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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas: the gift of peace

Texts:  Isaiah 62.6-12; Psalm 97; Luke 2.1-20

A moment ago we heard the story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, and how the angels sang ‘glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours’.  But what is this peace that the angels sing about?  And what has it to do with the birth of this particular child?

Is the peace of the angel’s song the ‘peace’ promised by superpowers like China or the United States, the peace you get if you are big enough and strong enough to cower everyone else into submission?  Is the peace of the angel’s song the peace promised by a good many infamous leaders in this past century, that specifically fascist kind of peace which says ‘Don’t be afraid.  I know best, trust me.  I’m taking away your freedoms in order to protect you from our enemies?’  I doubt it very much.  The child born in Bethlehem grew up to say things like ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ And ‘If your enemy strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other as well.’  And as to who one might trust with one’s life or liberty, he said: ‘Do not call anyone on earth teacher.  The Christ is your only teacher.  Put your faith in God alone.’

Well then.  Is the peace of the angel’s song like the ‘peace of mind’ you apparently get if your house and contents, your car, your health, your mortgage, and even your life are fully and comprehensively insured against disaster?  I suspect not.  The child born in Bethlehem was not, apparently, insured in this way.   Indeed, his whole life might be described as totally un-insurable!  First he becomes a religious nutter, then he neglects his responsibility to contribute to the family’s economic fortunes, then he goes all anti-globalisation, preaching against the powers that be.  Finally he is executed by the Roman State as a dangerous criminal.  As far as I am aware, neither he nor his family received any compensation for any of it.  And I doubt that a modern insurance company would have paid them out either.

So then, perhaps the peace of the angel’s song is more like that ‘inner peace’ promised by the ‘new’ spiritualities and therapies?  You know, the calm you are supposed to feel by getting away to a deserted beach or mountainside, where the factions and fractions of our tumultuous world cannot intrude?  Or that ‘peace’ you are supposed to receive, in Buddhism, when you rid yourself of every desire?  I doubt it very much.  Now don’t get me wrong.  The child born in Bethlehem was very often alone in prayer or meditation.  But when he was, it seems that the tumult of his world went with him, so that he wrestled inwardly with a deep sense of care and responsibility for the lost and broken all around him.  He wrestled also with his own desire, praying earnestly that he might be delivered from the temptation to seek the safe and easy way through life.  But that should not be taken to mean that he was a good Buddhist.  For instead of doing away with desire altogether, as the Buddha taught, Jesus immersed himself in the desire of another, that one he called his ‘Father’, the God of Israel.  His whole life, it seems, was filled with the strongest kind of longing, a groaning and a pining towards a world in which the poor were no longer poor and the rich no longer rich.

Well then, is the peace of the angel’s song finally a certain kind of political peace, a democratic tolerance of all our many differences?  You could certainly get that impression if your only exposure to Christianity was the many ‘Carols by Candlelight’ celebrations that have colonised the countryside in the past couple of weeks.  You know their message well, I’m sure: ‘We’re all different, we have different aims in life.  Some of us are less well off than others.  But let’s not bicker.  Live and let live.  Let’s just get on with each other.’  Is this the peace promised by the angels?  Again, I doubt it very much.  When the child of Bethlehem was grown, he got himself into all sorts of trouble because he was certainly not very tolerant.  He was intolerant towards poverty.  He was intolerant towards the indifference of the rich and the powerful towards their suffering neighbours.  He was intolerant towards the racism of his fellow-Jews towards non-Jews.  He was intolerant of the way his society relegated women and children to the bottom of the food-chain.  But deeply imbedded in all these intolerances was the intolerance that motivated them all:  his refusal to accept that human beings can find a real and genuine peace apart from a relationship with God.

For it is this peace—the peace that God gives to all who acknowledge, deep down in their hearts, that there is no peace apart from the loving favour of God—that the angels announced at the birth of Christ.  The peace given by Christ is also the peace given by God.  It is not a peace that can be generated by either prayer or politics, insofar as these attempt to create something out of the raw material of the human heart.  For the whole of human history bears witness against us.  We cannot make a peace that lasts.  Even now, we are at war, and many of these wars are being waged against phantoms of our own devising, demons hidden in our own souls that have been projected onto the faces of others so that we will never have to acknowledge our own failings. 

And for all our fantastic progress in science and research, for all our privileged economic fortunes, can we really claim to be reconciled, to be at peace with our neighbours and ourselves?  I doubt it very much.  There is considerable research now to show that the more prosperous we become the more possessive, and then we become 'unhappy', in proportionate measure.  I have spoken about these things often in this church.  I shall not go on with all that again this morning, except to say this:  that peace, a peace that lasts, seems to elude us.  And Christians are not immune from his experience.  Insofar as we have been seduced by modernity, Christians are at least at troubled as everyone else.

