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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Finding our Home in God

Texts: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35

Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions that ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You’.  This suggests that there is a longing in the human heart that is forever searching and striving until it finds its home, its resting-place, in God.  Today I want to steal just a little of your time reflecting on this idea of home. Is home a building or a country, or is it a person? Is home something that can be had in this life, or must we wait for the next? Is there any Christian virtue in being home-LESS?  Can any of us really thrive without a home?

Augustine’s definition of home as a resting-place in God summarizes a great deal of biblical material.  The story of Abram as we have it in Genesis, for example, is essentially about a wandering Aramean who is uprooted from Ur (in modern-day Iraq) and promised a new home.  At the simplest level of understanding, that home is nothing other than blood and soil.  For what Abram seems to desire most is a family of his own flesh and blood who will inherit the land he is being given, gain a stable and rooted place within it, and so prosper from its cultivation.

Now this desire is surely familiar to all of us.  One may interpret the traditional Australian dream for the quarter-acre block and the four-bedroom house in precisely these terms.  For what does the possession of such a thing signify if not a home in which our family may prosper, a solid base from which prosperity may be obtained for oneself and one’s family?  And is this not why many thousands of asylum seekers risk their lives in leaky boats to come to our shores? Is it not because their homelands have become unliveable?  Is it not because they seek new homes in which they may find shelter from the storms of life, a place of stability in which their families may put down roots, work hard, and prosper?  Whether we live here already, or come to Australia from afar, this desire for a home of blood and soil seems deeply embedded in the human heart.  We will risk a great deal to obtain it, very often everything that we are and everything that we own.  In Australia we will even borrow our net worth many times over in order to obtain at least the illusion that we have a home, so basic is our hunger for such things.

Now, I am the last person in the world who is qualified to condemn such desires, such needs, for I myself am subject to them.  I believe all people are.  If we are to live in this world, then there are some basic things that make the world habitable: food and drink, stable housing, and the care and regard of family and community.  We all need them because we have, and are, bodies.  And yet . . .  obtaining of such things is clearly not enough to satiate the driving need in us.  Even the most wealthy, those who have secured a stable and prosperous home and family life - not just once, but many times over - seem restless for something more.  The magazines one reads in the doctor’s surgery seem to confirm this one truth (even if truth is the last thing on their collective agenda!)  Why is this the case? Why is it that desire continues to trouble us even when we already possess everything that we could possibly need to satisfy the needs of both body and soul?

Well.  The Psalmist is one such person, a person of great wealth, a king probably: King David of Israel, most likely.  He is someone who has obtained more by way of blood and soil than almost any of his contemporaries could have imagined.  And yet he is troubled by many fears, particularly the fear of his enemies. Here’s the rub, you see.  Human beings get greedy.  Even if we are quite comfortable and secure, we look over our neighbour’s fence and see something that we do not have or (more accurately, I suspect) imagine we do not have, and we begin to covet, to desire that which belongs to our neighbour.  And that, my friends, creates the phenomenon of the enemy.  The enemy is someone whom we believe (rightly or wrongly) wants to take away what we have obtained by our virtue and by the sweat of our brow, namely our blood and our soil.  The enemy is the one who envies us, or whom we ourselves envy. The enemy is the one who has what we covet, or else covets what we have.  And if we have enemies, we feel the need to defend what we have.  For we fear that the enemy is somehow stronger than us, and will one day steal away what we treasure most.

It is interesting to me that the Psalmist seeks refuge from his enemies in the temple, the ‘house’ or dwelling-place of the Lord.  What is it about this place that eases the Psalmist’s suffering?  Apparently it is the Lord himself, the Lord’s face.  Let me quote:
One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek:
To dwell in the house of the Lord all my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.
For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling,
he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle
and set me high on a rock.
My heart says: ‘Seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, will I seek.
Apparently the Psalmist finds in the temple - its liturgy and music, its proportions and it architecture – the very face of God.  By worshipping there, one in a whole company of worshippers, the Psalmist apparently feels that he is being faced by God in that peculiarly biblical sense of having being caught in God’s gaze as the focus of God’s interest and attention, and so drawn into relationship with God as if by a meeting of the eyes, the first exchange of lovers.  Apparently the Psalmist finds in all the story-telling of the liturgy - the recounting of God’s relations with Israel from Abram, through the Patriarchs, the exodus, the Judges, and on into his own time – a God who provides a surer and more deeply interfused sense of home than even blood and soil can do.  For in the end, it seems – at least for the spirituality of the bible – blood and soil cannot be regarded as end in themselves.  They are most properly understood as symbols that point elsewhere: to God, and to the home that God can provide as the end of both our fear and our desiring.

