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Sunday, September 30, 2012

God's Other Children

Texts:  Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22; Psalm 124; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50

The Book of Esther  comes to us from a time when Jewish people were doing some serious rethinking about who they were and what God wanted them to do and be amongst the nations of the world.  Although the story is set in the Persian city of Susa at the height of that Empire’s power in the 470s and 460s BC, we believe it was written much later than that, probably during the reign in Palestine of the Priestly dynasty known as the Hasmoneans, between 150 and 100 BC.  This period was characterised by intense debate in Jewish circles about exactly how much a Jew might accept and adopt the cultural values and practices of their non-Jewish neighbours.  By this time, you see, most Jews no longer lived in Jerusalem or even Palestine.  As a result of the policies of three successive colonial masters – the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks – Jews had by this time become citizens not just of a small patch of land in Palestine, but of a whole Empire which stretched from Iran in the East to Greece in the West.  The most recent of their colonial masters, the Greeks, had been particularly effective in convincing Jewish people that it was not such a bad thing to participate in the politics, the religion, and the cultural life of non-Jews in general, and Greeks in particular.  But when a particular Greek King, a chap named Antiochus Epiphanes, pushed the policy a little to far by setting up an image of the Olympian god Zeus in the Temple at Jerusalem, he quickly discovered that there was a definite limit to Jewish multiculturalism.  The Palestinian Jews rebelled rather spectacularly, driving the Greeks out and setting up a rather puritanical dynasty of priest-kings in their stead.  The new rulers, the Hasmoneans, tried to turn Palestinian Jews back toward a more separatist policy.  They insisted upon a more literal approach to both the Torah, the Mosaic law, and the ritual life surrounding the Temple cult.  But while their reforms were embraced with single-minded fervour in Jerusalem itself, the wider Jewish community, now dispersed throughout the entire Near East, was at odds with itself as to the wisdom of this approach.

The book of Esther emerges out of the midst of this debate, and succeeds in throwing out some challenges to both sides of the controversy.  Where some Jews were very liberal with regard to the prevailing culture, arguing that it was quite o.k. to speak Greek, to observe Greek culture and customs, and even to adopt certain of the Greek’s religious beliefs and practices, the Book of Esther declares that there is a definite limit to such a strategy.  At its centre are two heroic Jewish characters who distinguish themselves by refusing to be so easily assimilated.  Mordecai and Esther are prepared to put their lives on the line in order to preserve their people, a people described in the book as being ‘different from other people, having their own laws, and not keeping the laws of the king’ (3.8). Indeed, Mordecai first gets into trouble when he refuses to bow before Haman, the king’s governor in Susa.

Now, as modern readers you may puzzle at this refusal.  What could possibly be wrong with honouring the land’s highest official?  At this stage in the story we have no evidence that Haman is a cruel or unethical man, or a despot.  So why will Mordecai not honour him?  The most likely answer has to do with that which the writers of Esther believe Jews ought never to compromise, and that is their monotheism, their belief in Yahweh as the one and only true God.  During the reigns of both Persian and Greek emperors, the king was usually regarded as one who shared in the divine nature of the gods themselves.  The obedience they commanded was therefore tinged with a religious as well as a political character.  To honour the king was also to worship him as a divine being, which monotheistic Jews would find difficult to do in any circumstance.  Mordecai’s refusal is therefore a religious refusal.  He will not bow down to the king’s representative because, from where he stands, this would be tantamount to worship.  In the narrative of Esther, Mordecai’s refusal becomes a distinguishing mark of Jewish identity.  For when Haman secures the king’s approval to an edict which will wipe out Jewish communities all over the empire, he does so by arguing that all Jewish people are like Mordecai – a people who are not to be tolerated because they will not obey the king (3.8).

This represents a loud and clear clarion-call to all those Jews of the ancient world who were compromising the faith of their ancestors by participating in Greek worship and religious devotion.  And who can doubt that this was actually happening?  A few years before this, in the ancient Israelite capital of Samaria, the Jewish priests had actually asked their Greek overlords to set up a shrine to Zeus in their temple.  Clearly these priests had completely absorbed the Greek idea that Zeus, the chief of the gods, had different faces and names in different cultures, so that it didn’t really matter whether you called him Zeus or Yahweh, as long as you worshipped him.  Indeed, this idea had recently gained a foothold in Jerusalem itself.  Several years before he set up the shrine to Zeus in the temple, Antiochus Epiphanes had sanctioned the construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem, to which many of the leading citizens subscribed.  Unlike modern gymnasiums, Greek gymnasiums were institutes for the propagation of Greek culture and religion.  In order to become a member, you had to declare your allegiance to that particular gymnasium’s patron god.  These are the kinds of practices which the writers of Esther are wanting to target.  As far as they are concerned, Jewish identity stands or falls on its belief that only Yahweh is God, that only Yahweh may be worshipped as God.