The peace that Christ gives cannot be given by the world or anything in the world.  It cannot be generated by either prayer or politics.  The peace that Christ gives is, as Titus would have it, a gracious gift: the gift of a deep and profound communion with God that transforms every dimension of one’s life, whether in body, soul or community.  The peace of Christ is something that, as the apostle Paul wrote, transcends our understanding.  The peace of Christ is not, therefore, something you can make a project of.  It is not a feeling you can induce by thinking happy or positive thoughts.  It is a state that comes upon you slowly, wheedling its way through your defences, making its way into your heart like a transfusion of life-giving blood from another’s body.  It is a gift.  It is pure communion.  It is a deep down sense and conviction that because God is for us, nothing can prevail against us:  not other people, not our own misguided desire, not the present, nor the future, not anything in all creation.  It is a peace that comes to us as we look and listen for God’s word of favour in the story and event of Jesus, who is called the Christ.

May the peace of Christ wheedle its way into your heart and your community today.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, on the Feast of the Nativity in 2007.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Signs of revolution

Isaiah 35.1-10; Luke 1.47-55; Matthew 11.2-11

For Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist has a special place amongst the prophets of Yahweh.  He is the one who goes before the Christ of Israel, to announce his coming and prepare the way.  Yet even John, when he is imprisoned by King Herod for criticizing his regime, is capable of doubt about Jesus’ true identity.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question:  ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?’  The answer John receives from Jesus recalls the prophecy of Isaiah that we read just now, a prophecy that imagines how things might change when God’s salvation has arrived in the world.   Let me quote:
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are fearful of heart, 
“Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God! . . .”
The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert wastes.
         (Is 35.5-6)
Hear, then, the parallels in Jesus’ answer to John in Matthew’s gospel: 
Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
We may conclude, then, that for both Isaiah and Matthew the advent of the messiah is attended by graphic and visible signs.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the outcasts are brought into the community once more, and the poor hear good news.

It is important that we understand these signs in their theological as well as their literal sense.  There can be no doubt that Jesus was a faith healer.  He did cure specific medical ailments, and he did raise the dead to life.  Even the most sceptical historians have found it difficult to explain away the sheer abundance of the evidence on this point.  Still, if we are Christians, we must understand that the healings are not just healings, and the raisings are not just raisings.  They are not, in other words, to be understood simply as facts amongst other facts; they are not to be read simply as history.  For the miracles of Jesus have a theological meaning as well.  Theologically, they are to be read as advance announcements or signs of a religious, social, and political revolution, a revolution initiated by God in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, but not yet completed in its fullness.

I talk of revolution because the coming of Jesus has changed, indeed transformed, far more than the medical fortunes of those individuals he happened to meet in Galilee more than two thousand years ago.  The coming of Jesus has changed everything, from the way we imagine God, to the way we value our fellow human beings, to the way we construct our law and government.  We Westerners so easily forget how deeply our values and our whole way of life have been influenced by Christ and the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  We forget that the discourse of human rights is grounded in the narratives of Christ’s hospitality towards the excluded and marginalised members of this own society.  We forget that feminism found its genesis in the way that Christ formed relationships with women.  We forget that the greatest books and poems of the Western tradition may be read as conversations with the Bible.  We forget that liberation movements, from the abolition of slavery in the Americas to the more recent revolutions in South America and South Africa, have looked to Jesus for inspiration and encouragement.  We forget that many of the modern medical miracles we take for granted are grounded in the research of Christian doctors working in missionary situations.  If there were time, we could talk, also, about the theological origins of the Rule of Law, the Welfare State, the University, the School and the Hospital.  In these, and in a thousand other ways, the coming of Jesus has changed the world.  In these, and a thousand other ways, the love of God in Christ has so changed our humanity that we have been enabled to change the world after Christ’s example.  In so many ways, Christ’s people have been salt and light for a dark and sterile world.

Let us not be content with all of this, however.  For Christ’s revolution is far from complete.  The messianic kingdom has clearly not yet arrived in its fullness.  If you don’t believe me, just look around this country we’re making.  Instead of helping the poor, we lock them up – whether the poor be asylum seekers, the mentally ill, or Aboriginal people.  For these are the people who overwhelmingly populate our detention centres and prisons, each of them all but crushed under the weight of grief, abuse or criminal neglect. I could speak of other national tragedies this morning—like the massive cuts the government has made to foreign aid programmes, or the steady rise in rural and suburban poverty, or the epidemic of depression and anxiety that is sweeping through our young people.  But I shall not.  Instead I would simply remind you that Advent faith is not only about remembering the way in which Christ came to us the first time around.  It is about looking for the signs of that arrival in our own place and time.  Most of all, it is about making ourselves available to God as the church, the body of Christ, so that Christ’s revolution might again become present to the world through the faithful deeds of love and care we offer to our neighbours in response to the grace we have experienced in Jesus Christ. 