For that is what is finally promised in the story of Abram, if you read the story carefully.  In amongst all of the praying and promising about land and family, there is this priceless line from the lips of the Lord:
‘Do not be afraid, Abram. For I am your refuge, your very great reward.’
Here we discover that it is God himself who promises to be Abram’s blood and soil, his land and his family.  God himself is promising to be Abram’s home.  The land of Canaan and the family from Abram’s loins give body to this promise, to be sure.  They give the promise a legitimate place to dwell in the world.  Yet they should never be mistaken for the fullness of God himself, any more than an icon or image of God should be mistaken for the divine.

There is a sense, therefore, in which the people of God will always be homeless.  Yes, in God’s grace, we may well be given homes and families. But these should never be mistaken for the home and family which God himself is for us.  For there is a city yet to come, whose architect and builder is God, and until we look for our citizenship in that ‘heavenly’ city, our hearts will continue to experience the restlessness of which Augustine speaks.  In the story of Abram that we read from Genesis, this ‘gap’ between the home we have and the home we long for is told in that strange ritual where a heifer, a ram and a lamb are cut in half and laid opposite each other, while a burning torch passes between them.  The ‘gap’ which separates the halves of the bodies signifies the gap between the promise and the fulfilment -  the covenant made before the enslavement of Israel in Egypt and its fulfilment when the people have crossed the River Jordan to take up possession of the land.  The burning torch, and the birds that are not so dismembered, are a sign that the gap will eventually be removed, that a final reconciliation will take place between the promise and its fulfilment.  In the meantime, Abram and his descendants can expect to be somewhat homeless, living here and living there, but never really belonging.

That ritual is repeated, in a way, when Jesus comes to the city of God on earth, the city of Jerusalem, and is utterly rejected in his own home.  He comes as the one who, like the God of the Psalms, longs to gather his scattered and homeless people into the shelter of his love, as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings.  He comes, in other words, to provide a home for God’s people in fulfilment of the promise to Abram.  But he is rejected and spurned and killed, as all prophets are.  God would provide a home for us, but we are inclined to cast God out from the homes we design for ourselves.  Sadly, this very often means that we are left with a feeling of desolation as we sit in our own homes and amidst our own families, the self-produced experience of a gap or rupture between the promise of home and its fulfilment.  For blood and soil on their own, apart from the home-making presence of God, are indeed desolate.  That is the tragic emptiness at the heart of the Nazi motto from the 1930s and 40s: ‘Blood and Soil!’!

So, there remains for the people of God a promise of home, and of Sabbath rest in God, a rest that was recently represented (albeit imperfectly) by Leonard Cohen like this:
Going home without my sorrow
Going home sometime tomorrow
Going home to where it’s better than before
Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without this costume that I wore.
As we continue into the Lenten pilgrimage, this is the lesson God would have a learn: that it is only by a deliberate forgetting that we have homes and families that we shall find them more truly – not as the result of our labour and hard work – but as the gift and promise of a true home with God.  Let us never mistake the former for the latter, but let us give thanks that God is kind and let us wait for the arrival of God’s promise with joy and with praise. And let us find compassion in our hearts for all who are as homeless as we.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Pilgrimage of Prayer

Texts:  Exodus 34.29-35; 2 Corinthians 3.12–4.2; Luke 9.28-36

This Wednesday the church enters the season of Lent.  The Ash Wednesday rite sets the tone for the season by calling the church to a time of prayer and reflection, inviting all who will to go on pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem, the place of his suffering, his death and, ultimately, his resurrection.  The point of the pilgrimage is revealed in the passage immediately prior to the one we read from Luke this morning:  that in walking with Jesus to his death, we might experience our own death—the death of our most alienated selves—and be raised glorious new selves with Christ, selves able to experience the joy and peace of God’s freedom.  So today, immediately before the pilgrimage begins in earnest, we read a story from Luke’s gospel which may be taken as a key statement about the meaning of everything that will unfold from here on in, both for Jesus and for pilgrims like us.  It is the story of Jesus’ transfiguration before Peter, James and John.  It is a story that, if read carefully and with discernment, is able to shed a great deal of light on what the Christian pilgrimage is all about. 

