of signs that it continues to do so. Its national constitution has a preamble declaring that First Peoples enjoyed a relationship with God prior to the coming of Europeans. The Constitution also recognises and gives formal institutional authority to a national ‘Congress’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the church who are able to run their own affairs (up to a point).  The church also funds a small number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries around the nation and has handed some of those ministries land and property for their beneficial use. The church has an interest in a registered training organisation, based in Darwin, specifically designed to offer certificate and diploma level education to aspiring First Nations pastors and church workers.  In addition, the church each year provides worship and other resources on Invasion Day, National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week for the nourishment of its members in the ongoing work of reconciliation.  All of which is terrific, at least to the naked eye.  

Of course, as someone who was involved in the Uniting Church as a Congress member for 20 years or so, I can tell you with some experience that the gains of our people over that period were hard-won.  The church authorities were very good at managing public perceptions, offering fine words of apology and commitment at the very time they were also steadfastly resisting our overtures for greater control of our affairs and a more practical investment in our ministries. I personally witnessed the official and institutionally sanctioned persecution of a Congress minister. Many First Nations leaders fell into despair and illness along the way. I, myself, eventually left the church becaue I could not find meaningful employment and because the battle to find a secure place to stand within the church was making me sick. Behind the glossy presentation of the Uniting Church’s leadership on matters of reconciliation there remains a fairly common, everyday racism.  I still come across UC leaders who have never read a book about the true history of this country, have never had a respectful conversation with an Indigenous person, who have never studied with an Indigenous academic or theologian, and never felt the need to do so. To date, the senior leadership of the church remains steadfastly white, and there are no Indigenous people on the teaching staff of any of its theological colleges. In my observation, it is still the case that Australia’s most progressive church on these matters harbours a fundamentally white-blind membership that cannot really see what the problem is.

The Roman Catholic Church appears to have both a national and state-based apparatus to address matters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concern. There is a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council reporting to the Bishop’s Conference, and a funded secretariat that functions nationally as well as on a state-by-state basis. Most states and territories appear to have at least one funded Indigenous ministry, with Tasmania being a notable exception. In addition, anecdotal evidence would suggest that Catholic schools and welfare agencies often form enthusiastic relationships with Aboriginal organisations and communities, Catholic and otherwise. These bodies collaborate happily both on curriculum and policy materials and on the building of relationships between people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds. Certainly, most of the Indigenous Catholics I know are reasonably happy Catholics. For all this good work, it appears that the church has still invested very little in the development of indigenous theologies, theologians and clergy. The Roman Church is exemplary in its multiculturalism, not least amongst the clergy. But there are still no Indigenous bishops or tenured theological teachers and precious few deacons and priests. There are still, in other words, almost no Indigenous voices where they count most: amongst the pastoral and teaching authorities of the church.

The Anglican Church of Australia, likewise, has established a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander council, which reports to the General Synod. This Council, of which I am a member, consists mainly of representatives appointed by the 23 diocesan bishops. Several bishops do not appoint anyone at all. Some apparently appoint non-Indigenous people.  The General Synod funds a less-than-1.0 EFT national secretariat and an annual meeting for this Council, but it does not fund any on-the-ground Indigenous ministry of any kind. That is left to individual dioceses, which vary wildly in their engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Diocese of Melbourne, for example, employs no-one to engage with Aboriginal people.  And whilst there are, so far as I can tell, five Aboriginal priests in the diocese, four are employed in non-Aboriginal ministries and a fifth is not employed by the church at all. Across the church, nationally, it would be fair to say that almost all Indigenous church workers, ordained or not, engage in ministry with, or on behalf of, our people on our own time and at our own expense. The number of funded Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ministries can be counted on one hand. The Anglican Board of Mission is allowed by its charter to fund individual projects that engage with Indigenous peoples, but that same charter prohibits the funding of wages or stipends, which effectively means that ABM cannot support Indigenous ministers, lay or ordained, to do long-term embedded ministries in Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities.  It is sobering to note that, whilst the General Synod can in principle appoint national bishops for both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there is currently no funding allocated to do so. The national Torres Strait Islander episcopate is therefore vacant, and the national Aboriginal episcopate is currently being funded on a part-time basis by Anglicare in South Australia.  

One might additionally note that pleas for a more meaningful engagement from the Anglican Church usually fall on deaf ears. Since its establishment in 1998, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council has sought on multiple occasions both a meaningful covenant or treaty with the rest of the church, and a more substantial funding base to underwrite its aspirations. Neither have been forthcoming. At the local level here in Melbourne, the overtures of Aboriginal clergy towards a more practical approach to reconciliation are routinely ignored by church authorities. And, as with the Roman Catholic Church, it is still the case that there are no tenured Indigenous theological teachers in the mainstream theological colleges of the church, and less than a handful of Indigenous voices on diocesan councils in the whole of Australia. One can only conclude that reconciliation in the sense of restoring some measure of voice, dignity and justice to First Peoples is effectively terminal in the Anglican Church.

Notwithstanding these realities, churches routinely call on us in National Reconciliation Week or in NAIDOC Week to participate in symbolic acts of reconciliation, usually within the context of worship services run by white people who appear to be engaged in virtue-signalling. I, for one, find that this invitation, when it comes, is very often the ONLY invitation I receive from a church in an entire year, and it arrives just a few days before the proposed event because that is how long that particular church has allocated to planning. There is no relationship with this church. There has been no foregoing process of story-sharing or relationship-building, in the midst of which the particular event or worship service might actually take on some genuine meaning for the community that gathers. Furthermore, precisely because of the lack of conversation with the church in question, one cannot help but feel that there will be little to no positive outcome from the event for our people. There will be no commitments made, for example, to hand back some land, or pay the rent, or fund an Indigenous ministry, or engage in ongoing conversation with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organisation. To make those kinds of outcomes even remotely possible requires a long conversation, much education, and the fundamental conversion of racist hearts and minds.  All a one-off event can usually achieve is a self-congratulatory feeling of virtue in the hosting organisation for broaching such ‘complex’ issues and giving ‘difficult’ people like me a platform.  