I know that many of us care for others deeply.  We work as volunteers with the sick, the disabled, the despairing and the voiceless.  Or we work with the poor and the helpless in our paid employment.  Many of us are generous with our surplus money and goods, living simply so that others may simply live.  But others of us are like so many other Australians.  We look only to feather our own nests, and those of our families.  If that is so, then Christ would confront us this morning with the call to revolution.  “Be converted,” he would say, “be really converted!  Let my Spirit into your cold heart so that the seeds of love may be sown.”  For that is what God’s revolution is essentially about:  love.  God’s love for a lost and broken world; the touchability of that love in the life, suffering and death of Christ; and the power of love to change things, one small corner of the world at a time, through the power of Christ’s resurrection.  If Christ is raised, you see, then the powers of evil and decay we named this morning shall not have the last word.  The last word will be love.  This I believe, and for this I pray daily.  So God help all of us to look for the signs of Christ’s coming, and to become such signs ourselves.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mount Waverley, in December 2004.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

'Come, Lord Jesus, come!' or, What Advent is all about

Advent is the first season of the Church’s year. It encompasses the four Sundays prior to sundown on Christmas Eve, when the shorter Christmas-Epiphany period begins.  The word ‘Advent’ literally means coming, which also reveals the main theological theme of the season:  that time in which the Church looks, with great anticipation, for the coming of Jesus into the world. 'Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!' is the oft-repeated prayer.

The ‘coming’ we reflect on in Advent is not, in fact, primarily that first coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, but the second coming of Christ at the end of the ages, when God will put right everything that is wrong, and the poor and faithful will finally inherit new heavens and a new earth.  The Scriptures read during this period talk of the hope of all God’s people for peace and justice in the world.  They speak also of a messiah who will inaugurate this age by taking up the ancient throne of David.  Startling cosmic images are used to speak of what things will be like when the messiah arrives: wolves lying down with lambs and children playing safely over the nests of snakes (Isaiah 11.1-10) are just two examples. 

Of course, the flip side of such hope is a very real sense that the messianic age has not yet arrived.  We do not hope for things that are already ours!  This indicates a fundamental difference between Advent and the Christmas season which follows.  Christ has come a first time, certainly, and it is the special function of the Christmas period to reflect this fact and tell that story.  Yet the Christ who came two thousand years ago has still not arrived in all his glorious fullness.  We know this because the universe does not yet experience the wholeness of his promised peace.  It is dominated, rather, by sin, suffering and despair.  These realities are frankly acknowledged during Advent, and worshippers are encouraged to repent of the part they play in making and keeping the world in its deplorable state.  Thus Advent, like its twin season of Lent, invites Christians to consider the ways in which Christ has actually been rendered absent or irrelevant in both their own lives and that of the world. Advent then encourages worshippers to place their hope and trust in Christ who, when he arrives in divine glory, will put all such faults away for ever. 

To help Christians reflect on what the coming of Jesus might mean for us today, the Church makes use of a number of interesting symbols.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree is named from Isaiah 11.1: "A shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots."  It is a symbol of the faith and family of God from which Jesus came. Jesus is like a new branch springing from an old family and faith.  We use the Jesse Tree to think about the importance of our forbears in teaching us to place our faith and hope in Christ.

In Australia, the Jesse Tree is often a eucalypt.  Eucalypts are regenerated by fire; they have to be destroyed in order to be born anew.  The biblical Branch is a sign of newness in the midst of destruction or discouragement.  The idea of the new Branch from an old stump became a way to talk about the expected messiah (e.g., Jer 23.5) who would save Israel from all its troubles. The presence of the Jesse Tree in churches during Advent reminds worshippers that Jesus came to suffer the full consequences of our all-too-human sin and despair, but then to rise again as a sign of hope for all who would follow him.

Christians long for the full reign of the messiah, and the kingdom of Peace that he will bring. So, while we celebrate the birth of the Branch, the new shoot from the stump of Jesse, we anticipate with hope the Second Advent, and await the completion of the promise.


Wreath and Candles

At the front of many churches you will notice, during Advent, the presence of a circular wreath of green, with four candles about it.  The wreath is a circle of evergreen branches that reminds us of God’s love.  Like a circle, God’s love has no beginning or end.  Like an evergreen tree, it is forever alive and growing.  God’s love never fails.

The Advent candles are variously purple, white, and pink.  Purple is the colour of kings, but it is also the colour of bruises.  It reminds us that while Jesus may indeed be the royal Son of God, in fact he came to share our humanity, to suffer and die that a new kind of humanity might be born from his suffering.  Purple is also the colour of Lent, the season in which we remember Christ’s journey to the cross and resurrection.  It is used during Advent to remind us that God’s love is not insipid or sentimental, but costly and real.

A pink candle may be lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent as a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It was her special obedience to bear the Christ child who would live and die and be raised for us all.

The white candle that stands at the centre of the wreath is known as the ‘Christ’ candle.  It is lit on Christmas Eve to signify Christ’s arrival in our midst. It parallels and represents the lighting of the Paschal candle at the Vigil of Easter, a new light for a new world.

Nativity Scene

The traditional name for Christmas is the ‘Feast of the Nativity’.  The word “Nativity” literally means to “become native” or to be born into a particular community and place.  For Christians, the Feast of the Nativity celebrates the very human birth of the unique Son of God to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth.

During Advent, churches often anticipate the nativity of Christ by introducing parts of the traditional nativity ‘scene’ during the final two Sundays of Advent.  Around the (still-empty) manger where the saviour was laid are placed his parents, a stable, animals and shepherds, as well as stars and angels.  This scene can become a symbol of cosmic anticipation as the church, together with the whole creation, await the messiah’s arrival.

