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Tuesday 27 April 2021

Abiding in God's love

 Texts: Acts 8. 26-40; Psalm 22.25-31; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15. 1-8

Just now we heard from the reading of Scripture that our love for God is shown and demonstrated in the love we have for our fellow human beings.  John says to us: 

Those who say they love God and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen.  The commandment we have from God is this:  those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Now, while I’m certain that everyone here would want to affirm that with all their hearts, I nevertheless find myself wondering why so many of us in the Christian Church  - including the Prime Minister, apparently - seem not to care particularly for people beyond the circle of our immediate friends and family.  On the one hand, we genuinely believe that our love of God is also a love of neighbour, while on the other we trace an unconscious circle about us, a circle which divides those worthy of being regarded as ‘neighbours’ from those who are not. Despite years of Christian teaching, I suspect that most of us still believe that the ‘brothers and sisters’ the apostle calls us to love are none other than those people with whom we are most comfortable.  Our closest friends and relations.

But the apostle has something rather more expansive in mind. Very early on in the Church's history, when the Christian community was composed entirely of ethnic Jews, it was forced to ask the same question that we are asking this morning, ‘who are our brothers and sisters?’  Luke’s story about Phillip and the Ethiopian official answers that question in a way that radically undermined the Jewish status quo, and threatens to do the same to our own.  We are told that an angel came to Phillip and commanded him to head south from Jerusalem to Gaza.  On the way he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is treasurer for the Queen.  Clearly this man is sympathetic to Jewish faith, and has probably been to Jerusalem to participate in one of the Jewish festivals . . . but there is a problem.  According to the Scribal law of the time, a male person could only become a Jew through circumcision.  But this man was a eunuch, that is, his genitalia had been completely removed, probably as a child in slavery.  So, although he believed in Yahweh and loved the Hebrew Scriptures, and though he clearly desired to be part of the great company of God people, he could not.  The Scribal law had effectively constructed a huge wall in front of people like him, with a sign on the gate which said ‘Keep out, God does not want you’.   

Imagine this man’s joy, then, when Phillip shares a new interpretation of the Jewish faith with him.  Beginning with the Isaiah’s account of a suffering servant who, like the eunuch, was denied the chance of passing on his name to future generations, Phillip spoke of a God who vindicated the servant’s just cause by raising him from the dead so that his name, and his cause, would live forever.  And then Phillip invited the eunuch to become part of God's people, not through circumcision, but through faith in Jesus and the Christian rite of baptism, in which we die to worldly assessments of who we are and what we are worth, and are raised with Christ to the right hand of God!  In the preaching of Philip the man hears about a rather different God, a God who loves and welcomes everyone who believes, no matter what their ethnic or religious heritage (or, indeed, the state of their genitalia!).  And in the background of the story Luke, the theological innovator, is telling his hearers that because God love those outside the circle, so should they.  And so should we.

However . . .  like so many things in life, this is easier said than done. I think it has to be frankly admitted that it is very difficult to move with genuine love and concern beyond our own circle, the circle of our own comfort.  If we have grown up with a particular way of living life, and thinking about the meaning of our lives, it can be very threatening to be exposed to other ways of life, to other ways of thinking.  We feel safe amongst those who know us and understand not only our language, but also our basic assumptions about what is important and what is not.  So much so that when, on the odd occasion, we find ourselves bumping into people who look and speak differently to us, and who clearly have quite another set of values to us, we become quite naturally uncomfortable, or even afraid.  Why? Because the existence and perseverance of these ‘other’ ways, these ‘other’ people, implicitly calls into question our own ways, our own assumptions about life.  As a consequence, our foundations may feel less steady. 

Alongside that, psychologists tell us that in modern life, where we’ve all been seduced into tearing around all the time, we have significantly less energy for engaging with people who are different to us.  We tend to conserve our energy by sticking to interaction with a small, stable group of family and friends.  Rarely do we find the energy to move beyond that circle.  And when we do, the shock of the new is all the more a shock because we are tired, and therefore more vulnerable to having our foundations rocked.  No wonder we stick to what we know.  No wonder we stick to who we know.