All of which leaves us Indigenous Christian leaders in a place of considerable dilemma. Most of us are already exhausted by this point, because we have already endured many weeks, months and years of scorn, ignorance and indifference: in casual conversation and on media, both social and traditional. We are deeply sceptical about the value of doing what is asked of us. But we feel we have a responsibility to our people, especially our kids, to keep speaking out, to keep fighting the fight as our elders did before us at great personal cost, even though it is so very, very difficult to do so. So, we pull ourselves together, put on a smiling face, turn up, do our little bit and hope for the best. We pray that God will give us patience to answer all the hurtful and disrespectful questions without losing our cool. And we go home even more exhausted, and usually just a little bit depressed. Depressed because the questions have not changed in years, depressed because the church seems stuck in a time-warp when it comes to addressing the question of justice, depressed because like everyone else, we long for signs of light, but we rarely see it appear.  And really it is just oh so hard to keep the whole thing going.

In spite of all this, or most probably because of it, I am a person of prayer. I pray not because I am serene, I pray because I am desperate. Without the water from the well, which is the word of the suffering Christ, I would surely succumb to the floods of despair with which I am overcome at every reconciliation event. ‘Help me ancestors, help me Jesus, to stay alive, that the promise of your justice and peace may stay alive in me’.  That is my prayer, and most days – especially during Reconciliation Week - that is about the best I can do.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Bushfires and Colonial Mismanagement

The Australian bushfires that raged from late December to mid-January were the most destructive on record, destroying 8.5 million hectares of forest, farmland, town and residential country in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. If that number is hard to get your head around, my dear North American readers, think of an area the size of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island combined, then add a little bit more.  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.

So how did the fires start and why did they burn so hot?  The short answer is that the continent of Australia is on the front line of the battle over climate change. Increasingly mild ‘cold’ seasons and increasingly hot ‘warm’ seasons over the past thirty years have left the driest continent on earth (after Antarctica) even drier. Periods of drought, always an issue in this sun-burnt continent, have become progressively more severe over time to the point where even the wettest places on the continent - temperate and tropical rainforests - are becoming tinderboxes. When dry lightning comes along, therefore, there is little to stop entire forests, along with any farms and towns on their perimeter, going up in flames. And once the fires start, even the world’s most prepared and well-resourced firefighting services cannot stand in their way.  There is little to be done except to evacuate residential areas and pray for rain.

But how did we get to this point? How did an apparently ‘developed’ nation such as Australia, allow the situation to get so out of hand, possibly to the point of no-return?  Obviously climate-change is a global issue. Even if Australia had a progressive government which takes climate-change seriously (which it does not) the only possible mechanism that will make a difference to global policy is international treaty. And the world’s largest polluters have not yet signed any of the protocols generated by UN conferences such as Kyoto or Paris. Notwithstanding this fact, I believe it is incumbent upon nations such as Australia to recognise that we find ourselves in these catastrophic circumstances primarily because we have failed to recognise the wisdom of our indigenous peoples.

I am an Indigenous survivor of what some of us are calling, in Australia, ‘the apocalypse’.  Before the British arrived on our shores in 1788 CE, over 500 nations were already living here, and we had done so for more than 100 000 years. 100 000 years is a very long time by anyone’s estimation. When you’ve been in a place for that long, you get to know it very, very, very well. You get to know the moods and cycles of land and seascape. You get to know the seasons, the animals, the plant-life. You get to know the ecological systems which bind that land together and cause it to flourish with life. You get to know how to find food and shelter, and how to sustainably access those resources over many hundreds of generations. The other thing that you do when you’ve lived that long in one place is find a way to preserve the knowledge of previous generations and pass it on to your children. Doing so is crucial to survival. My people preserved their wisdom in a large body of knowledge we now call, collectively, our ‘dreaming’, which consists of songs, dances, paintings, stories and rituals which, together, show us how to live successfully and well in the lands and seascapes we call home. When the British arrived, they apparently did not see the value of our lore – indeed, after only a little while, they devised policies and practices specifically designed to destroy it - and this was the beginning of our apocalypse. During the 230 years of British occupation much of our lore has been destroyed and possibly lost for ever. Certainly we have been systematically murdered or separated from the specific places in which our various ‘dreamings’ belong. And that has meant, worst of all, that most of us are no longer able to fulfil the vocation given us by our creator-ancestors to look after and manage our homes in such a way that future generations may continue to enjoy and live from their bounty.

Of the many skills our ancestors learned and passed on was the management of landscapes and resources through fire-farming. When the British arrived, they thought that the land was ‘virgin’, empty of human presence, cultivation and influence. But nothing could be further from the truth. For thousands upon thousands of years, my people had been modifying the landscape on an epic scale. We had been using fire to create agricultural fields in which we could plant crops, fields where the soil was permeable by both air and water. We had been using fire to create grasslands which would attract game which could then, in turn, be harvested. Crucially, for the current discussion, we also set small fires in order to prevent wildfires. These would be set within large stands of trees, as well as in open fields, on a seasonal basis. The fires would be managed by burning small areas of grassland or forest undergrowth in a circle-pattern, with a large group of people lighting fires at the perimeter and then following the fire into a centre of convergence. The seasonal nature of the burning kept fuel loads under control, but also caused many of Australia’s native plant species to regenerate and therefore provide nourishment for a local ecosystem to survive.

By contrast, the British clearly did not know how to manage our lands sustainably. Within the first 50 years of annexation, they cleared the grasslands of its people, agricultural systems and animals, and replaced them with millions upon millions of cattle and sheep which compacted the soil and made it relatively impermeable to air and water. The soil, which could no longer breathe, became progressively less nutritious over time and, when it rained, less able to hold moisture. More grasslands for sheep and cattle were created by cutting down forests, but those stands that remained were poorly managed so that ‘bushfires’ became a feature of the ‘Australian’ experience. Today’s Australia not only has to content with wildfires, but also with deeply unwell river systems, dying coral reefs and fisheries, alarming levels of drought and desertification, as well as one of the world’s most mismanaged native animal populations.