And there is a challenge for us in this as well.  We live in a world which, in many ways, is very similar to that of the Ancient Persian and Greek Empires.  We live in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society where particular ethnic and religious heritages are constantly bumping into each other.  Now, if you believe the official rhetoric, all are tolerated.  Each of us are free to worship our own God, in our own way.   But underneath it all, I put it to you that only one God is being given special treatment, one God is being subtly pushed into our hearts and minds as more worthy of our devotion than any other.  And that God is not Zeus, as with the ancient Greeks, but Mammon.  It is Money, with a capital M.  Money is present everywhere.  Temples to Money are being built right across the land.  Huge shopping centres whose architecture resembles that of the temples and cathedrals of the ancient world.  The television beams the gospel of money into our living rooms night after night.  The gospel which says that you are free to do whatever you like, but you are not free from the need to have money, and as much of it as you can.  And here is that message’s stroke of genius, the spin that takes us all in:  ‘you all need money’ it says, ‘because without money you can never be free to do what you want’.

None of this means, however, that we should never participate in the society in which we find ourselves.  Against those who would urge us to ‘come out and be separate’, touching no unclean thing in case we are somehow poisoned, the book of Esther encourages us to live in the midst of our multi-cultural and multi-religious society with integrity and poise.  Note that both Mordecai and Esther are more than happy to participate in the government of Persia.  They are happy to assume positions of responsibility, and to further the good of the king with loyalty.  Remember that Esther becomes the Queen because of Mordecai’s good counsel, and that Mordecai becomes a prominent governor because of his willingness to alert the king to a plot against his life.  All of this shows us that it is possible for Christians to participate in, and even serve a society which we do not control, so long as we are not thereby persuaded to give away what is essential to our identity as Christians.

Mark’s gospel counsels us to a very similar understanding.  There the disciples are counselled to accept the action of another group of healers and exorcists, who are doing similar work to themselves and even using Jesus’ good name to accomplish it.  Now, this other group was probably Jewish, and it probably used Jesus’ name because it believed that Jesus was an important Rabbi whose authority was effective in the confrontation of evil.  In other words, they were probably like modern Jews, Muslims or Mahayana Buddhists, who believe that Jesus is an important prophet of God whose teaching and authority is to be respected - yet who do not believe, as we do, that Jesus is somehow pre-eminent, the ‘Son of God’.  “Whoever is not against us is for us”, Jesus tells his disciples, which means that we ought to be happy to work with anyone and everyone who shares our own, Christian, goals for society, even if these folk do not own the name of Christ in the same way as we do.

At the same time, and echoing the Book of Esther’s word of caution, Mark counsels Christians against sharing in whatever practices or allegiances would take us away from our essential identity in Christ.
If your hand causes you to stumble, then cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to gehenna, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.  It is better to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into gehenna.  And if your eye cause you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into gehenna, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.
There are some things that, for Christians, are unacceptable, and these have to do with our ultimate allegiance to Christ.  We are free in Christ, we are not free apart from Christ.  That means that we are not free to exchange the worship and following of Jesus for that of another god – like mammon, for example.  We are not free to participate in practices which will cause other people to fall into sin, to lose their way on the path towards God.  We are not free to pretend we are not Christians, and that Christ is only our Lord on certain days of the week, but not on others.

Each of us are called to ‘have salt in ourselves’, that is, to keep ourselves fresh in Christian identity and service.  But we are also called to ‘be at peace with one another’, to work with others (no matter what their beliefs or allegiances) in bringing the kingdom values of peace with justice to fruition in our communities.  Sometimes this is impossible, because the people who rule do not share our values in any way.  But, in the meantime, I would encourage you to read the book of Esther and find encouragement for a wise discipleship in this very multi-religious and multi-ethnic society in which we currently live and move and have our being.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wisdom for a time of madness

Proverbs 1.20-33; Psalm 19; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38

We live in difficult and disorienting times. Sometimes I wonder if the world is going mad. Sometimes I wonder if I am the one who is going mad. What about you? One definition of madness is this: ‘a fundamental breakdown in the capacity to distinguish between what is real and what is not’. So how do you distinguish between the real and the not-so-real? And, more particularly for our purposes this morning, how should the Christian church go about discerning the real from the unreal?