The ‘O’ Antiphons

A key component of the gathering rites during Advent worship are a series of responsive invocations known as the ‘O’ Antiphons.  Each antiphon contains an invocation of Jesus, using one of his biblical titles: O Wisdom, O Lord etc., ending with O Emmanuel, meaning ‘God with us’. Each contains a tiny prayer for God's people, and the petition that Christ will come very soon.  The ‘O’ Antiphons are very old, going back to the Vesper Prayers for Advent offered by the faithful in the eighth century Roman rite.

The antiphons represent a tiny theology textbook on who Christ is. O Wisdom reminds us that Christ is the Logos, the Word of God, through whom all things are created. O Adonai calls upon the Lord who spoke from the Burning Bush, telling Moses to lead his people to freedom. O Root of Jesse speaks of Christ born of the line of David; God, born into a human family. O Key of David refers to Christ who has the power to open all the prisons we may find ourselves in, and to lock away all things that hinder us in our journey to God. O Rising Dawn is the promise that even in our darkest times, Christ, the Light of the World, will shine forth. O King of the Nations looks forward to Christ's reign of justice and peace. O Emmanuel brings us to Bethlehem, to that moment in history when Christ became a human being.  

The church uses the Antiphons throughout Advent, either as a spoken litany or by singing the well-known 9th century hymn “Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. 

Conclusion

In our consumer-dominated Western culture, the reflective experience of Advent is very often lost, even in the church. We are all so very keen to get what we want, and to get it now.  We want to celebrate Christmas as early as possible, especially that neo-pagan kind of Christmas which is all about the exchange of so-called gifts and the telling of sentimental stories about so-called family values.  Advent, on the other hand, creates a space in which we are invited to reflect on the experience of not yet having what we desire or, more profoundly still, of relinquishing our own sense of what is desirable in favour of what the coming Christ might desire for us.  Advent is an invitation to stop doing all the things that make our lives miserable – including being busy and stressed! – and to listen, instead, for the coming Word who alone can give us the power to become children of God.  In my experience, one can only do that by refusing to participate in the Australian summer festival that is called ‘Christmas’, the Christmas that begins in November and has almost nothing to do with Christ.

I wish you all a very blessed Advent.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Coca-Cola and Christ

Texts:  Jeremiah 23.1-6; Luke 1.68-79; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

Today is the festival of Christ the King.  It is the last Sunday, and the last word, of the Christian year.  It serves to remind us that, in the end, God will be sovereign over all things. The English mystic, Julian of Norwich, captured the essence of that affirmation when she said, 'all will be well and all things shall be well'.  Now . . .  if you pause to reflect for a moment, you'll realise how laughably audacious that message appears to be.  In the middle of economic meltdown, wars and rumours of wars, in the middle of horrific poverty and environmental crisis . . . 'all shall be well and all things shall be well'?

Please, tell me if I'm wrong, but I would have thought that it was not God who was directing the fate of the world, but multi-national corporations like Coca-cola.  And I'm being absolutely serious here.  The Coca-cola Company is amongst the most powerful forces in the world today.  It owns and controls more subsidiary food and drink companies than any other.  It employs more people and has a greater cash-flow than many governments.  But what is more significant is the power Coca-cola has over people's hearts and minds.  You see, Coke was the first to create not just a product, but a need.  None of us actually need Coca-cola.  It's a sugary soft-drink with almost no nutritional value at all.  But if you go into the poorest village of India and ask people what you can do for them on a hot day, they are more than likely to ask for a Coke.  Before Coke came along, industries would create products to fulfil the needs of already-existing markets.  But with Coke, something quite new came into being.  Through the power of advertising, Coke actually began to produce the markets themselves.  To create needs that weren't there before.  The need for a sugary cola drink.  A tailor-made product to fulfil a tailor-made need.

Coca-cola's advertising is very, very effective.  It is omniscient.  It is everywhere.  If you're a young person these days, it's almost impossible to feel like you're having a good time unless you have a coke in hand.  Coke is the symbol of youthfulness and vitality.  It's also the symbol of western freedom.  I can do anything I want.  I can be anything that I want.  The Coca-cola market-researchers are very, very clever.  In the last few years they have even tried to tap into the renewed interest in things spiritual.  They present Coke as the pathway into other worlds, the elixir of the gods which can keep you forever young and deliver you from the boredom and tedium of everyday life.  With Coke, life can be an adventure with mystery and intrigue.

The Coca-cola company has used its power very subtly.  But the effects are devastating.  The people of Mexico City are very poor.  They have difficulty finding the money to buy enough food to maintain a good standard of health.  Yet they drink more Coca-cola than the whole of Australia put together.  Why?  Because they have been brainwashed by advertising.  I might be hungry, but if I'm drinking Coke, things can't be too bad.  Note, also, that the Coke company has a rather appalling record when it comes to labour policy.  Most of its operations these days are in the two-thirds world.  Impoverished workers are paid pittance to produce the sugary stuff.  They are hired and fired at will, with little or no compensation or redundancy measures in place.  Workers will therefore do pretty much anything for the company in order to keep their jobs.  Consider, too, that the Coke Company  is a large contributor to the environmental crisis that we now find ourselves in.  Huge tracts of rainforest have been removed, in some of the world's poorest countries, to make way for sugar plantations which supply the Coke juggernaut.  Clearing the forests has led to climate change, an extreme shortage of both land and firewood for subsistence farmers, water shortages, and the kind of landslides that regularly occur in places where land-clearing has become extreme.