Some policy-makers are becoming interested in the land-and sea management practices of our First Peoples. But they are few and far between. And so we pray to our creator for mercy, and for a change of heart and mind that is able to reverse at least some of the damage. And we do so, some of us, in the name of the one who loved even the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

The Works of the Father

Texts:  Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14

On the album ‘Everyone is Here’ by the New Zealand singer/songwriters, Tim and Neil Finn, there is a song that opens with this line:
We’re all God’s children
And God is a woman
But we still don’t know who the Father is.
It’s a terrific song, because it refuses to see the usual new-age theology as, in any way, an adequate basis for peace among nations.  If we’re all God’s children, and God is that feminist ideal who is supposed to be into cooperation and listening (instead of competition and fighting), then how is it that the world stands, yet again, on the brink of several human-made disasters?  ‘If this is God, and we are God’s children,’ ask the brothers Finn, ‘shouldn’t we be getting along famously?’  How is it that the children of a justice-loving God stand by and watch as 200 000 people are massacred in the Sudan?  How is it that the children of a mercy-loving God seem content to let millions of children die of AIDS and malnutrition in Africa and Asia?  How is it that the children of a fairness-loving God can be so greedy and possessive towards the labour and resources of other people?  The answer the Finns hint at is not so much an answer, but a question:  perhaps all this happens because we still don’t understand who God is as Father?  It is the question that I should like to address this morning.

There has been an understandable nervousness about the Fatherhood of God in recent theology, and on two grounds.  Some theologians have been nervous about God’s Fatherhood because of the experience they had with their own Fathers.  These theologians, like a great many people in the community at large, experienced their Fathers as, as best, distant bread-winners who had little time for emotional intimacy with their children and, at worst, stern or troubled abusers of their children.  If Fathers are like that, these theologians argued, then Fatherhood is no longer an appropriate metaphor for God.  For God is more like a Mother:  intimate, caring, protective.  Another group of theologians, some who had experienced the fascist-styled ‘fatherhood’ of Mussolini and Hitler, worried that the Fatherhood of God encouraged people to remain stuck in an infantile state, never maturing to a point where they could assume moral responsibility for themselves.  These theologians spent considerable time wondering why the citizens and soldiers of war-time Germany and Italy accepted all that they did from their national ‘Fathers’.  Their answer was this:  that many of us would rather not grow up; we would rather believe that someone else, a strong father-figure for example, is always right and knows, unfailingly, what is best for us.  By believing that, they argued, we stay in a perpetual state of infancy.  We never grow up.  In the wake of Hitler and Mussolini, these theologians concluded, it is no longer useful to refer to God as Father.  Fathers like these do not let their children grow up into ethical and moral agency, the result of which is Auschwitz and the SS.

Now, much of what these theologians say is absolutely true in terms of its analysis of culture and human psychology.  Who can doubt that if your father has been emotionally distant, that you are likely to believe that God the Father is a distant and unapproachable figure as well?  Who can doubt that if you were abused by your father in some way, that you are likely to have enormous difficulty trusting God as Father?  Furthermore, who can doubt Freud when he says that for many of us, God the Father is nothing more than a dictator, a despot, who protects us from growing up to take moral responsibility for our actions?  Certainly not me.  All this is true.

But here is my objection, and the objection of a great many others as it turns out:  that this nervous theology about God the Father has been too much interested in human sin, and not enough interested in the redeeming God of Jesus Christ.  In other words, theologians who are nervous about the Fatherhood of God too often allow their experience of human sin to overwhelm the experience of God as a loving redeemer that belongs to the primary witnesses of faith in the New Testament.  For if we actually turn to the New Testament, for a moment, we discover this:  that God the Father is neither a despot, nor a distant bread-winner, nor is he an abuser of his children.  God the Father, we are told, is like his Son, Jesus:  a friend, a lover, a companion in difficult times.

Consider the following words of Jesus from John’s Gospel:
I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also . . .  Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father . . .  I am in the Father and the Father is in me.  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works . . .  Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
Here we learn a number of increasingly scarce lessons about God as Father.  First, and most importantly, the Christian God is seen and known not through the lens of personal psychology or philosophical speculation, but through a patient examination of the life and teaching of Jesus.  God the Father, we are told, is at work in the world through the agency of his Son.  Whatever we seen the Son doing, whatever we hear the Son saying, that is what the Father is doing and saying as well.  Over the years I’ve heard many people say:  ‘I can’t relate to God the Father; he is too mysterious and distant.  Jesus I can handle, though.  Jesus is more concrete and real.’  Well, to all who think like that, here’s the good news.  The Son, Jesus, is like his Father.  The Father is everything that you see in the Son.  He is love in all its simplicity and complexity: intimate, passionate, striving, forgiving.

A second lesson follows on from this.  God the Father is not away somewhere else doing his work.  His work is in our midst, here, in amongst all the chaos and confusion of our lives as they are really lived.  It is important to remember what Jesus’ favourite name for God is ‘Abba, daddy.’  In Aramaic, the term denotes an emotional intimacy, an experience and trust in the emotional engagement of the Father in all that the child is struggling with.  What we learn from Jesus is this:  that God the Father is our Father precisely in his willingness to be around, to be available to us, to care.  That is what fatherhood means, for the gospel:  being there, being available, passionately engaged in the struggles of relationship.  Not in a way that is despotic or manipulative.  On the contrary, as Jesus says in this same discourse, we are no longer God’s slaves, but his friends—people who are invited to take responsibility for our own side of the relationship, to respond to all that God is doing as adults and moral agents.