For all these reasons and more, I have a great deal of empathy with any who say to me, ‘I haven’t the time or the energy to move beyond my own circle of friends, I haven’t the time or the energy to engage with other ways of worshipping God or thinking about the meaning of my life’.  I understand that.  I know that it is difficult and scary and energy-zapping to do so.  Its like asking people to break out of cocoon, or to leave the safety of our mother’s womb.  Yet . . .  this is precisely what God calls us to do.  God says ‘If your really knew me, if you really had my love down deep inside of you, then you'd want these 'others' to share in that love too.   And you'd be willing to open yourselves to the rich ways in which my life is manifested in their strange and beautiful ways . . .’

Today's lections challenge us to so locate ourselves in this love of God for those beyond the circle, that we absorb God's own compassionate drive, and own it for ourselves.  There is an interesting interplay in the passages from gospel and epistle between the language of abiding in God and the language of being sent beyond the circle to ‘bear much fruit’.  The love of God is described as a love which is not self-interested or self-directed.  Rather, it is the kind of love which looks upon the other, the world of people and their sins, with compassion.  The Father sends the Son into the world to be its saviour.  Yet even there, in the mist of the smeared, bleared world of darkness, betrayal and death, even in this place so very far beyond the circle of God's presence and power, the Son yet continues to abide with the Father, and teaches his people to abide with the Father as well.  How marvellous!  Here John is teaching us that abiding in God's love is not about locking yourself in a safe place and feeling the warmth, but actually taking that safe place with you beyond the circle, into the land of the 'other' which is not safe.  

The image of the vine and the branches is instructive.  The branches of a vine can grow a very long way from their source.  They are ‘sent out’ from the source in order to be fruitful, and they cannot be fruitful unless they are sent.  Yet even in their great distance from the vine, in the act of bearing fruit, they are nevertheless connected with the vine in a vital way.  Without this connection, they will die, they will bear no fruit.  So it is with us.  God sends us out beyond the circle to bear the fruit of love and justice in a world which has ceased to believe that these are possible.  It is not safe outside the circle.  Yet it is safe.  Safe because we carry the love of God with us, and the perfect love of God is powerful.  Powerful enough to cast the fear from our hearts and disarm our enemies.  It is the power of the resurrection, which is stronger even than death.

So let us examine our lives.  Are we able to go out from the comfort and safety of our own circle of friends, and our own ways of making meaning, into the alien territory of those who need God's love most of all?  Are we able to befriend the person from a different ethnic group, with a view of the world which is harsher and less privileged than ours?  How deep is our faith?  How much do we trust in the abiding love of God - a love which promises to hold us in life, even in the midst of alien terrain?  While it is absolutely true that God ask us to do an impossible thing, God seems not to be as troubled as we are by impossibilities.  God has promised that if we stay connected to him, then he will give us the power we need to do that impossible thing.  I am certain that if we abide with God in prayer, and in the reading of the Scriptures, and in the faith and communion of the church, then we will find that God also abides with us as we risk moving out from our comfort-zones into more difficult territory.  I hope this is a lesson the Prime Minister is able to learn as well.

It is appropriate, I think, that in this age of compassion-fatigue and economic rationalism that John the Elder should have the last word:  ‘Little children, let us love not in word or speech alone, but in truth and action’.

Garry Deverell
Easter 5

Scott Morrison and speaking publicly about, and from, faith

This week the news cycle has been all aflutter about the Prime Minister speaking publicly about his faith. Some commentators have concentrated on the content of what he said and made a variety of judgments about that. Many more have expressed dismay that a Prime Minister would talk publicly about his faith in a secular country. Afterall, faith is a private matter and should be kept entirely out of the public realm of policy and the governing of the nation. Or so the argument goes.

I will not be commenting, today, on the content of what Mr Morrison said. Others far more competent that I have made some very important observations about that. Rather, I should like to contest the notion (again) that a government figure should keep their faith and their politics entirely separate.

First, there is nothing in the legal apparatus of this nation that requires a person in office to remain silent about matters of faith. The jurisprudential principle about the separation of church and state simply prohibits any particular religious group being given a structural place in government. It prohibits, in other words, the establishment of a state church which, as a church, is able to review government policy from within the parliament. The principle does not prohibit individual members of parliament, even of government, speaking about and from their faith on matters of public policy and discussion.

A second point is theological, rather than jurisprudential, in nature. The Christian is called not to separate but to integrate their faith and their public presence, work or office. For every Christian is responsible to make sure that the ethical values at the heart of Christ’s kingdom are made incarnate is how we live and work, in all that we do and say. That's the meaning of this line in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven.’