Add to all that the capacity of Coca-cola to silence its western critics.  Not by the crude means you can get away with in the two-thirds world.  But by throwing around the sponsorship dollar.  An example.  The United Methodist Church in the United States, a church whose rhetoric for social justice is very impressive, tends not to say anything about Coca-cola because Coke contributes a very large sum of money to the running of one of its principal seminary at Emory University in Atlanta.  Now, if the church can be so easily pacified, governments even more so.

In a world run by companies like Coca-cola, where is the sovereignty of God.  How can all things be well, when the world is so obviously coming to grief?  Well, the very same questions were being asked on a hill outside Jerusalem, a little over 2000 years ago.  There, on a Roman cross, hung the man many had hoped would turn things around for the Jewish people.  He had been hailed as the Messiah, the chosen one of God, who would rescue the people from domination and poverty at the hands of the Roman invaders.  But now that particular dream lay in tatters.  There he hung, between earth and heaven, bleeding from the nails in his hands and the scourge of the whip.  Where was God at this moment?  Where was the power of God?  Why didn't God come down from heaven and nuke all those whom had put Jesus up there?  Why didn't God take back the world from the powers of darkness by mounting a counter-invasion?  Why didn't God make things right?

The words of Jesus on the cross give some clues as to why God didn't, and why God doesn't, do such things.  When the soldiers nail him there, Jesus says 'Father, forgive them.  They don't know what they're doing'.   God, you see, is not in the habit of forcing people to do what they are not inclined to do.  God is the maker of that most treasured of human qualities - freedom.  The capacity to do good, or to do evil.  The capacity to love or to hate.  The capacity to create good things, or to destroy.  The trouble with freedom is that all things can very easily come to grief.  And they did for Jesus.  When God created human freedom, God knew that God himself would eventually be caught up in what human beings do.  That God would eventually be nailed to a cross.  But he did it anyway.  And he did it out of love.  Out of love, God is willing to submit to our freedom.  Out of love, God is willing to forgive, and to suffer the consequences of our foolishness.  Out of love, God is crucified with the poor of India, and the disappeared of Pinochet's Chile, and the murdered priests of El Salvador.  And, out of love, God is willing to forgive them all.

You see, the power of God to be sovereign in the world is very different to that of Coca-cola or any of the other multinational powerbrokers.  And it is different to the power currently being wielded by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania over other councils of the church.  God's reign of peace will come, not as a result of forceful or manipulative practices, but by the subtle and pervasive power of love.  The power of passive resistance.  The power of martyrdom and of prayer.  Christ himself is the trail-blazer in this regard.  He loved the poor.  He healed the sick.  He was a veritable presence of God for the little ones of his time.  And when he was crucified, he did not remain that way.  Somehow he rose to new life.  Not life as it had been, life in the shadow of death.  But life in all its fullness.  Life lived in the peace and communion of God.  The rumour of God, then, has never been put down.  It remains the strongest power in the world.  It whispers in the ears of political leaders.  It challenges the bullying practices of companies like Coca-cola and the Uniting Church.  It beckons to us each time we come to the place of dread, when we realise that life according to the vision of the advertisers is not all its cracked up to be.  One day, we believe, the rumour will cease to be a rumour.  That which has whispered in our hearts will be proclaimed from the rooftops.  Everyone will know that Jesus is the king.  And his glory will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.

This homily was recently adapted from a sermon first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in 1998.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

God of the living

Haggai 2.1-9; Luke 20.27-38 

When the word of the Lord came to Haggai, the leading families of Judah were in serious disrepair.  Their forebears had witnessed the total destruction of their beloved city, Jerusalem, with the Temple of Yahweh as its centrepiece.  They and their children had been clamped  in chains, and then carted off to exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem had fallen, they believed, not primarily because a greedy emperor wanted their lands, but because God had abandoned them.  The people who now returned to the ruined city had grown up on a steady diet of preaching that condemned their fathers and grandfathers for their sins.  It was their failure to rule for the sake of the poorest and most vulnerable in the land, to live according to the covenant established with Moses and the great King David, that the prophets railed against most.  God had abandoned their families to destruction, so the prophets said, in exactly the same way as they, themselves, had abandoned their covenant duties toward the vulnerable and the poor.

So here the survivors live and worked, a new generation of Jewish aristocrats, earnestly seeking to make new lives.  Released from exile, they had returned to Judah to rebuild their inheritance.  The stately houses had all been repaired, the walls and the public buildings of the city also.  Economic life had begun to return, albeit slowly. Yet—and here’s a great puzzle—the great temple to Yahweh, jewel in Jerusalem’s crown, had not yet been restored.  Not one bit.  It remains, at the opening of the book of Haggai, a pile of rubble on the ground.  But why?  Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have expected the returned exiles to start work on the temple immediately, as a sign of their gratefulness to God for arranging their return!   But perhaps this assumption fails to take account of how deeply traumatising the exile has actually been?  Perhaps it fails to perceive a serious and ongoing spiritual malaise in the hearts of the people.