A final lesson is this.  Because God the Father is close by us in Jesus, living his life and purpose out in the midst of our own lives and purposes, the call of God is very clear and cannot be easily ignored.  God’s will for the world is no longer a mystery, hidden in secrecy.  The secret is well and truly out.  What the Father calls us to be and do is exactly what Jesus was called to be and do:  to speak the word of his Father and do his works, to be God’s representatives in the world—not because we have to, not because we are infants, but because we trust God, and want to join with Christ in transforming the world about us.  So, if you want to know what God is doing in the world, take a look at Jesus.  And if you want to join God in that work, if you want to change the world, become an imitator of Jesus.  As Jesus imitates his Father, so we are called to imitate Christ.  If we do, then the world will change,  it will become more like God, the Father of Jesus Christ, and less like the distant, corrupt or despotic fathers our nervous theologians are so worried about.

So, given that the modern church is perpetually wondering what to do with itself, what does all this theology mean?  Simply this:  that we will never know what to do with ourselves and our church unless all of us, and not just the clergy and a few others, give ourselves over to a profound and ongoing meditation upon the life and teaching of Jesus as we have it in Scripture.  Every revolution begins with its manifesto, and the manifesto of Christians is the New Testament.  I encourage you to read it, to study it, and to trust it.  For in trusting the New Testament, you trust Christ.  And in trusting Christ, you trust God, God who is our Father as well as our Mother, God who wants the world to be transformed in love.

In the name of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as in the beginning, so now and forever, world without end.  Amen.

This sermon was first preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2005, at St Luke's Uniting Church in Mount Waverley.

Friday, 27 March 2020

On deferring Easter and diving more deeply into Lenten quarantine

As I write the COVID-19 virus is transmitting itself from person to person at an exponential rate. Much of the trasmission is happening 'under the radar' as people who do not know they have the virus pass it on to others. Governments are desperately seeking to contain the virus by enacting strict 'social distancing' rules and closing down venues where people might gather.  This means that many businesses are severely curtainling their activities and their workforces. Perhaps a million people have already lost their jobs, mostly those who were employed as casuals or 'gig' workers. The effects on the economy are already profound, with steep losses on stock markets not seen since the Great Depression. But the effect on social cohesion and mental health is likely to be even more profound. For we are social animals. Even those of us who are 'introverted' on personality scales will struggle to keep our 'positive' on as we are prevented from social intercourse except via video-streaming app or phone. (Many of the poor, of course, do not have even those means of communication). Every anthropologist will tell you that humans need more than digital reproductions of another's image or sound. We need physical contact - intimate touches, hugs, whispers, non-verbal cues, olfactory interactions - in order to feel that we are part of the tribe, that we belong, that we are safe, secure and loved. If the virus continues to divide us, the already-serious rates of mental illness in post-industrial societies like ours are likely to reach pandemic proportions outstripping the reach of the virus itself.

The church is not, of course, immune from any of this. Because of our foundational ethic to love one's neighbour as oneself we can see the sense in protecting the vulnerable through spacial distancing. We can see the sense in closing down public gatherings. We can see the sense in passing on public health messages about hygiene.  And, of course, we are seeking to mitigate the social-psychological affects of these lockdowns by connecting our people into pastoral care matrices and making resources available through various media to encourage prayer, worship and a continuing connection to the sacred story in which we find our communal sense of vocation.  None of this makes us immune, however, to feelings of bewildernment, hopelessness and even despair. Many in our communities will struggle terribly in the days to come.

Many of my collegues - both clergy and academic theologians - have been seeking to locate this current existential within the explanatory narratives of Christian faith, both biblical and liturgical. Some are saying that the lockdown of churches places us in something approximating the exile of Israel and Judah's aristocratic classes to Assyria and Babylon, respectively. We are at home, but we are not at home. Because we cannot meet and encourage each other, because many of the liturgical and missional imperatives we are accustomed to pursuing without inhibition have been forbidden, we find ourselves alientated from the symbolic sources of our communal identity and purpose. We are like the Jerusalemites who found themselves in a strange land where 'singing the Lord's song' seemed almost impossible (Psalm 137).  The irony here, of course, is that those who could not sing the Lord's song were actually singing the Lord's song. They were remembering their narrative genealogies and looking to them for guidance. As are our churches right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Before we travel too far down this rabbit-hole, it is important to note that the people of Israel and Judah were taken into exile very much against their collective will. A foreign power swept in from the north, a power with a superior army, and these small federations of God's people were simply overcome. That is not what is happening to our churches in the midst of this pandemic. For the most part, churches are cooperating with goverments because they want to, because their leaders are convinced that the public health measures represent the right - even the 'Christian' - thing to do. Are we, then, in a new form of 'exile'? In some ways, perhaps yes. In most ways, I suspect no.  In saying that, I fully confess that I am weary of the many other ways in which the churches invoke the exile whenever they are feeling 'got at' by their critics. I am rarely convinced by arguments that the church is being persecuted in the post-industrial West. We are being ignored and misunderstood. We are being dressed down for our many sins against the vulnerable, certainly, but that is far from the state-sactioned discrimination that Indigenous people, for example, continue to endure.

Others are turning to the liturgical narratives of Lent and Holy Week for a sense of location, and for good reason. I have heard colleagues speak about being in a 'long Lent' in which we shall not, perhaps, be existentially ready for a fulsome celebration of Easter until the statistical 'curve' on viral transmission has well-and-truly turned. I have spoken that way myself on social media and in local pastoral letters. It is instructive to note that there is a long-standing relationship between Lent and the notion of quarantine (Latin: forty days) as both a spiritual retreat in a place of wilderness and a paring-back of life in order that life might flourish again. Jim Crace's astonishing novel, Quarantine, is as fine a meditation upon this connection as I have read.

Others have located themselves and their communities more specifically still: at Good Friday or Holy Saturday, in the place of Jesus' torture and death, and/or his descent into hell. And there is no doubt that some people, especially those most vulnerable to the full devastation of the virus, might claim an experience that can genuinely sustain that comparison. For most of us, I feel, the analogy is a bit of a stretch. In any case, what people seem to be reaching for here is a sense that the ecclesial lock-down reminds us of the narratives of dislocation and disillusion that overcame both Jesus and the disciples in (some aspects of) the gospel narratives concerning the final week of Jesus' life.  And certainly, there are connections to be made, if you happen to possess what Roman Catholic theologian David Tracy called an 'analogical imagination'.