The first lesson to be learnt from this story is in its first line: ‘Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.’  Here we learn that pilgrimage is about going where Jesus goes, and doing what Jesus does.  Simple to say, but not so simple to do, hey?  A number of hurdles stand in the way.  The first is the fact that some of us may not, in fact, want to go with Jesus.  The text says that Jesus took the disciples with him, which implies that they were going and doing, not according to their own wills and desires, but according to Jesus’ will and desire.  It may be some of us, even amongst those gathered here today, are not so keen to do that.  Some of us may have other plans—to make enough money to purchase a comfortable lifestyle, for example, or to secure the respect and admiration of family or society.  If these are your plans then, of course, going on pilgrimage with Jesus is not going to be an attractive option.  For Jesus would ask that you put such plans aside in favour of his own plan.  Jesus would ask that you be able to say, ‘not my will but yours.’

This is the good news, though: if you risk this way, you’ll find yourself in a better place than if you stick to your own plans.  Because our own plans tend to make us miserable, do they not?  Isn’t it true that, even for those of us who actually get what we want (not that many of us do), we often do so only to discover that what we want is not what we need?  That is the difference between God and ourselves you see.  We are into smoke and mirrors, deceiving ourselves into thinking that what we want is what we need; but God is into truth, cutting through the advertising to what we really do need.  Being our maker, God has the inside running on these things, strangely enough!  So listen to what Jesus says, all you people who know what you want, or think you do.  ‘Those who want to save their lives will lose it, but those who forfeit their lives for my sake, will gain it.’ (Lk 9.24).  The promise of Jesus is this:  “if you go where I go, and do what I do, even unto death, you will find what you are looking for; unlike you, God actually knows what that is!”

That brings me to a second hurdle that often stops us from following Jesus.  The fact that it is very difficult to go where Jesus goes and do what Jesus does if you know very little about what kind of person Jesus is, and therefore the kinds of things Jesus is likely to do.  You may have seen the bumper-sticker, or read the paper-back emblazoned with the question “What would Jesus do?”  It’s a great question to ask yourself, but only if you happen to know a fair bit about Jesus already.  Now, unfortunately for some, knowledge of Jesus can’t be downloaded into your brain from the Net.  Nor can it be necessarily absorbed from books, in that slower, more old-fashioned, process called reading.  Don’t get me wrong, the main source of our knowledge about Jesus is, in fact, a book, a book called the New Testament.  And one can never pretend to be a follower of Jesus unless one is listening to the words of the New Testament on a very regular basis.  But there is more to knowledge of Jesus than reading about him.  There is also that personal communion with a living Jesus that is called, very simply in the Christian tradition, prayer.  Which brings me to the cusp of a second lesson from Luke.

The story says that Peter, James and John went with Jesus for a specific purpose, to pray.  So, pilgrimage is about being at prayer.  Now, prayer is not something we are able to do by ourselves, from our own resources as it were.  Note the story’s emphasis on the prayer of Jesus. Not once are the disciples themselves said to pray as independent agents of decision.  Rather, they are caught up in the prayer of Jesus, as he asks his Father for guidance about the journey ahead.  What the disciples then see and hear is a consequence of their own prayer, certainly.  Yet, that prayer is enabled and made possible by participating in the more vital prayer of Jesus, a wider and deeper prayer that is able to envelop and carry the disciples along, as it were, even to the very dwelling-place of God.  The prayer of the Christian, then, is not a reaching out to God from the depths of our own, native, apprehensions and resources but, rather, a participation in the priestly communion that Jesus already enjoys with his Father.  In him, and only in him, are we ever able to speak with God face-to-face.

From this, a number of other things flow.  First, that Christian prayer should be modelled after the prayer of Jesus.   Only by doing as Jesus does, do we learn how to pray as Christians rather than pagans.  Note that Jesus does not address the Father immediately and directly, but rather listens for the Father’s voice through a mediated engagement with the historic figures of Moses and Elijah, who, for Luke, represent the two most important strands of Jewish tradition—law and prophecy.  Now, hear what Luke is telling us here.  If you want to pray after the way of Jesus, he says, you must do as Jesus did.  Instead of addressing God directly, like pagans do, because they imagine they already know what God will say, sit down and listen to what God has already spoken in the stories and traditions of the Jewish and Christian faiths.  Listen to the Scriptures, to the liturgy, and to the sayings of the saints and doctors of the church.  For God has spoken already, which means that we may never hope to discover a new word unless we seek it in the old word.  We shall discover how to question God, in other words, only by first allowing God to question us through the word already spoken to saints and apostles and prophets of old.  We shall find the answers to our questions by communing with the answers others have found by praying as you are praying.