I put it to you that the pile of rubble at the heart of the city can indeed tell us something about the heart of its people at the time.  Although the people had indeed returned to Jerusalem, it does not necessarily follow that every single one of them was able to attribute that change in fortune to the forgiveness or care of God.  The return had been a struggle, afterall.  Having arrived, the seeding money from the Emperor Darius had been quickly spent on essential capital works to defend the city against its enemies.   But with the walls built, it had proven difficult to grow food and build up acceptable levels of trade and economic life.  No matter how hard the people worked, they could not, it seemed, reach a point of satisfaction in what they had achieved.   I quote from Haggai chapter 1: 
Consider how you have fared, declares the Lord.  You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no-one is warm; and you that earn wages do so to fill bags with holes.
It seems that many of the people had become hard and pragmatic during their Babylonian exile.  Perhaps they had taken God’s abandonment, so eloquently versified by the prophets, as an unalterable given.   Perhaps a great many of them had decided (deep in their hearts if not as a matter for public declaration), to now make futures for themselves that did not look for God’s blessing in any way whatsoever.  Perhaps they believed that God was permanently absent or disapproving, so that the fortune of one’s family was now something one had to build on one’s own.  If that were true then, of course, there was little point in rebuilding the temple!  Why pour scarce family money and resources into worshipping a God who may not even care anymore?  Surely, if God could not be counted upon, one simply needed to get on with the hard work of securing a future for one’s family in spite of God?  Of course, few would have uttered such things publicly in Jerusalem.  Yet one suspects that this is what most of the people believed.  And their action, or inaction, regarding the public honouring of God tends to betray that fact.

Now, this practical atheism of the post-exilic Jewish leaders, has a familiar ring to it I reckon.  Like the returned exiles, most Australians say that they believe in some kind of higher power they are content to call God.  Like the returned exiles, most of our fellow Australians believe that we are here to make life as prosperous as possible for our children.  To that end, we defend our country against its enemies, and we work as hard as the returned exiles did.  But we are like the returned exiles in another way also.  We are practical atheists.  While most of us declare that God may well exist, we also believe that God’s existence or non-existence is actually rather irrelevant to the way we live our lives.  Deep in our hearts we suspect that God doesn’t actually care for us very much.  Afterall, if God cared for us, if God considered us worthy of his care, wouldn’t our lives be more satisfying than they are?  Wouldn’t they be less painful and disappointing?

So, we are not so very different, contemporary Australians and post-exilic Jews.  Who would have thought?  Because of our practical atheism, neither of us are particularly inclined to provide, out of our hard-earned resources, for any public honouring or worship of God.  We are all very aware, are we not, that most of our friends and family visit  the church for particular occasions, but they do not belong to the church in the sense of submitting their own fortunes to the will and way of God in Christ.
The word of the Lord that came to the prophet Haggai is therefore as much a word for us as it was for his contemporaries.  Allow me quote: 
Is this a time for you to live in your panelled houses, while my house lies in ruins? . . . Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord Build my house, for I am with you, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.  My spirit abides among you; do not fear.  The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, say the Lord of hosts: and in this place I will give peace. 
This prophecy addresses the pragmatism of practical atheists in two ways.  First, to our deep-down grief and resignation in the face of God’s absence or abandonment the prophecy speaks a word of gentle comfort.  “I have not abandoned you,” says the Lord.  “I felt betrayed and hurt and angry at your sin, but that does not mean that I have abandoned you altogether.  See, I am with you now.  My spirit is nearby, even as I have been nearby in the history of your people.”  The word of comfort in Scripture is usually associated with an encouragement to remember, to remember the ways in which God’s love and care have become tangibly real in days gone by.  “Remember what you learned from your parents,” says the Lord.  “When the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, I rescued them and brought them into a land of their own.  When you were taken in exile, I forgave your sins and brought you back to the land of your inheritance.”  And for we who came to birth in latter days, God says, “Remember, most of all, the way I myself came to be with you in human form, to receive in my own body the full consequence of human evil; but also to show you the way of love that leads to peace.  Remember Christ hanging on a cross.  This is my loving solidarity with you in the tragic logic of your inhumanity toward one another. But remember, also, Christ risen from the grave into the bosom of God’s peace.  This is the future you may share, also, if you cling to Christ absolutely, if you allow his way to become your way.”  The word of prophecy comes first, therefore, to resist the story of abandonment with a story of God’s loving presence.