If we consider some of the key narratives presented us by the Revised Common Lectionary for Lent and Holy Week in Year A, we can note a number of analogies with our current existential. On Ash Wednesday we read of a terrible 'day of the Lord':
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come (Joel 2.2).
The army Joel apparently speaks of is an overwhelming military force. But many in our community, from the Prime Minister down, have spoken about the COVID-19 virus as a 'hidden enemy' against which we must do battle lest we, too, are overwhelmed. The passage from Joel goes on to call for a 'return' to the Lord with with 'fasting, with weeping, and with mourning' (2.12) out of a recognition that the people of God have themselves contributed to what is about to happen to them. They have abandoned the covenantal relationship with God and the swarming armies from the north form part of the consequence for having done so.

Some have speculated that pandemics such as the one we are living through at present are in some way a consequence for our species' lack of attention to sound environmental management. John Vidal, in The Guardian, writes that 'a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19'. As human beings press further and further into rainforests and other places of extraordinary biodiversity, we are being exposed to zoonotic diseases carried by animals that human beings have had little contact with before. Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London, studies how changes in land use contribute to the risk. 'We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,' she says. 'Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.' (The Guardian, March 18 2020). In addition, a large body of research has shown that pandemics often begin in places of poverty and hit those living with poverty hardest. Ben Oppenheim and Gavin Yamey of the Brookings Institute note that poverty is often the reason why people press into rainforests to harvest disease-carrying animals; that malnutrition and existing chronic conditions make people far more susceptible to catching new diseases; and that a lack of medical resources in poor-to-middle-income regions means that new diseases will transmit themselves more quickly and efficiently ('Pandemics and the Poor', Scientists are confirming, it seems, that we are perhaps reaping what we have sown. Our lack of attention to the covenantal commands to steward the land and to care for the poor are making life difficult even for those of us who respresent the global rich. Perhaps a 'return' to these concerns, a return to the Lord with weeping and mourning and repentant hearts is precisely what is required.  Perhaps we should stop destroying the biosphere on which our lives depend. Perhaps we should start listening to Indigenous wisdom about managing our lands and waterways. Perhaps we should stop exploiting the global south's resources and impoverishing those who produce our consumer goods. Perhaps loving our neighbours as we love ourselves would actually make a huge difference. Who knew?

The lections that follow in the Lenten sequence might all be characterised as commentaries upon the difference between redeemed and unredeemed desire which, precisely because the COVID-19 has our communities questioning who they when they cannot do what they desire, have the potential to generate yet more analogical bridges into the viral existential. 

The Lent 1 lections critique various kinds of will-to-power, whether they be the yearning for God-like knowledge (Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7), a pretending towards self-righteousness (Psalm 32) or our complex fantasies about transcending creaturely finitude (Matthew 4.1-11). The COVID-19 virus, if nothing else, is surely teaching us about the very real limits of our human knowlege and power!  The Lent 2 lections propose a freedom that comes from faith in God's good election. Abraham trusts God's gracious promise, and this is credited to him as righteousness (Gen 12.1-4a; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17). Nicodemus is counselled by Jesus to be 'born from above', to be drowned in water and the Spirit and start life anew as if everything he has learned is wrong, except what the Spirit will then teach him (John 3.1-17).  When our 'normal' way of life is proving indequate even to human survival, let alone thriving, this story invites us to fall on our knees and look for the Spirit who alone has the power to re-boot the system in ways that will make for a more profound human flourishing. 

The Lent 3 lections discuss redeemed and unredeemed desire through the metaphor of water. The wandering Israelites thirst for water and grumble when it is not provided on demand (Exodus 17.1-7). The woman who comes to draw water at the well learns of a 'living water' that Jesus can provide, a water that is able to quench our many desires and wants in a way that ordinary (dead?) water never can. Switching to a food metahor, the narrative then describes precisely what this 'living' food (or water) might be: 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work'. (John 4.5-42). The Samaritan women, and all who hear the story through the evangelist, are invited to participate in Jesus obedience, to fix our hearts and minds only on what God asks us to do. For only if we empty ourselves of all pretence to self-knowledge, self-righteousness, self-generation are we empty enough to receive the gracious action of God in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is poured out for us (Romans 5.1-11). God is then able to do the good in and through our newly-formed desire.  Can this 'living water', this 'food' that Christ gives be read as a kind of anti-viral, or perhaps a new kind of virus which has the potential to shut down and remake our human systems from the ground up? Is it like the messianic 'one' in the Matrix movies who is able to re-set our contaminated human matrices so that they are more godly in their aspirations?  Read this way, the COVID-19 virus might be both an angel of death and an angel of light at the same time. Like the French word poison, which can mean both 'poison' and 'medicine', perhaps the virus is like a cleanser which exposes what is wrong in order to make room for what is right.

