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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Becoming Christ Together


Texts:  Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 78. 1-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

Last week the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania met at La Trobe University in Bundoora.  The Synod is a regular gathering of representatives from Uniting Church presbyteries, schools, hospitals, missions and other agencies from right across Victoria and Tasmania.  According to the regulations of the Uniting Church, the Synod is responsible for overseeing the mission of the church in presbyteries, colleges, agencies and schools.  It is also responsible for the selection and training of ministerial candidates and the management of church property and finances within its bounds.  Over the course of last week, then, the Synod gathered to listen to reports and to make decisions about all these matters.

There is a permanent temptation in a church like ours to make decisions as though we were the Labour Party.  Increasingly, the church is organising itself into factions— ‘liberals’, ‘progressives’, ‘neo-orthodox’, ‘evangelicals’—and strong groups have formed to actively lobby the councils of the church on a range of issues.  The most organised groups are the ‘Reforming Alliance’ and ‘The Progressive Christian Movement’ but there are others.  In my opinion, the church climate has become so factionalised, that it is now almost impossible to turn up to a Synod or Presbytery meeting to participate, simply, as a Christian and member of the Uniting Church who wants to discern the will of Christ in company with others.  For now you will find yourself pigeon-holed before you even get there.  Several times in the years since I began attending the church’s councils I have seen people assume that I will support or oppose such and such a proposal because I belong to a group that it variously called ‘the theological fascists’ or the ‘intellectual mafia’.  No such group exists, as far as I can tell, and if it does, I’ve never been invited to one of its meetings!  But the very fact that a person can be so easily dismissed represents a very troubling tendency in the church, a trend in which people decide not to listen to other people on the basis of a whole lot of convenient assumptions about what those other people are likely to believe or do, assumptions that function only to reinforce the ill-conceived prejudice of one’s own position.  It is the kind of thing that has, frankly, made me very wary of attending the church’s councils at all.

Now, one only has to read the New Testament to discover that this situation is not a new one for the church to find itself in.  The church has apparently been sinning in this way since the beginning!  The letter of Paul to the Philippians is a case in point.  Why would Paul need to exhort the Philippians to be ‘of one mind and heart, in full accord’ unless that were not the case?  The church at Philippi was clearly as factionalised as the Uniting Church is today.  The solution Paul offers for this disunity is not, however, the one that we are most often encouraged to adopt in both church and society.  It is not the solution of so-called ‘tolerance’, where each party simply accepts (or assumes) that the other can never agree with me, and should therefore be smilingly gazed at across a great distance.  For tolerance assumes that neither party will change.  Neither, of course, does Paul recommend the George Bush kind of solution, that is, ‘I want them to agree with me so I’ll use my bigger stick to beat them into submission’.  No.  No way.

What Paul recommends is what I, also, would recommend to my church this morning.  That the way to a unity of mind and purpose in the church has nothing to do with what you desire or what I desire, but with what God desires.  Listen to what Paul says:
Let the same mind be in your community as was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was God did not consider equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself instead, taking the form of a slave and being found in human likeness.  In that way he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
I could talk about the meanings of this passage all day, but for now I would like you to note two things only.  First, that Paul offers up Jesus as a model for what and how we should desire as a church.  What we should desire is not our own vision of the world, but God’s vision of the world.  And how we should desire it is by emptying ourselves of our own desire.  Emptying ourselves.  It sounds Buddhist to many modern ears, but it is not.  In Buddhism you empty yourself of desire in order to desire either nothing at all, or, as Slavoj Zizek has convincingly argued, to allow your powerful neighbour to make use of you for their own manipulative purposes.  In Christianity, by contrast, our desires are put aside in order to make room for the desire of God, who is pure and unadulterated love.