But there is a second element to the prophecy.  We noted earlier the grumbling of the returned exiles that no matter how hard they worked to secure the prosperity of their families, they were never entirely satisfied.  No matter how much they grew, produced or procured, the prosperity they sought somehow eluded them.  This is how it is, I think, with all who believe they can built a prosperous future apart from the gift and blessing of God.  Without God, you see, we are all at sea when it comes to knowing what to build.  For we do not, apart from God, understand what genuine prosperity might look and feel like.  How many people believe that keeping up with the economic fortunes of the Joneses or the Chiangs or the Rajahs will bring prosperity and peace?  How many people believe that if we work hard all our lives, we might eventually experience peace and prosperity in some kind of leisured retirement?  The prophecy of Haggai, by way of contrast, understands that prosperity has very little to do with economic security, but everything to do with Shalom, that is, with our willingness to be at peace with everything that God would give us.  Shalom is not something that we may earn by our hard work.  It is something to be received as a gift from God.  If we believe we must produce it by our energy and effort, then it shall allude us forever.  If, on the other hand, we are able to see that all the world—earth, air, fire and water—is a gift from God, then we shall perhaps be content to simply share in the common wealth of that gift with our fellow human beings.  God’s way to prosperity is, in fact, the opposite of that which is pursued by most of us.  It is to share our food and our homes with the hungry and to honour God with our praise and thanksgiving.

When a people abandons its worship of God, when the symbols of public worship (a temple or a church, for example) are allowed to fall into ruin while the symbols of private wealth (houses, cars and lots of gadgets) grow ever more glamorous, then we are in serious trouble as a culture.  For when we scramble to procure our own security, our own salvation, we finally lose the very quality that makes us human:  our capacity to be thrilled by all the wonder of the God’s gift, our capacity, in short, to be really alive and awake as human beings.  For the resurrection of Christ is not the final procurement of an economically secure future for ourselves or our offspring, as the Saducees suggested in their question to Jesus in the gospel story.  No.  The resurrection of Christ is neither a buying nor a selling, but a simple enjoyment with our brothers and sisters (of every age and tribe) of all that teaming life that God would give us, if only we could put aside our hankerings, and simply receive what is offered with thankfulness.  May God grant that it may be so, even for this Uniting Church. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The cost of discipleship

Luke 14.25-33

This week, a week in which we observed the secular festival of “Father’s Day”, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to explain one of Jesus’ hardest sayings about discipleship.  Let me quote: 
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 
 What a thing to have to talk about close to Father's Day!  Still, that is the discipline of the lectionary.  It forces preachers and their congregations to tackle the more difficult aspects of the faith, when, without it, we would probably just stick to the passages which give off the warmest glow.  So, Father’s Day it may have been this week, but we shall attend to this difficult saying nevertheless!

The most important thing to recognise about this passage, first up, is that the families of first century Palestine were quite a different thing to the families most of us grew up with in Australia.  The ancient family was patriarchal, that is, it was led by the eldest male.  That principal male (or ‘patriarch’) owned all the family’s goods, and bore a generational responsibility to honour his ancestor’s memory by striving to make the family more successful and important than it was when he took over the helm.  A heavy responsibility indeed!  But the patriarch received enormous power in order to fulfil that responsibility.  To the members of his own family—his wife or wives, his brothers and sisters, his children, his concubines and slaves—his word was law.  Not only was he responsible for the family, he also owned the family.  Which could be pretty tough for everyone else!  If you were the patriarch’s wife or daughter or slave, and the patriarch was a harsh or abusive man, there was absolutely nothing you could do about it.  There were no laws to protect you, because your husband or father or master was the law.  Because he owned you, he could do with you as he pleased.  Even where the patriarch was a kind man, life could still be very tough.  In that society, you see, there was nothing that was more important than the family’s fortunes.  As a member of the family you were born into, it was your life’s task to promote the greater fortune of your family, to give everything that you have for your family, even if that meant putting aside your own individual vision, gifts, skills or sense of calling.  In first century Palestine, there was really no such thing as an individual calling.  There was only the family’s calling.  The family was all that mattered.

Now, what happens if we re-read the difficult saying of Jesus against this particular social backdrop?  What happens to our understanding of what he was saying?  Well, quite a bit, I suspect!  First, and most importantly, we can perhaps see that Jesus’ many attacks against the family should not be seen as attacks against all kinds of family.  They should be understood, rather, as attempts to make a space within the ancient mind for the possibility that there may be a calling or vocation that is even more important than advancing the fortunes of one’s family.  For the contemporary Australian mind, that possibility is not so very difficult to imagine.  Even where most of us continue to believe that our families are indeed the most important thing, we can nevertheless contemplate the possibility that one or all of our children may go off and do their own thing, that is, something that we, ourselves, may not see as particularly good for the family name or honour.  Many of us would even agree that our children have a right to follow their own lights, even when those lights do not seem particularly bright from where we stand.  But seeing things that way was just about impossible in the ancient world.  Leaving one’s family to its own fortunes, and going off to seek one’s own, would have been literally unimaginable for the folk who listened to Jesus for the first time.

Which is why this saying of Jesus was even more difficult to digest in the ancient world than it is for us today.  Let me read it once more.  But listen, this time, for the scandal it would have caused for Jesus’ first hearers: 
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 
The ancient world decreed that we were all born to serve the honour of our families.  If there was a meaning to our lives, it was this.  With these words, however, Jesus dropped a veritable bomb into that world.  He suggested not only that there might be something more important than our good family name, but also that this something was so much more important that it was practically impossible to serve both it and one’s family obligations at the same time.  And now you are perhaps wondering what that something might be, that could lure a person away from their most ancient responsibilities?  This and only this:  the following of Jesus. 