Some of you may be thinking that to ask this question is either silly or just plain redundant. You may feel secure in your capacity to know what the truth actually looks and feels like. But tell me this: when our government told the Australian community that a group of refugees had threatened to throw their children overboard unless they were received into Australia, did you know you were being lied to? Or when Colin Powell assured the United Nations that Saddam Hussein possessed huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that he planned to use against the West, did you know that he had been lied to? Or, to pick a very live issue in our community at present, when Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten assure us that stopping the boats saves lives, how do you know that they are right, or that they are wrong?

Let me suggest, ever so tentatively, that many of us decide who is right and who is wrong before the fact. And that even after the ‘facts’ have come to light, that we conveniently change the ‘facts’ to suit ourselves. In at least two of the three instances just cited, reality was manipulated by powerful people for their own ends. They told us lies because the truth would have undermined their stated policy positions, their fundamental beliefs about how the world works, about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I suspect that this will be the case with the policy on stopping the boats as well. But, in all honesty, I do not yet know if I am right about that or not.

‘Time will tell us the truth’. That is what we say to ourselves. That is how we reassure ourselves when reality seems difficult to grasp. But will it? Will time, or the accumulation of evidence, ever convince some of us that our democratic, transparent form of government is not very honest or transparent? Large sections of the Australian community still trust what our governments tells us, despite everything: the children overboard affair, the weapons of mass destruction debacle, the reasons we were given for sending troops into Afghanistan. Large sections of the Australian community are still going to vote for what I call the ‘Liberal-Labour coalition’ at the next election, because they believe what they are told about being overrun by ‘asylum seekers’. So, for many of us it seems, time does not reveal the truth. Many of us prefer to believe subterfuge and spin, if we find it comforting, than face the truth of what is happening to us. Some of us are like the proverbial ostrich, who sticks its head in the sand when danger arrives. Some of us would rather die believing in comforting and convenient falsities than be taught the truth by either time or the accumulation of evidence.

For Christians, there is a plumbline that helps us to discover the truth, that teaches us how to read the world in such a way that we will eventually discern, not without effort I must add!, which way is up and which way is down. This plumbline is Christ, the holy wisdom of God revealed to us in the Scriptures. Christians believe that the deepest truth of things only comes to light when it is scanned, or passed through, the UV field of apostolic testimony. That is not to say that Christians, even Christian theologians, are immune from kidding themselves - as will soon become clear.

So, having read from the apostolic testimony this morning, what can we say about our contemporary attitudes to truth, and to the finding of truth? Proverbs says that the truth has been out there for time immemorial, because Holy Wisdom has been preaching her gospel in the streets and the marketplaces since the world begun. Sadly, however, many human beings would prefer to ignore her counsels. Proverbs tells us that many people prefer to be simple, to reduce the complexities of life to simple propositions that no amount of wise teaching will ever succeed in undoing. It also tells us that the simple will eventually pay for their complacency. One day, says Proverbs, the simple will reap what they have sown. Their ignorance will be exploded by a burst of reality, which will undo the layers of lies on which they found their lives. In that moment, we are told, disaster will arrive to steal away the false comforts by which the simple hold the truth at bay.

Now, are you one of the simple? Are you the one who cannot live with too much truth? Or are you one of the wise, those who are open to the truth no matter where it may take you?

Now before you answer too swiftly, I invite you to consider another piece of apostolic testimony, namely, the story of Peter as we have it in the gospel of Mark. Perhaps, like Peter, you pride yourself on being insightful, on possessing an aptitude for recognising truths that others find too difficult to countenance. For the gospel indeed tells us that it was Peter, amongst all the disciples, who first recognised that Jesus was the messiah of God, the one anointed by God to save his people from their sins. While the other disciples apparently saw Jesus as just another prophet, it was Peter who first recognised that he was the Christ. Surely there are grounds for a certain smugness here? If you were Peter, would you not feel that you were one of the wise, seeing things not usually seen and pointing to truths that others find too difficult to grasp? Well, perhaps so. We theologians are particularly susceptible to such feelings. But we are not alone in this. I can’t count the times that someone has told me, with an impressive sense of certainty and authority, what God is really like, without having spent more than a week of their lives with either Scripture or theology! At such times, I feel like an electrician who is being lectured about how to install a new heater by someone who believes that electricity is what elephants produce when they have eaten too much.