So let me return to the point I made earlier, that the pilgrimage of prayer is not simply about learning about God from books.  It is rather about communing with God through the face-to-face of human bodies, just as Jesus did with Moses and Elijah.  For in approaching a text or a liturgical symbol like the icon, we are really approaching not a mere object, but a living body or a community.  We sit down with that community’s struggle to live the faith in the midst of the trials of their place and time, so setting up an imaginative conversation with them, a conversation that is not so different to the conversation you may have with the brother or sister who sits next to you this morning.  The conversation is about the way in which God addresses the nitty-gritty details of our lives, the way in which God reaches out to show us how to live.  By staging that conversation, we learn (paradoxically) that God is not so very distant from us, that God is as alive and present in my own community as he was in theirs.  By listening to their stories, I discover that God addresses me in and through the ordinary human faces I encounter today.  So, finally, I learn that a communion with the presence of God is nothing like the pagans imagine it to be, some kind of mystical encounter with a disembodied spirit.  No, communion with God is exactly what Jesus is—the shining forth of a divine presence in, through, and as the lines of story and experience that mark a human face.  For Jews and Christians the face-to-face with God is at one and the same time a face-to-face with human beings—those who have gone before, as well as those who belong to my community right now.

And so we arrive at a third lesson about pilgrimage.  You will have noted that the disciples in the story began their journey not as individuals, but as a company.  Peter, James & John were regarded as the three pillars of the earliest Christian church.  Luke uses them to represent the church as a whole.  Therefore, we undertake the Lenten pilgrimage not only with Jesus, but with our brothers and sisters in faith.  Which is great, because things can get pretty scary along the way, and I don’t know about you, but when I get scared I feel kind’ve comforted that others are there with me, and may be just as perplexed as I am.

One way to realise the communal dimension of the pilgrimage is to join a small group in which you can explore the tradition with others, asking the questions that perplex you in a safe environment where no question is a dumb question, together looking to Jesus for strength and encouragement.  Small groups can be a place in which you share your struggles and experience the support and solidarity of others who struggle as well.  There are no experts in this form of church, only some who have lived the pilgrimage a little longer or a little more intentionally.  In small groups all are learners, and there is only one teacher: Christ.

Another way to share the pilgrimage with others is through the face-to-face of conversation with a spiritual guide or director.  Lent provides an opportunity to bite the bullet, to stop drifting about like a rudderless ship, and seek God’s guidance for the way to profit for your soul.  Some of you are wondering, no doubt, about jobs and careers.  Others are wondering about how you can best contribute to the ministry of Christ’s church.  Some are perhaps struggling with relationship issues, you know, should I stay or should I go, should I let go or should I hold my ground.  That kind of stuff.  Lent is an opportunity to take all that seriously, and make some serious progress.  A spiritual guide can help you do that, if you will let them.  They won’t have all the answers, but they can help you listen to the One who does have the answers.  I know it’s a little scary to bear your soul to another human being, especially someone who works for God.  But bearing one’s soul to another is really about becoming more honest with yourself, about facing the truth and letting God help you.  Your spiritual guide is there to help you to be honest with yourself.  But always with a view to helping you grow up into the recognition that you are loved and treasured by God, no matter what kind of shape you are in.  Being honest is the beginning of a pilgrimage to healing or transfiguration.  That brings me to the final lesson I wanted to speak about today.

When the disciples arrived with Jesus at the top of the mountain, they began to pray with him.  In the middle of their prayer, according to Luke, an amazing thing happened.  The appearance of Jesus face changed and his clothes became bright as lightening.  He became like Moses when he encountered God on Mt. Sinai.  He became a conduit or image for the divine glory.  In the Greek text, Luke actually says that while Jesus was praying, “the aspect of his face (prosopon) was changed (heteron) and his clothing became white as lightening.”  This means that his face was, literally, othered—that the glory of his divine self, usually hidden from human eyes, suddenly shone out through his human face, without at the same time making that face or humanity into something false, a mere mask or disguise for something more real.  Note that in Luke’s story, this event—usually called the ‘transfiguration’—has a particular purpose.  It shows the disciples, those who are about to join Jesus in his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, that their journey shall not be in vain.  Yes, there will be very difficult times.  There will be misunderstanding and suffering, there will be the fracturing of the community of disciples, and there will even be torture and death.  But the transfiguration assures them that for all this, God will not abandon them.  God will be as present and active in all of this as he is in the human Christ they see before them.  His glory may be hidden, even to the point of feeling completely absent at times, but it is real and present nevertheless.  Out of death will come life, out of crucifixion will come resurrection, out of darkest night will spring the glory of resurrection.

