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Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Great Friday reflection

 'You will all fall away,' Jesus told them, 'for it is written: "I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered."' (Mark 14.27)
'Then everyone deserted him and fled' (Mark 14.50).
According the the gospels of Mark and Matthew, when Jesus is arrested for blasphemy and treason by the temple police, all his disciples flee. That includes not only the wider group who cried 'hosanna to the Son of David' upon Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and not only Judas the betrayer, but also the Twelve who were apparently closest to Jesus. On this Great Friday, I want to risk some observations about one of the many ways in which Christian disciples of the modern era, those who claim to be followers of Jesus today, also abandon their namesake at the point of his greatest human need and vulnerabilty.

One of the ways in which modern disciples abandon Jesus is to opt out of the rites and rituals of Passiontide.  Passiontide, also known as Holy Week, is the week immediately preceding the celebration of Pascha (or Easter).  From at least the 2nd century, this was the most important week of the Christian calendar, the week in which Christians commemorated the last week of Jesus' life, and especially his suffering, torture and execution (his passion) at the hands of the Roman and Jewish authorities.  These events are recalled in a series of rituals, or embodied stories, in which worshippers are invited to journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, through his anointing by Mary, his last meal with the disciples, his arrest, interrogation, torture and crucifixion. 

I have personally participated in the rituals of Passiontide for many years now, and find them to be continually capable of producing everything from tears to bewilderment to joy as I am invited into their visceral and profound mode of meditation upon Christianity's most holy mystery: the death of God in Christ.  Being close by Christ as he walks toward his death - not just in mind and thought, but in the profoundly tacit and bodily way that ritual makes possible - I find that I am confronted with both my spiritual poverty and the gratuitous love of God in ways that truly get under my skin and make a really big difference to the way I do my relationships, my ethics, my worship, my politics.  Those of us who walk this way to the end are perhaps more like the women in Mark and Matthew's accounts of the passion, the women who stay with Christ to the end even as they live through moments of incredible anguish, grief and bewilderment. Having passed through the passion of Christ, having lived it 'up-close-and-personally', they learn how to recognize resurrection when they see it and feel it, even if they do not understand it entirely (those who think they completely understand the event of the resurrection are kidding themselves!)  The men, who fled at the first sign of danger, must later learn how to own and live the life of resurrection from the women!

I notice, however, that very few modern protestant Christians share my enthusiasm for a womanly Passiontide.  In every parish in which I have served as a minister (with one clear exception), less than a quarter of the usual congregation showed up between the last Sunday of Lent and the Feast of the Resurrection.  For the most important week of the Christian calendar, in other words, most of those who own the name of Christ went missing in action. 

Now, over the years people have given a great many explanations for why this is so.  And the explanations and excuses are very revealing. Here are a few of the most common . . .
  • 'I was tired and needed a rest'.  I'm all for resting. Indeed, we Jews and Christians are told by God to give a seventh of our life to resting, and on a regular basis.  But why do so many Christians choose the most important week of the Christian calendar to do their resting? Why then?  And why isn't Holy Week understood not only as a legitimate form of rest, but at the paradigm example of what 'rest' can really mean? Why is Holy Week not understood to be a primary means by which the peace and reconciliation of God is made real in our lives?  As much as it pains me to say it, the answer is probably this: that most people who call themselves 'Christians' are actually pagans underneath. Their identities have been formed, in other words, not primarily by the Christian story and by their baptism into that story, but by the prevailing values and stories of contemporary Western culture.  In that culture, 'rest' has a very different meaning.  It means self-indulgence.  It means doing whatever you like. It means being free of responsibilities in general, and free of the responsibility to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in particular.
  • 'Easter is a time to spend time with family'.  Again, I am all for family. Indeed, the faith tells us to honour our parents and treat our children with respect and dignity.  But why do so many Christians choose family over Passiontide?  Why is Passiontide seen as less important than family? I would never dream of skipping the events of Holy Week to visit family.  Does this mean that I love my family less than others? No. It simply means that I make a priority of learning how to do family from Christ and from the events described in the rituals of Holy Week.  The washing of people's feet, for example.  Or staying with someone in their inexplicable suffering, even if I feel entirely powerless to do anything about it. Or dying that someone else may live.  That kind of thing.
  • 'I don't really go in for all that ritualistic stuff'.  This one usually comes from old protestants (both liberal and evangelical) who believe that faith is a private world of ideas and values that can be sequestered off from the rest of life when it is expedient to do so, rather than a public embodiment of the very life of God in ritual storytelling (worship), ethical practices and participatory politics (community).  Again, I would argue that old protestantism has little to do with the apostolic faith we receive from the bible and from tradition, and that it has considerably more to do with a contemporary privileging of the individual sense of self over and against communal realities such as ritual, tradition and story.  When people object to ritual, I know that their Christianity is only skin-deep.  It lives in their minds, but has barely begun to penetrate into their bodies, their loyalties and their communities. Ritual, for them, is a threat to this sense of the inviolable self. It calls such a self into question, the rituals recalling the suffering of Christ especially.
Having said all that, I am not of course arguing that people should attend the worship of Holy Week even if they are genuinely prevented by things like illness or accident.  Nor am I saying that people should never go away to another church or ecclesial community to share in these things.  If some time away from home and work can be combined with participating in the rites of another Christian community, well and good. The beauty of the ecumenical rites is that they can be celebrated almost everywhere!  Neither of these circumstances comes into the ambit of my central thesis: that Holy Week is that time of the year when those who call themselves Christians are stripped of their external presentation and trappings and thus revealed for what they truly are.