Nevertheless, back to being smug about one’s insightfulness. Peter, having apparently seen the truth about Jesus, then demonstrates to all that he has missed the real, existential, significance of this truth. For when Jesus begins to teach the disciples what the messiah was sent to do—that is, to suffer the rejection of the authorities, to be tortured and killed, but then to rise again on the third day—Peter cannot bear it. Taking Jesus aside, he rebukes him. ‘Look, Jesus, don’t be so downhearted. You’re the messiah, for goodness sake. The messiah thrashes his enemies. He doesn’t suffer and die, he makes others suffer and die. He makes them pay for their sins!’ All of which reveals, from the point of view of those who first heard this story, that while Peter correctly identified Jesus as the messiah, his ideas about messiah-hood were deeply flawed. ‘Get behind me Satan,’ said Jesus in reply, ‘for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things’. And there’s the rub you see. God’s ways are not our ways. What we would like to be real is rarely the ‘really real,’ the real that God is. For we rich Christians from the post-industrial West corrupt ourselves with forlorn desires for a peace that bursts into bloom apart from the costly scars of sacrifice. So say the martyrs. And they tell us the truth.

In the reading from Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, along with everyone who is reading the story, that there can be no peace without a fight, no rest without work, no resurrection worth having, apart from one’s death. Those who want to protect themselves from the truth will only end up being destroyed by it, says Jesus; and those who want to own the truth, that is, to make and control the world according to their own solipsistic lights, they will end up losing the only thing that really matters: the truth of who they are in God. The really wise people, according to Jesus, are those who are willing to submit and sacrifice their version of the truth to that of Jesus. The wise are those who trust Jesus absolutely, even to the point of letting everything else go, every truth they have ever clung to for the sake of solidity and certainty in the world. The wise are those who die to such things in the belief that Christ will raise them anew, new beings in a new world, a world in which the only truth worth clinging too is the love and grace of God. So, who is feeling smug now? Certainly not me!

Christians, then, have a really strange—strange, that is, by the usual standards—approach to discerning the real from the unreal. Christians are, at one and the same time, both absolutely sceptical and absolutely trusting. Christians cannot believe that any version of truth produced by the world, whether by politicians, scientists or theologians, is completely and absolutely right. Apparent truths, no matter how subtlety constructed, need to be tested for their inherent capacity to hide us from the truth. For while the world is indeed real, in Christian understanding, its reality oftentimes consists in its failure to come to terms with the really real, that is, with God. So Christians are called to test and approve everything, especially the truths we manufacture about ourselves.

Yet—and here, surely, is the most extraordinary paradox—Christians can only be so sceptical on the basis of an absolute trust in a particular truth, the faith and belief that God is there, and that God is love. Without this, I would argue, there is no basis for a productive and creative scepticism, there is no really real by which we might evaluate what appears to be real. Equally, without this faith and belief, there can be no finally successful motivation for seeking the truth. For if we do not believe that the Real is finally on our side, that the Real is, in fact, a personal reality who is other than us, who nevertheless loves and welcomes us, then our search for the truth will always be permeated by a lingering suspicion that we are really alone in the universe, that the universe may well be only the entirely made-up conversation that we have with ourselves.

Someone will of course ask, and someone has always asked this of Christians: ‘But how do you know that God exists, and that God is love?’ The answer is the same today as it has always been. We know, not because we have discovered this truth ourselves, but because God has reached out to us across the chasm between God’s being and ours, and revealed that God is there, and that God is love. That revelation is none other than the man, Jesus Christ, God with a human face: God the other, who is nevertheless closer to us than we are to ourselves. So close that our knowing is not so much our knowing, but the knowing of God in and through us. We see in a glass dimly, nothing is surer, but we see nevertheless. We see that we are seen, and we love that we are loved.