The transfiguration is, you see, primarily a testimony to the possibility of transformation, a promise directed to any who would accompany Jesus to Jerusalem, as we intend to do during the season of Lent.  In the reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul assures his listeners that all who turn to face Jesus will witness a divine glory that can never, finally, be hidden.  Indeed, it is a glory that, like grace, spills out beyond the boundaries of its own containment, transforming and ‘glorifying’ those who so contemplate to the very core of their beings.  For the glory of Christ’s image is not simply an impression, like sunburn, left on our faces after a long exposure, but fading with time.  Rather, it is an image that spills out to takes residence in our very souls and spirits, radiating as if from the inside, changing us (as Paul says) from ‘glory into glory’ so that our human selves are ever so slowly absorbed into the body and soul of Christ himself.

That, my friends, is the glorious promise of the Lenten pilgrimage: that mere human beings, tossed and broken like small vessels on an angry sea, might nevertheless reach safe harbour.  The storm is the suffering and death of crucifixion, the loss of property and status and ego, the loss of our oh-so-human plans and desires.  But the safe harbour is Christ.  By preparing ourselves to die with him, we are raised and transfigured, new people with a new vocation.  In Christ, Paul tells us, we remain the human vessels that we are, yet we bear now, not our own plans and purposes, but God’s unfathomable ambition to make the whole world new in justice and peace.  In that is our glory.  In that is the reason for our pilgrimage.  So I encourage you this morning with the words of that ancient hymn from the book of Timothy (2.11-13):  “if you die with him, you shall also live with him; if you endure, you shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he shall also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”  Have a blessed pilgrimage, one and all.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Path of Prophets

Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; 1 Corinthians 13; Luke 4.21-30

The path of the prophet of Yahweh is a difficult one.  Called by God in an irresistible fashion, the prophet is usually snatched away from what might be called a steady, secure job, and sent off to get him or herself into trouble with whatever religious and/or political authorities are in power at the time.  Take Jeremiah as an example.  According to the account in the book that bears his name, Jeremiah was little more than a boy when he was called, having just finished his apprenticeship to become a priest at the shrine in Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin.  In those days, being a priest was about as steady a job as one could get.  It was like being a public servant today.  For priests provided not only what our own government would call strictly ‘religious’ services – daily and weekly rituals, funerals, weddings and the like.  They also provided the literary, mathematical and administrative skills that kept the public sector going.  They represented the repository of the nation’s history and the main intellectual pool from which advisors to government on all kinds of issues of policy were drawn.  There was no safer job in the country, therefore, than that of a priest.

In this context it is understandable, is it not, that Jeremiah is fairly unhappy about being called to be a prophet?  ‘Ah, sovereign Lord’ he says to God, ‘I am only a child; I don’t know how to preach’.   Priests, of course, were rarely preachers.  They were administrators and liturgists, primarily.  Prophets, on the other hand, were preachers through and through.  So Jeremiah was probably right, technically, to mention these things.  Yet I doubt very much if Jeremiah’s youthful lack of experience with preaching were at the heart of his wariness.  For when the Lord replies to his excuses, he does so with these words:  ‘You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you’.  So here is the more substantial source of Jeremiah’s concerns: prophets get into trouble.  Prophets are seized by the word of the Lord that is able – now as much as then – to uncover the secret motivations of the hearer’s hearts.  Jeremiah knew very well that preaching like this tended to be very unpopular with the people in charge.  He knew that the path of the prophet was therefore a lonely one, a dangerous one, and very often a hungry one.  For who would pay a prophet to tell them the truth?