The second thing I would have you note is a consequence of the first.  That unity of heart and mind in the Christian community can never be achieved apart from a serious and widespread willingness to listen and look for the desire of God in the story of Jesus of Nazareth.  It sounds obvious when you put it like that, doesn’t it?  But the point is far from obvious to so many of our church councils.  In part this is so because of sheer laziness and inertia.  Many of us know and believe that the contemplation of Christ’s story is the beginning of everything that has any consequence, that we can never hope to act in the world as God would act unless we contemplate Christ’s story with regularity and devotion.  Yet many of us also crowd out this devotion by our devotion to other things.  Thus, Christ’s way and will has not had opportunity to sink its roots deep down into our hearts.  So much so, that when we come to the point of meeting in community to discern the mind of Christ, we rarely know enough of Christ to make genuinely Christian decisions! But inertia and laziness is not the whole story.  The other reason why we are not inclined to contemplate Christ’s story as the source of our knowledge of God is because most of us (whether ‘liberals’ or ‘evangelicals’) have been formed by the culture of ‘modernity’, a culture in which the point of religious faith is certainly not to conform ourselves to the will of God revealed in Christ, but rather to make God’s ways ‘fit’ our own ways, to assume that God must make sense according to what we already think we know about how the world works.  I am glad that this culture is crumbling, but its influence is still very powerful in the church.  A church that wants God to fit its own agenda is unlikely, it seems to me, to spend a great deal of time contemplating the life of Christ.

So what’s to be done?  If Christian unity, a oneness of heart and mind, is a consequence of this contemplatio Christi alone, then clearly we should spend more time doing that, and at the most fundamental levels of the church.  We should encourage one another to read the Scriptures and believe in them.  We should meet together, in pairs and groups, to discuss the Scriptures and to wait upon the Spirit of Christ in prayer.  We should put aside the novels, the magazines, the sociology and the television for a bit, and read a bit of Christian theology.  We should put aside even the works of goodness and charity for a while each week.  Not because Christ is not present and active in all of these things, but because we shall not be able to recognise how Christ works through all the business of life unless we get to know him in the shape of our gospel tradition.  The point of the Christian love of neighbour, you see, is not to become a doormat for someone else’s desire.  It is not to serve the other slavishly, at the expense of one’s own desire alone.  It is, rather, to serve God first.  To recognise that what is best for my neighbour is what God desires for them.  Which, in turn, requires that both of us, if we are Christian, contemplate the word of God in Christ together.  Only then shall we be able to serve each other truly.

This is true not only for Synods and Assemblies, but also for congregations and small faith communities.  I leave these thoughts with you for your consideration.  Test what I say against the story of Christ, and if I am wrong, please tell me.  Because I too, would rather do Christ’s will than my own.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The paradox of forgiveness


Text: Matthew 18.21-35

On August 22 in 2005 an extraordinary liturgy of forgiveness was enacted in the English city of Coventry and the German city of Dresden.  The English ceremony took place at Coventry Cathedral which, on the 14th of November 1940, was destroyed by German bombs.  The German ceremony took place at the newly restored Frauenkirche, which was destroyed by English bombs on the 13th of February 1945.  At each of the ceremonies English and German worshippers asked for, and received, the forgiveness of both God and each other for the blindness which led to their mutual destruction of each other in the 2nd World War.  Of course, as we learn from today’s gospel, true forgiveness cannot be granted without an acknowledgment of real guilt, so the liturgies did not shy away from naming that guilt.  The bombing of Coventry was part of a campaign to steal away the freedom of the English people.  It was explicitly designed to kill people—women, men and children—and so to cower them into submission and surrender.  The Dresden bombing took place when the war was all but over.  It is widely acknowledged that there was not even a strategic military reason for the bombing.  The German military machine has already broken down.  The bombing, which levelled Dresden and killed 40 000 people, was ordered simply to kill as many German civilians as possible.  It was extremely humbling to be in Dresden on August 13th of 2005 to hear a local Roman Catholic priest tell us, with tears, how much it meant to him, and to the people of Dresden, that my colleagues and I should come to Dresden to reflect with them on the forgiveness at the heart of our shared gospel.

The crimes committed in the 2nd World War were, you see, not only crimes committed by one group of human beings against another.  They were also crimes committed by one group of Christians against another.  Many of the soldiers and pilots involved in the conflict were Christians—Anglicans, Lutheran, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed and Roman Catholic—Christians who were killing each other in the name of tribal sovereignty.   What the Second World War highlighted, graphically and tragically, was not only the inhumanity of men and women towards other men and women, but also the lack of true reconciliation at the heart of European Christianity. 