And so we return to where we began. If we are mad, perhaps it is because the world regards us as out of touch with the reality it manufactures and reifies. If we are sane, perhaps it is because we have opened ourselves up to a reality that others do not wish to see. For all that, let us not forget that the truth of God is stranger even than fiction. Let us pray for the grace to be sceptical about the truths we are told in the daily round of news and advertising. Let us pray for the grace to be sceptical about the truths we design for our own comfort or security. But let us trust, absolutely, in the God who is grace and truth in Jesus Christ. For without him, we will never find the courage to admit our mistakes and let our truths go. We will never, therefore, becomes signs of the truth for a world that is going mad.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Bread is for sharing

Texts: Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37 

Today’s readings make two basic points, I suggest: (1) that God himself pleads the case of the poor against the rich; and (2) that the rich therefore have a responsibility to share what they have with the poor.  

According to the wisdom tradition represented by the reading from Proverbs, material riches are worth very little unless they are shared with those who lack such things.  Indeed, Proverbs argues that there can be only two paths in life:  to become rich by treating others with injustice, therefore attracting God’s displeasure; or to live generously and therefore attract God’s generosity.  “Which path are you on?” asks the text of its hearers.  Are you the one who treats others, especially the most vulnerable members of the community, as an exploitable source of cash for one’s personal bank account? Or are you someone who believes that wealth is a gift from God that should be shared from the beginning, such that the accumulation of wealth beyond the point of one’s basic needs becomes completely pointless?  

These are questions that also confronted the Christian church where James, the brother of Jesus, was the pastor.  We read this morning from a letter that records some of his most incisive sermons.  There we read about a church that has not yet been converted to the radical economic egalitarianism of the Jesus movement.  It is a church that betrays that fact by fawning over the rich and neglecting the poor, even amongst its own membership.  James reminds the church members that they must put their faith into action if they are to experience the true liberty of the children of God:  faith in a God who is merciful, who has promised his kingdom to those who, while materially poor, are rich in faith.  “Show me that you really believe in God’s mercy,” says James, “show me by being merciful yourselves.”  What James implies here is that it is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, to be at once rich in faith and rich in things.  Those who are rich in faith, he seems to be saying, are those who embody Christ’s mercy by sharing their material possessions so completely that there can be little prospect of ever becoming rich as an economist would measure such things.

Of course, if we bring all this back home for a moment, one must ask the question ‘who are the rich, and who are the poor in our own place and time?’  The economists and social policy analysts would answer that poverty has pretty much the same profile anywhere.  Whether one lives in India or Australia, the poor are those who really struggle to eat nutritious meals, to find shelter or to clothe themselves.  The poor are those who cannot access adequate employment.  The poor are those who, if they get sick, cannot afford to access adequate health-care.  The poor are those whose lives are filled with so much toil that education and leisure pursuits are regarded as little more than luxuries.  The poor are those who die relatively young.  On these measures, the poorest Australians are usually Aboriginal people, or people with a long-term illness or disability, or people who care for such people over a long period of time.

Who are the rich, then, or perhaps it would be better to ask ‘who are those who are well-resourced?’  Well, having read a recent report on the matter from UnitingCare, let me suggest the following.  You can count yourself as well-resourced if:  (1) you feel confident that you can adequately clothe and house yourself and those in your care, even if you have no job for a time; (2) you feel confident that you can access adequate health care in a timely manner when you get sick; (3) you can afford to go on holiday to another place at least once every year; (4) you know how to recognise, and make the most of, any opportunities for education, employment or self-improvement that may come your way.  All of which is to say that you feel that you belong to the mainstream of Australian society, enjoying a lifestyle that most Australians assume as a right, rather than as a privilege.

Now, I’m not going to assume that I actually know which of you are poor, or which of you are rich.  Appearances can be very deceiving, especially in this age of credit-cards and long-term mortgages!  For the record, I’m relatively rich.  What I will do, however—and this is my burden and responsibility as a minister of Christ—is repeat the good news for both the rich and the poor, the good news at the heart of our faith tradition: - that if you are poor, God loves you, and calls you into a community called the church in which it is completely o.k. to expect that your legitimate needs will be taken care of;  - that if you are rich, God loves you too, and calls you to share what you have with the poor and thus become rich in other ways, rich in faith and in love and in mercy.  This good news is none other than that proclaimed in the story we read from Mark, where the well-resourced Jesus learns that God’s food is for everyone, not just for those who are part of his own particular religion or ethnic group; and where a poor Syrian woman, whose daughter needs God’s food very badly, asks and argues for what she needs, in the faith that God cares . . .  and finally receives from God what she needs through Jesus.

The good news is no more complicated than this, I suggest: that God is merciful.  So trust that God will be merciful to you; and trust that you can now live according the liberty and generosity of that mercy in your relationship with the needy people God places in your path.