Now, it is well-recognised in the Jewish and Christian traditions that prophets perform a very important role.  Their task, as the text from Jeremiah succinctly puts it, is to ‘uproot and to tear down’ corrupted governments and religious institutions so that more just and godly forms of human society can be built or planted in their place.   The prophet reminds those who run both nations and churches that they are straying from the blueprint for truth and goodness that is the word of Yahweh.  The prophet deconstructs the propaganda of corruption and injustice, if you like, in order to reconstruct the good, the noble and the true in the image of the word of God, which the prophet never ceases to embody both in word and in deed.  Of course, in order to fulfil this vocation, the prophet must place his or herself in a place of risk.  Prophets must tell the truth, a truth given them by God, even when it marginalises them from the ‘main game’, the ‘business as usual’ of churches, governments, or communities.  Prophets are never welcome, therefore, in their ‘home town’, as the text from Luke points out.  For the prophet knows the sins and weaknesses of his or her home town very well.  It is likely that the prophet has even participated in those sins.  It would be difficult not to, for sin is systemic and communal before it is individual and voluntary.  But the prophet is pulled away from the fabric of a sinful community by the word of God, which seizes him or her from the outside and grants him or her such a radiant vision of what the community could be in God, that its current form will no longer satisfy.  The prophet is pulled away from the community, in other words, in order to see it more clearly – pulled away in order to speak as from another place, the place of God.  That is how the priest, Jeremiah, ended up preaching against the very system that had nurtured him, the system of the temple and its priestly administrators.  

This is how it was for Jesus as well.  In order to speak the very words of God to his Jewish brothers and sisters, God had to pull him away from the finely textured fabric of what he, along with his community, had always believed.  That is how Luke would have it, anyway.  Having always believed that the people of God were the Jews, that God had no interest in anyone else, Jesus was seized by the Spirit of God at baptism.  Driven into the wilderness, he was shown that God’s love was far more universal than tribal Israel would allow.  By reflecting upon the preaching of the prophets of days gone by, it occurred to Jesus that God had very often, in Israel’s history, chosen to heal and honour people who were not members of the covenant God has made with Israel.  By this, Jesus became convinced that ‘Israel’ could no longer be thought about in biological or even geo-political terms.  For the Jesus of Luke’s gospel, ‘Israel’ was no longer a nation-state or a biological tribe.  Israel was the company of those who were grasped by God’s love, whatever their country or ethnicity, so that their lives were covenanted to God through their obedience to the call of love.  Of course, when Jesus returned from the desert to share what he had learned, when he stood among his own people to speak the new word he had received from God, they were not particularly impressed.  Indeed, as Luke tells it, they became so angry that they drove him to the brow of the hill overlooking the town, and threatened to throw him over.  Jesus was able to walk away, on this occasion, but we know that he eventually died for his cause.  Not in vain, of course.  But the cost of reform was his very life.

This prophetic pattern of being torn away from the community in order to reform the community in the image of its maker is repeated over and over again in the history of the church.  It begins with Jesus and his followers, but continues in the desert fathers of the Constininian era, who left the increasingly wealthy and powerful church of the Roman Empire in order to protest its forgetting of simplicity, poverty and compassion.  It continued in the founding of monastic communities by Pachomius and Benedict.  It continued in the resistance of the Celtic churches to Roman authority and the Franciscan reforms of the 13th century.  It continued in the protestant reformers, and in Wesley’s re-introduction of primitive Christian evangelism and discipleship into the Anglican Church.  It continued in the liberation movements within South-American Catholicism, in Vatican 2, in Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, and even in the formation of the Uniting Church.

But where is the openness to prophecy in the church today?  We allow our prophets to critique government and the social organisation of the wider community (sometimes).  We allow them to be scathing about all that is going wrong in that sphere.  But what do we do when our prophets call the church to reform, to abandon (for example) its increasing comfort with the ideologies of secularism and consumerism and turn, again, to the covenant with a God of universal love?  Or how do we respond when the prophets call the church to abandon its oh-so-rational neo-liberalism and turn, again, to the wild and generous word of the gospel?  And which way do we look when the prophets call us to put way our many celebrity cults, with their Amway-like gathering around gurus and material success and turn, instead, to the simple poverty of the Christ who said that true life only came to those who were willing to let such things go?  I put it to you that the voices of the prophets are seldom heard or taken seriously where the most important decisions are being made.  At worst, they are branded heretics.  At best they are simply ignored, just as governments now ignore street protestors.   Sometimes the prophets are simply done away with, banished with guns or with bureaucratic machines, as in the Philippines at present.  Again, it seems, even in a church which formally honours the prophets, we are loath to hear what the prophets are trying to telling us right now.

I pray, with the Australian poet, James MacAuley, that God would raise up contemplatives and prophets to remind us of the pearl of great price that is the love of God, are pearl we are constantly in danger of putting aside.  Listen to MacAuley’s prayer:
Incarnate Word,in whom all nature lives,Cast flame upon the earth:raise up contemplativesAmong us, men whowalk within the fireof ceaseless prayerimpetuous desire.Set pools of silenceIn this thirsty land.
God grant that it may be so.