In turning to today’s gospel reading, I’d like you to note two things.  First, that Peter’s question about forgiveness is not occasioned by the misdeeds of someone beyond the community of faith.  Peter asks how many times he is called to forgive a member of his own church.  “Seventy-times-seven” times, says Jesus, or, if I may translate, as many times as is necessary for the sake of reconciliation.  For what is the church if not a reconciled community, a community that is able to live at peace with itself in spite of all the sins of its members?  What is the church if its members cannot forgive each other as Christ has forgiven them?  If the church cannot do this, then it is not the church.  It is nothing more than a sociological or political reality where birds of a feather flock together.  If a church’s members cannot live with each others differences and forgive each other’s sins, then we are nothing more than social clubs, gathered around the very tribalisms of race, class or gender that Christ came to overcome. 

People sometimes ask me why I am still part of the church.  The people who ask are usually those who have been wounded by the church, people who feel that the church has let them down or, at least, undervalued what they had to contribute.  My reply usually goes something like this:  the scandal of the gospel is that Christ, who had no sin, yet became sin for our sake.  He took on the flesh of people who hate and kill each other.  By doing so, he loved and accepted our fragile humanity.  He forgave our sins and made reconciliation possible.  Who am I, then, to pretend that I am somehow superior to anyone else in the church?  The church can only exist by forgiveness.  How can I, who have been forgiven my sins by both Christ and my sisters and brothers, refuse to forgive the church?  I cannot.

Which brings me to the second thing I would like you to notice about today’s gospel passage: that forgiveness is only possible for people who are willing to forgive.  That’s the point of the story about the forgiven slave who cannot forgive his brother, is it not?  Although the king, out of sheer mercy, had forgiven his unpayable debt, the slave was not able to do the same for a brother who owed him something.  So the king threw the unmerciful slave into prison.  Now, some of you, I know, will think this very harsh.  Perhaps some of you will even get a little theological and say that this story encourages a gospel of works because what it says, in the end, is that it is our capacity to forgive that ultimately earns God’s forgiveness.  Well, to that I would reply in the classically reformed way:  that our capacity to forgive another does not earn God’s forgiveness, but rather shows that we are people who have truly experienced the power and truth of forgiveness ourselves.  Only the person who knows that they can never repay the debt owed to God, only the person who knows themselves to be loved and forgiven it all, would possibly be able to forgive the crimes of his or her brother.  If we do not know this, perhaps we have never experienced the true power of forgiveness?

At a human rights conference in 1997, in the midst of lots of grand speeches about the call to justice, I met a man named Retosa.  At lunch one day, I asked him where he was from, and what he did all day.  His reply showed me what forgiveness really looks like, in practice.  Restosa was from Liberia, and what he did all day was this:  gathering families who had killed each other’s children during the civil war together in a room to confess their sins and learn to forgive one another.  “Only the person who knows the depth of their sin, and the amazing liberation of God’s forgiveness, could possibly forgive such crimes from the heart” said Retosa.  Perhaps that is why this extraordinary work is being undertaken by a Christian pastor rather than a social worker.

Allow me to summarise what we have noticed in this way.  (1) That the church is called to be a community of forgiveness.  (2) That our capacity to be that is directly related to the extent to which our sins, which are many, are forgiven in Christ.  And this finally:  (3) that Christ’s forgiveness comes alive in the world only where the church becomes the body of Christ precisely by its willingness to live in the unity of forgiven sinners.  For that, my friends, is what all that talk in Matthew about binding and loosing is all about (see 18.18-20).  Christ will only do in the world what his church is willing to do.  For we are his body, in whom the Spirit of Christ faces this world.  What we do or do not do is what Christ himself does.  Such is Christ’s vulnerability.  Such, then, is our responsibility.  The paradox of forgiveness is this, then:  that we are forgiven only insofar as the truth of forgiveness has so penetrated our hearts that we are able to see others, also, in the mercy of Christ’s grace.  May God help us to forgive, and keep on forgiving, as God has forgiven us.