The Lent 4 lections play with images of perception, with light and dark. The dark is a state of blindness, a blindness which can be brought on, somewhat paradoxically, by the brightness and attractiveness of exernal apperances. Samuel is told by the Lord not to look at the beauty or stature of the men who might be king of Israel, but at the godliness of their hearts (1 Sam 16.1-13). Indeed, and to flip the metaphor over, one can have the brightness of God's company and comfort even when you are walking through a very dark valley (Psalm 23). The long excursis in John 9.1-41 explores these themes with a poetic density rarely matched since. A man born blind is healed by Jesus so that he can see. Paradoxically, however, he remains blind with regard to who Jesus is, and how Jesus saves the world, until the point when he hears Jesus name himself 'Son of Man' and responds by declaring 'I believe'. The Jewish interlocutors, though they can literally see, are declared 'blind' by Jesus because they refuse to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The passage concludes with these words:
I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.
Here again people of faith are asked to confess their blindness in order to really see, to renounce their faith in the commonplace and the obvious in order to make room for faith in God. Perhaps, in the midst of the COVID-19 crises, we are being called to account in exactly the same way Jesus' interlocutors in John's gospel are being called to account. Perhaps our faith in ourselves and our righteousness before God is being questioned. Perhaps our habitual complacency with regard to the covenantal responsibility to care for the earth and for the poor is being brought out of the dark and into the light? Perhaps our consumerist habits, and our scandalous comfort with capitalist notions of trickle-down wealth, are being exposed for the lies that they are? 
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them (Ephesians 5.8-11).
I consider it the height of irony that when the rich are finally exposed to something that might actually hurt them, their stable of politicians is suddenly willing to introduce all the socialist policies that councils of social services and welfare agencies have been calling for in earnest since the late 1980s. A universal living wage, even if you are jobless.  Programmes to guarantee that folk have a roof over their heads. Massive funding boosts for essential services. Profound levels of support for small business and a return to the local manufacturing of essential goods. Perhaps the threat of a virus that can kill us all is what it takes to teach the rich the lesson of human solidarity: that we thrive together or we die together.

Of the marvelous lections for Lent 5, which reflect more directly on matters of life and death, I will say very little except by way of a poem sent me by a friend, and written to interpret the existential in which we find ourselves explicitly within the frame of John's gospel, chapter 11:
it is no longer
an exegetical puzzle
to be solved in our study;
it is no longer a pericope
with which to wrestle;
it is no longer a (really)
long reading to get through;
it is no longer a story
we blow the dust off every three years.
it is our story;
it is about us;
it is us inside that
dank, dark tomb:
stinking of fear,
wrapped in the bands
of loneliness;
blinded by the handkerchief
of weary worry.
we hope,
we pray,
we yearn,
we listen
for just a footstep,
just a tear dropping on the ground,
just a whisper of Jesus
pacing before the stone,
growling in his spirit
in anger and frustration,
before he cries out,
in hope and joy and life,
"come out!"
we are not casual bystanders;
we are Lazarus
waiting . . .
                                                (c) 2020 Thom M. Shuman
'Can these bones live?' asks the Lord of Ezekiel the prophet. The bones of economic systems which leave the poor on a scrap heap; the bones of ecological practices which exploit our rivers, waterways, oceans and lands until they have no life left in them; the bones of our education systems, which strip away the capacity for wisdom and replace it with technocratic forms of knowledge which leave us dry and gasping and empty; the bones of a church which has lost its way by preying on the weak and the vulnerable, by losing its prophetic voice, and by its nostalgic yearings for a rapprochement with the State and with power?  Ultimately God would have us long not for a resucitation of these deadly ways of life, but for a nailing of such idols to the cross with Jesus so that there can be a new beginning, a 'new experience with experience' as Jungel would say. We do not need a tweaking of what we have already had, in the mode of Nietzsche's 'eternal return of the same'. What we need is resurrection. The arrival of the really and genuinely new: a flash that is able to clear our eyes and make us see what we have never seen before. Resurrection is not something we can make. It is only something that we can receive. By dying to all our self-sponsored performances of faith. By trusting in Christ. By falling to our knees with him and saying 'Not my will, but yours'.

The corona virus has forced us to consider the possibility of a longer, more profound Lenten quarantine. Many of our church leaders are rushing around more busily than ever, as if by their increased activity they might become the messianic answer we long for, as if they might thereby 'induce' the new birth of Easter through the deployment of condensed ceremonial into people's homes via streaming technologies.  While such deployments are clearly well-intentioned, they are really most unlikely to address the sheer depth of our now-more-exposed-than-ever spiritual poverty and loneliness.  Lent has always been a time for hearing and owning the truth, for the confession of sins and the exorcism of false spirit - first for catechumens who might embrace the faith at Easter baptisms, but then, also, for all Christians to walk that way again through the act of sponsorship and solidarity. The existential into which the virus has thrust us is therefore an opportunity for a more thorough-going Lent, a Lent in which our privations are more real than imagined and therefore more profoundly effective as a school of faith. If we embrace the possibility before us, we might learn again to live as creatures of God rather than of the market. We might learn to be still and listen for God's voice, the voice that can give life to the dead, rather than to rush around with strategies ingeniously designed to avoid that encounter. We might learn to be humble again, to renounce our schemes for propping up the crumbling edifice of church and society, and look anew for the God who can animate even the poorest of soil with spirit. We might learn, again, a poverty which is able to renounce all that we think we know, all that we think we must cling to, in order to learn again the way of the suffering Christ.

If we rush, too quickly, to Easter, we might miss these opportunities, these riches. And our celebrations of Easter would, perhaps, feel even more false than usual.  As a catholic Christian, who believes very much in the spiritual profundity of the church year, I would normally be on the side of those who argue against any departure from the usual flow of the seasons or of the lectionary. But we are now presented with a once-in-a-century crisis and opportunity. If there is ever to be a time when we might defer our celebrations of Easter, this is most likely it.

What I am suggesting, more concretely, is an extension of Lent through engaging, for example, a more thorough examination of the pre-exilic and exilic prophetic narratives, especially Jeremiah, First Isaiah, Lamentations, Joel, Amos, Micah and Zephaniah. Each of these reflect upon the ways in which national life in Israel and Judah had seriously departed from the covenantal settlements contained in the Torah. These reflections might be accompanied by gospel narratives taken from the lections for ordinary time, which explore the concrete demands of living a life of faith, and with a more thorough reading of the Pauline books of 1 and 2 Corinthians, which reflect at length of what can go wrong in the church's relationship with the dominant social and political culture.  The books of Daniel and Revelation, with their apocalyptic reflections on faithfulness in a time of Empire, might also be thrown into the mix.