Now, of course, we should never bully or bash our way into making others believe, or live their lives, as we do. For such bullying and bashing would be a repudiation of Christ’s call to love. But we are called to bear witness, in word and deed, that we belong to Christ and really believe that the human community would flourish more beautifully and fruitfully if it paid heed to Christ’s teaching. That call is ours whether we are clergy or laity, politician or cleaner, teacher or accountant. For the citizenship of heaven requires us also to work and to agitate for justice, peace and compassionate governance here in the world of flesh and blood and community.

All of which is to say that whilst I don't agree with Scott Morrison on much at all, I applaud his willingness to integrate faith and work. In that, if on nothing else, he is being genuinely and authentically Christian.
Garry Deverell
April 24, 2021

Friday 9 April 2021

On Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann's 'Dadirri'

Colonisation is not only about the annexation of land and the removal of those who live on it. It is also about the annexation and repurposing of imagination and thought. The ‘white possessive’ (a term from Aileen Moreton-Robinson) wants to own the brains and hearts of Indigenous peoples, as well as our territories and bodies. That is why the ‘welcome’ offered to Indigenous people into white institutions, especially institutions of learning, is deeply conditional. ‘You are welcome’ means ‘You are welcome so long as you submit to our (white) knowledges, our (white) epistemologies and our (white) ontologies’. Resisting the terms of that conditional welcome is fraught with difficulty because it is offered by the dominant, controlling, culture. It is a welcome backed not only institutional power, but also by the dominating imagination that animates that power. In this context, when a white teacher says ‘listen to me’, the invitation comes with a number of unspoken corollaries: ‘ . . . because I know the objective truth . . . because your truth is inadequate to the real (white) world you must face . . . because your survival as a worthwhile contributor to (white) society depends upon your listening . . .’ and so on.

Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann’s invitation to come listen (‘dadirri’) to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is therefore deeply radical. She is not inviting (white) people into a lovely, wafty, spiritual experience with ‘nature’, for example, the kind of experience that you can also get from a (white) Buddhism that is deeply compatible with, and supportive of, (white) middle-class suburban life. She is inviting (white) people to question and relativise the very foundations of the white possessive, including its imaginative power, its epistemologies and ontologies. What Miriam-Rose means by ‘dadirri’ is a deep and sustained process of conversion, of learning and unlearning: a learning about Indigenous practices of ethical relationality with the ancestor-creators who formed the earth, with country and waterway, with animals and plants, and finally with other people; and, with that, a subsequent unlearning of (white) practises that ignore and even abuse these deeply beloved kin. 

Conversion like this will certainly never happen if Indigenous knowledges and practises continue to be seen as interesting but marginal, pretty and decorative, like a dot painting on the wall of a suburban home that is otherwise entirely european in style. Conversion only comes, I believe, when the stability and apparent ‘success’ of a particular paradigm starts to come undone. I suppose I hope that the ecological emergency that is slowly starting to penetrate (white) Western consciousness, along with the collapse and imminent implosion of (white) churchly structures and their supporting theologies, may eventually create the kind of crisis in which Christian people will eventually turn to what the world’s oldest living cultures might have to say.

Insofar as the Christian faith can be an ally in that learning and unlearning, Miriam-Rose, myself, and many others are happy to be Christian. But the Christian faith we embrace will be necessarily different from the dominant (white) ways of being Christian. Our faith remembers that Christianity arose in a colonial setting as a protest against the excesses of the Roman empire and against the Jewish leaders who collaborated with empire in their oppression of ordinary people. Our faith remembers that Jesus was a keen observer of the processes and cycles of local ecosystems, and that he counselled his hearers to attend to the lessons he observed there in the parables. Our faith remembers that Jesus blurred the difference between bread and his body, wine and his blood, all these things being, for him, a dying and a mourning by which life and joy is given anew, as much in country and ecosystem as in human community. Our faith remembers that Jesus was concerned, most of all, with the last and the least, the forgotten victims of oppressive structures and regimes. In him we see ourselves, and we hear in his message the voice of our ancestor-creators who say that life is not yet spent, that there is hope yet for a better tomorrow.

With thanks to Prof Dorothy Lee who prompted me to write something about this.
Garry Deverell