Let me finish with a prayer, the litany of reconciliation from Coventry Cathedral:

 ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
Father forgive.
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
Father forgive.
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Father forgive.
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Father forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
Father forgive.
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
Father forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Father forgive.
‘Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Rituals of Faith

Texts: Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20

Today I want to talk to you about the importance of ritual.   Now that might sound strange coming from the mouth of a Protestant minister.  One of the concerns which Protestants have always had with the Catholic and Orthodox churches is that they have been ritualistic churches – concerned too much with ceremony and ritual, and not enough with living out the faith in more practical ways.  But I have come to believe that many Protestant churches have made a great mistake in trying to do away with rituals.  Because rituals perform a very important function for all of us. They help us to celebrate, to mourn, to remember, and to move on in life.  In short, they help us to grow up and grow wise in our faith.
Today’s reading from Exodus underlines the importance to Jewish people of a particular ritual known as the ‘Passover’.  All over the world, Jewish people celebrate this ritual together on the 14th of Nisan, which falls within the first few weeks of April by our calendar.  Here the family gathers to share a meal of lamb, unleavened bread, wine, and bitter herbs.  Words are said over the meal, and prayers are said, which remind the people that they are loved by God, who liberated them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to a land of abundance in Israel.  According to the Exodus passage, the Passover ritual was instituted by God’s own command to Moses.  On the night of their liberation, the people of Israel were told to gather in their households and cook a lamb without blemish or defect.  They were to eat this lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, in readiness for the flight from Pharaoh to freedom.  They were to eat the meal with their travel clothing on, and their bags packed.  And they were to spread the blood of the slaughtered lamb on the doorposts of their houses, so that when the Lord came to kill the gods of Egypt, he would pass by that house.  Today when Jews eat their Passover meal, they do so with a great sense of thankfulness for the mercy of God.  The slaughtered lamb is understood to symbolise an offering for Israel’s sin.  The herbs remind them of their terrible suffering under the Pharaoh.  The unleavened bread is a reminder of their haste in departing.  And the wine represents the blood by which God spared their lives, even as judgement was visited on the strongest in the oppressor nation.

For Jews, the eating of a Passover meal is essential to their faith.  It is a ritual by which they both remember their liberation and express the hope that an even more wonderful liberation might be theirs in the future of God.  For Jews, the Passover is a ritual which tells a story, the story of a people and their faith.  But it is also the story of each life captivated by that story.  In the celebration of the Passover, individual worshippers come to see how it is that God has wrought mercy and rescue in their own lives.  And they are called and empowered to live out that liberation within the concrete facts of their own bodies and relationships.  By participating in the Passover rituals, individual worshippers learn how to leave the slavery of Egypt behind and enter into the journey towards life and hope in the ‘Land of Promise’.

Christian rituals function in exactly the same way.  The Christian equivalent to the Passover meal is the Easter Vigil – which happens during the night before Easter dawn.  Here the Christian community gathers around a fire outside a darkened church.  The Easter candle is lit as a sign of the promise that Christ shall be raised, and the community follows that light into the darkened church, where is placed in the centre of the sanctuary.  In the liturgy which follows, the whole story of God’s salvation is told through a series of readings from the Scriptures, beginning with the creation in Genesis and ending with the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.  As the story unfolds candles are lit, one by one, to bring joy and a future into the lives of all present.  The church grows brighter, the shadows retreat, and hearts grow warm with hope.  Then, at the very moment when the crucified Jesus is acclaimed as the Risen One, those who have been preparing for baptism come forward.  You see, the season known as Lent, the forty days that proceed Easter, was originally designed to teach baptismal candidates about the way of Jesus Christ, and to encourage them in the solemn vows that they would be making at their Easter baptism.  Now, in the midst of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, those vows are made.  Having heard the whole history of God’s salvation, each candidate now owns that story for themselves.  They are ritually submerged in the water of the red sea and of the Jordan, and emerge to their inheritance in a land filled with milk and honey, the ‘promised land’ of God.  They are crucified with Christ and buried in the tomb, and then raised to life with Christ.  They put off the clothing of their old allegiances and ways of life, and are clothed anew with Christ himself, the garment of their salvation.  In the joy of that moment, the whole community reaffirms its baptismal vows, and shares in the Eucharistic supper, thus taking to itself, once more, the Christ who lived, and died, and lives for ever to pray for our release from slavery.