Let it be understood that in the ancient world, agreeing to follow Jesus was both enormously costly and infinitely rewarding.  It was costly because the economic and social fortunes of one’s own family were put at the service of a greater ideal, a reality which Jesus referred to as the “kingdom of God”.  In Jesus’ teaching, the kingdom was a divine commonwealth in which no family would enjoy greater wealth or prestige than another.  In the kingdom of God, the fortunes of one’s own family were to be shared with other families, those who were not so fortunate.  To become a disciple of Jesus, therefore, one needed to renounce the desire to advance one’s own status or wealth over against the Joneses, the Smiths or the Wongs.  Indeed, the disciple of Jesus was called to labour for the good of the whole community, even those who would have formerly been seen as one’s competitors.  The family’s possessions were no longer to be seen as belonging to that family alone.  Rather, they were to be given away.  They belonged to God, and were to be surrendered to God as an offering for the building of the commonwealth.

In the first century, if a person decided to live this way they could be accused of betraying the most important norms and values of the community.  They could be labelled family-haters, family-betrayers.  Jesus was!  There was no worse charge, and the marginalization that one could suffer as a result would have been like dying.  The image of the disciple as one who carries the cross of Christ, enduring the mocking that Christ suffered, is therefore completely apt.  Living like Christ lived inevitably draws the ire of those who feel they must champion and defend the status-quo.  That was why Jesus encouraged people to think very carefully before coming his disciples.  To weigh things up, to count the cost.  For being his disciple was very difficult.  You would certainly be marginalised.  But you could also get yourself killed.

Following Christ was very costly.  Yes.  But it was also very liberating.   Imagine growing up in the first century.  With your mother’s milk you imbibe the 1st commandment, to work for your family’s good fortune.  Imagine the terrible burden of that.  Imagine knowing, deep in your heart and soul, that your only value was that which you could earn for your family’s name.  What if you failed?  What if your family came up against hard times?  What if you were not smart enough to best your most ruthless competitors?  What if the things you were good at were not economically rewarding enough?  What then?  To people who lived daily with all these burdens and anxieties, Jesus offered God’s good news, the good news that you no longer needed to strive under the unbearable weight of your family’s expectations because you were valuable to God even if your family failed.  The good news that you could become a citizen of God’s new commonwealth, a commonwealth in which the good fortune of others would be shared even with those who, in the normal scheme of things, were lowest in the pecking order.  The good news that there would always be someone looking out for you, even when the going got tough.

So you see, this hard saying of Jesus was uttered for the sake of everyone who struggled under the crushing weight of the ancient world’s most universal expectations:  those regarding the fortunes of one’s family.  It was uttered to free people from that weight, so that they might find a more liveable way to be amongst the people of God’s new commonwealth.

“But that was then, and this is now” I hear you say.  “What relevance has all of this to offer our own time and place?  Things are different now.  The weights are not as heavy.”  Well, my friends, I’m not sure that that is true!  We are all of us subject, I think, to a great weight of expectation.  The weight of expectation may not be as focused in the fortunes of our families as much as it used to be, but the weight is there nonetheless.  Young men and women are under enormous pressure to conform to a particular model of beauty and success.  I call it the “Tom and Nicole” model.  To be beautiful is to be dressed in designer labels and to have a gym-sculpted body that is both strong and sexually alluring.  To be successful is be on television or in the movies.  Middle-aged men and women are under pressure as well.  The pressure to succeed financially, that is, to have accumulated a house, a beach house, and enough money to sponsor that supremely self-rewarding lifestyle, by age 65.  Older people are under pressure too, the pressure to assist their children in the realization of their more and more greedy expectations.  How many of you are actually parenting your grandchildren while your children pursue the almighty dollar?

In the midst of all this crushing contemporary pressure, Christ offers some good news to us as well.  And, strangely enough, the good news has not really changed all that much since the first century.  First, Christ says that it is possible to imagine a world in which the pressure to ‘make it’ or ‘succeed’ is irrelevant.  You are loved by God, he says, and therefore you don’t have to impress anyone.  Second, Christ would say that in order to experience that pressure-less world you have to be prepared to put away your idols, to stop living as though the “Tom and Nicole” model really mattered.  But count the cost before you do, Christ would say.  For to put away your idols is also to give away the values of the world in which you live.  Many of your friends, and even your family, may not like it.  They may think you have gone mad or betrayed them.  They may even try to undermine your choice.  Third, Christ would say that in giving your idols away, in dying to the basic values of this world, you will find a peace that passes all understanding.  The pressure will be relieved.  Why?  Because you will be then be free to give yourself away.  No longer will you be like a vacuum-cleaner which sucks everything into itself until it explodes.  Instead, you’ll be like a fan that channels the grace of a cool breeze towards others on a hot summer’s day.  In this, says Christ, is your salvation.  For in this you will find that he is living and breathing his divine life in and through your mortal frame.  I believe him.  Do you? 

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church in September 2004.