The readings and reflections of Holy Week (along with whatever ceremonial is possible) might be reserved, therefore, for the week immediately prior to the Sunday when churches can safely gather again for the first time following the ban on public worship.  This Sunday, whenever it might come, might then be wholeheartedly celebrated as the arrival of Easter, and the full ceremonial of the entire Easter season might follow, right through to Pentecost.  Can you imagine what that would be like, after all the privation, after all the spacial distancing, after all that living of a more circumscribed life? It would be brimming over with joy, the joy that comes with the arrival of the dawn after a long, dark, night of the soul. Can you see the anticipation on the faces of those who gather to process the new fire into the darkened church? Can you see their smiles as the exultet is sung and the resurrection is proclaimed in a sudden blaze of light? Can you see their laughter at the startling preaching of Chrysostom's Easter sermon? Can you imagine that laughter erupting again, spontaneously, at the renewal of baptismal vows and the asperges with water? Can you hear the chatter and imagine the hugs and kisses of renunion at the greeting of peace? Can you imagine the smiles of satisfaction and gratefulness as the sacrament is placed in human hands for the first time in many, many months? And the champagne, and the cake, and the general merriment afterward?  It would be an Easter like none other in living memory. It would be the Easter you can have if you've rediscovered Lent. Really rediscovered it. Like finding a treasure so incomparable in a field that you are willing to sell everything you have to obtain it.

Now, there is nothing more certain than my losing this particular argument on the grounds of historical precedent in time of plague, or else the necessity and duty of conservatism when discussing liturgical change. Some might argue, pragmatically, that there is no prospect in contemporary times of our calling an ecumencial council with sufficient authority to change the rules. Still, there is occasionally some truth in small voices that speak to almost no-one out there on the edge of the wilderness . . .

Sunday, 22 March 2020

The Hidden Light

1 Samuel 16. 1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5. 8-14; John 9. 1-41 

I suppose a number of you have seen a shadow-play. The shadow-play takes place in the darkness. There’s this big screen with a fire lit behind it, and the audience watches as the puppeteers tell their story by casting silhouetted shadows on the screen. Because the characters are all in shadow, you can’t see their faces or the features of their dress, and there are no colours apart from black or white. Because of this, anyone who is watching must use their imaginations to fill in the gaps, to give form and emotional detail to the character’s faces as they make their journey’s through the highs and lows of the tale as it unfolds. Now, the story we read from John’s gospel just now works a bit like a shadow-play. The writer delivers his story not with colourful figures rich in detail, but with characters barely drawn, silhouettes in light and dark. And the reader, or the hearer in this case, is invited to read between the lines, to exercise discernment about the degree to which the story’s truth is visible for all to see, or secretly hidden in the shadows.

At first glance, what we have here is a simple miracle story about a Jewish man, born blind, whose sight is wondrously restored by Jesus on the Sabbath day and therefore cast out of the synagogue for his trouble. Eventually he becomes a Christian, a believer in Jesus. But look again. Is that all there is to this story?

Most commentators will tell you that the story is ‘really’ about faith, that faith is here represented as a seeing, with lack of faith as its opposite, represented here as a kind of spiritual blindness. Note that when Jesus finds the young man after he has been cast from the synagogue, he asks him a question: “Do you believe in the Son of Humanity?” The fellow replies, “And who is he, sir, tell me so that I may believe in him.” Jesus replies, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” At that point, the young man cries out: “Lord, I believe” and worships him. This passage makes quite a solid link between seeing and believing. When the man ‘sees’ who Jesus is, suddenly he has faith in Jesus, the kind of faith which falls to its knees in worship. Seeing is firmly established as a metaphor for faith. And the case is apparently strengthened further in the commentary that follows, where Jesus says: “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do not see may become blind”. In other words, Jesus comes to give faith to those without it, and to expose the lack of faith in those who pretend to have it. Faith is seeing, and lack of faith is blindness.

But hang on a minute. I’m not so sure that this traditionally correct approach is nuanced enough. Consider, if you will, the following questions. First, if faith is seeing, then why doesn’t John have the young man make his declaration of faith when first he is healed by Jesus? Why the long lag between seeing and believing? Second, and intimately related to this first question: if faith is seeing, then why does the young man not ‘see’ into the true identity of Jesus until right at the end of the story? When first asked who Jesus is by the Jews, the young man replies ‘He is a prophet,’ which is true, but only partly true. In the gospel of John, Jesus is pre-eminently not a only a prophet but the Christ, the Son of Humanity, the pre-existent Word of God made flesh. And later, when he is questioned more thoroughly, the young man declares that Jesus must have come from God, which is true, but again not true enough. In John’s gospel, Jesus not only comes from God, but is God: he has been as one with the Father from the beginning. And there is a further point which the traditional reading cannot account for. When the young man finally makes his confession of faith, it is not a ‘seeing’ which makes the difference, but a hearing. Jesus says to the man, “You have seen the Son of Humanity, I, the one speaking to you am he”. And it is then, and only then, that the man fall to his knees in worship. Did you catch that? The man had seen Jesus before, but it did not give him faith. Faith finally comes to him only in the wake of this self-revelatory speech of Jesus: “I am he”.

Now, why am I telling you all this? What does it matter if faith is a matter of seeing or a matter of hearing? What does it matter how faith comes, as long as it is faith? Well, it matters quite a lot actually. Because if faith comes by seeing, then it is not really faith. It is knowing. And knowing is the means by which we try to reduce God to our size and make of God some kind of idol that we can get our heads around. But a God we can get our heads around is not the Christian God, the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God of Jesus Christ. It is a God of our own making, a version of our dreams or fears, projected into the heavens and given the name ‘God’, a God we can control and domesticate. A tame God who never asks us to change.