In the Great Vigil of Easter, Christian worshippers are reminded of who they are, and to whom they belong.  There they experience a renewed call from the Spirit to live after the way of the crucified and risen Christ, to follow his way in the concrete relations of their daily lives.  The Great Vigil is Christianity’s most powerful ritual, because it tells the story in full that other rituals tell only in part: the story of God’s transformative love, in Christ, for all the world.  It is there to transform our lives and renew us in the faith of Christ.  What a shame, then, that while the service is in our own Uniting Church worship book, that so few actually do it!

When Paul talks, in the reading from Romans, about clothing ourselves with Christ in readiness for the day of our salvation, he is recalling the experience of baptism, and inviting us to live out of that ritual in an imaginative engagement with the everyday.  Here Paul asks us to imagine that we are awake in those moments of darkness before the dawn arrives, those moments of stillness and anticipation when the night has not yet passed, but the day is at hand.  We are invited to take the opportunity afforded by that quietness to reflect on a particular question:  how may I be ready to live the day which is coming for all its worth?  How may I cast off the deeds of darkness and embrace the light that is in Christ?  Paul suggests to us that we live in a time where there is no time to waste.  We are called to stop living for ourselves, and start living for God.  Can you see the potential for powerful, transformative, ritual in the association Paul draws between salvation and the coming of the dawn?  Each dawn signals the arrival of new possibilities.  Could we not use the newness of each dawning day to renew ourselves in the vows we have made to Christ?  Could we not, as we put on our clothes in the morning, immerse ourselves in a prayer of recommitment?

I know of no-one who seizes these possibilities for ritual more fully and enthusiastically than the monks of St. Benedict.  They rise before the dawn and put on the simple habit of Christ’s poverty.  Then they gather to chant the Psalms, and to invite the Lord to weave his salvation into the simple but demanding work of their day.  I aspire to be a monk too, albeit one who has chosen to live in the midst of this messy and complicated world.  I want to be one who weaves daily, weekly, and seasonal rituals to remind me of who I am in Christ, and what I am called to be in Christ.  I want to be one who remembers the story of faith each day, and makes that story my own.  I want to be one who daily finds ways to embrace the transformative power of the deepest ritual of all:  the ritual of dying with Christ, that I might be reborn to his love.

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus says ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’.  What did he mean?  Well, amongst other things, he wanted us to know that rituals change things, that rituals change people’s lives.  For rituals are vows.  They are a binding of earth to heaven so that the Son of God may become flesh amongst us and carry us home to God in his risen power. 

In these days of terror and war, our secular society needs the rituals of faith more, perhaps, than ever before.  How is one to make sense of what is happening unless one is able to place it within the framework of suffering, slavery, and the longing for justice expressed so powerfully in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions?  If September 11 is able to teach us nothing else, I hope it will teach us that there is no such thing as a ritual-free space.  What our secularized political leaders still do not grasp is this:  that the attacks on New York and Washington were driven by a sense of the religious and of ritual, albeit a perverted form of the same.  In that perspective, the question the world ought to be asking, ten years on, is not “How do we capture, kill or lock up the terrorists so that they can’t do it again?” but “How do we successfully undo the power of this ritual, so that the desire to do it all again is displaced into something more life-affirming?”   Why did Bush and Blair bomb Iraq back into the stone-age?  Because they asked the first question rather than the second.  They didn’t understand that to take that course of action would achieve nothing by way of a real solution.  It is clear now, is it not, that the campaign against Iraq played right into the evil ritual’s logic, absorbed into that story as a demonic event by which the desire for revenge against the West would be multiplied a hundredfold.  

Let me suggest to you that the only effective way to confront such rituals is to enter deeply into the human roots from which they spring, to know the pain and darkness of that people’s experience, and then to gather it all up into the weaving of a more redeeming ritual, a ritual that has the power to transform darkness into light, and pain into praise.  The Easter Vigil (along with the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist from which it springs) does exactly that: teaching, explicitly, that the logic of ‘an eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth’ must come to its termination in us, within the dying of our sin-saturated selves, if there is ever to be a real basis for justice and peace.   My earnest prayer is that the ritual practice of this power-in-powerlessness would spread even into the corridors of the Whitehouse, and of the Israeli Parliament, and of Hamas and the Taliban, so that their inhabitants may learn the way of peace by which the world may be transformed in love.