The Gospel of John was actually written, in part, to combat that segment of church and society that had begun to associate sight, knowledge and faith in this idolatrous way. These people, who were later called Gnostics, believed that one could know God up close and personal, that one could have a personal hotline to Jesus and his power, that one could ascend to a direct knowledge of God through a secret path of wisdom which left behind the limitations and sufferings of the body and of ordinary life. To these beliefs and practices, John pronounced a resounding “NO!” No, he says, one may not escape the body and its sufferings, because even the divine one of God took on flesh and suffered like the rest of us. Indeed, John has the divinity or glory of God coming to light not in beatific visions or specialist knowledge, but in the disfiguration of a crucified man, raised above the earth. Jesus is indeed the light of the world for John, but this light lies hidden in the enigma of suffering and of signs that are difficult to interpret. So faith is certainly not about seeing and knowing. On the contrary, as Jesus says to the disciple Thomas, “Blessed are those who do not see, and yet come to believe” (20. 29).

If only these Gnostic ideas had died out with the Gnostics. But they have not. They are alive and well and living in your local branch of Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is dangerous to genuine faith because it has no humility. It believes not only in right doctrine, and the ability to know without any form of doubt what right doctrine is. It believes in wrong doctrine, and the ability to locate it in others. It believes that there is a war going on between believers and unbelievers, and that it can calmly discern the difference between the two. And it believes, finally, that God is on its own side, but not on theirs. Fundamentalism is based on a faith which can see and know, rather than on a faith which believes and trusts in a God who withdraws from our eyes in the figure of the suffering one.

Note this too, that fundamentalism is alive and well not only within the churches, but also beyond the church in the general community. It surfaces, for example, in the certainty of people who approach the church for a ritual service, in baptisms, weddings and funerals. Many of these folk get quite upset when the church will not order these services according to the customer’s already-determined demands and purposes. Why? Because, in many cases, the “customer” is a fundamentalist of the neo-pagan variety, who cannot accept that the church has a calling and a duty to resist this new kind of cultural orthodoxy in the name of Christ.

To these modern Gnostics, who ask as the Pharisees did, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus replies, “If you were blind you would not have sin, but now that you say ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” You see, for Christians the point is not to be able to see, but to believe that God sees us, not to claim a certain, unassailable, knowledge or experience of God, but to trust that God knows us. The interesting thing about light, as the writer to the Ephesians notes, is that it exposes and makes visible everything in the world but itself. So if Christ is the light of the world, we can trust him to make visible our own paths through life, including the sin that so easily entangles. But we should not expect to see or experience Christ with any sense of certainty until that day when he is revealed in all his fullness. To stare into the sun is to be blinded. But blindness, for Christians, is not such a big deal. “Faith is the intimation of things not seen,” says the writer to the Hebrews (11.1). And Paul says something similar: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5.7).

The life of faith turns out to be, then, not a full-colour motion picture for those who can see clearly, but a shadow play in which the fully sighted have no significant advantage over those who see not so well. The things of God are hidden in the enigmas of the world, in parables and signs which are difficult to interpret; and pre-eminently in the sufferings of Christ and those who suffer with him and for him by their baptism into his passion. Remember that the ‘healing’ our young man received was soon transmuted into persecution by those who refused to share his growing sense of faith.

So it is for all who are baptised into Christ’s ways. For that is the way of things in a world that prefers the light of the Television and the enlightenment of three-minute-interviews to the dark light of faith, hidden in the career of a suffering God. It is the world in which ministers of the gospel, no matter how hard we try to make ourselves understood, will only rarely be understood—because the people whom we address are blind to the God and gospel to which he is bearing witness. It is a world in which, as for the Jewish leaders in our story, the message of the gospel falls upon deaf ears because of this all-pervasive belief that God and the ways of faith are ours to possess and manipulate for the sake of our own consumer ends. In a world such as this, Christians are called not to know, but to be known, not to see, but to be seen by God, who gazes upon us with a love so wide and long and deep that it surpasses all our imaginings.

We lived in deeply uncertain times. The COVID-19 is only just beginning to bite, but it is being transmitted at an exponential rate consistent with a scenario in which our capacity to respond to all who are sick or dying will be quickly overwhelmed. What we ‘see’ and ‘know’ in this scenario is not at all comforting! Now is the time to actually activate our faith in a God who loves us. To look to Christ for a word of healing. For Christ has indeed promised to heal us, but not in the way a doctor might. The salve Christ offers is far more profound. Indeed, it is salv-ation. Salvation. A medicine that can revive and remake us even if we die. So do not fear. Do not fear even death. For the last enemy is death, and it has been overcome by Christ in his resurrection. Cling to him and you will be saved. Believe in him, and you will share his glory.

All glory be to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as in the beginning, so now, and forevermore.

Prepared for Lent 4 2020 on the First Sunday of the COVID-19 lockdown

Saturday, 11 January 2020

A prayer of confession in the face of ecological catastrophe: for use by settler churches

God of Jesus Christ
we come to you because there is no-where else to turn.
There is a famine in our land, 
a famine with regard to living and telling the truth.

We confess that we invaded this land and enslaved its peoples,
the people who have cared for this country and its waterways 
for thousands upon thousands of years.

We confess that we have wilfully ignored the wisdom of the First Peoples,
wisdom about how to live in this country in a way that honours and preserves all life,
that we have trampled their knowledge underfoot and treated it with contempt.

We confess that we have treated the land itself with contempt,
      and its seas and waterways also.
We have not cared for it as we ought to have done.
Instead we have exploited and raped it to feed our selfish appetites.

Now the land is sick.
It weeps and cries out in pain.
Its plants and animals, the rich tapestry of its eco-systems,
      are burning up for lack of nourishment and care.
And it is our fault.

Teach us, O God, to amend both our lives
      and the political and economic systems in which they are embedded.
Teach us to treasure the First Nations of this land
      and their wisdom about how to live here with respect and sensitivity.
Teach us to treasure the country and waterways on which we depend,
      its cycles and seasons, its plants and animals, its fragile and beautiful ecosystems.
Teach us to call our political leaders to account.
Teach us, O God, to live and tell the truth.

God of Jesus Christ,
We come to you because there is no-where else to turn.
Have mercy on us and free us from our sins.

Offered to the settler churches
by Garry Deverell
a trawloolway man and Anglican priest
from trouwerner (Tasmania, Australia)