Can skin-deep Christians who abandon Christ at the moment of his deepest humanity be redeemed? Not by my rantings, nor by even the most sincere efforts of any evangelical soul. But even the men who abandoned Christ and resisted sharing in his sufferings were welcomed into the grace of the risen Christ. Nothing, it seems, is impossible for God . . . And I rejoice that it is so.

Holy Saturday 2013


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Everything is refuse compared to knowing Jesus Christ

This homily on Philippians 3.4b-14 and John 12.1-9 is made available as a sound file.  Please click here to download or listen.

The homily was preached at St David's, Oakleigh, on the fifth Sunday of Lent, 2013.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What about me? A tale of two prodigals

This homily on Luke 15.1-3, 11-32 is offered as a sound file. It was preached at South Yarra Baptist Church on the fourth Sunday of Lent, 2010.

Please click here to download the file in .mp3 format.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Repent or perish

Texts: Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-8; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

Today the Scriptures confront us with the question: ‘do you hunger and thirst for nothing, or do you hunger and thirst for God?’ The Psalmist clearly hungers and thirsts for God; and God, out of an infinite kindness, satisfies this hunger completely:
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water . .  My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips . . . for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
Isaiah, on the other hand, speaks of a desire that is not so satiated, a hunger and a thirst that is not quenched because it is a hunger and a thirst for something other than God:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
To spend one’s labour and one’s money on things that can never, in a million years, bring satisfaction is to spend oneself for nothing.  Some of you will remember the Rolling Stone’s hit from the early 60s ‘Satisfaction’.  In part, that song goes like this:

When I'm drivin' in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He's tellin' me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can't get no satisfaction

When I'm watchin' my T.V.
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I can't get no satisfaction.

The point made by this song and, nowadays, in a slightly more sophisticated manner by cultural critics like Noam Chomsky, is that you can never satiate an essentially spiritual hunger with food or drink or consumer goods, no matter what the advertisers might say. For while the consumer society lives from the human desire for things – a bigger or better house, car, phone, dress, suit, storage-solution, diet, boyfriend, body – none of these things will ever do the trick.  For in the end, for all their shiny attractiveness and glitter, consumer goods are like mirages.  They come into view, they attract our attention and give birth to a desire.  But once we possess them – once we have them in our hands - they disappear.  For consumer goods never deliver what they promise: happiness, peace, contentment, and end to the never-ending cycle of desire.  Having shelled out our hard-earned cash, what we finally hold in our hands is nothing, nothing substantial.  What we possess, instead, is a shell with a hollow heart.  And this hollowness signifies nothing other than the hollowness we continue to experience in the heart of ourselves, the hollowness of unfulfilled desire.  So out we go again, on the hunt for something that can finally fill the void.

According to the faith of Christians, in fact there is only one thing that will fill the void, and that thing is not really a thing at all, but a person, the God made known in Jesus Christ.  Jesus, as Bach memorably wrote, is the joy of all our human desiring.  He is the bread and the water and the wine that can finally satiate our thirst.  He is reality, the truly substantial, solid and concrete and undeniable as you like.  We are all searching for him, whether we know it or not; but we seldom find him because we in search for in all the wrong places.  He is the one who can fill the great big hole in our hearts.  By comparison, everything else is an insubstantial as fog. 

The problem, of course, with hungering and thirsting for every damned thing that is not God is that you can eventually starve to death.  Perhaps not literally – we might still be walking around – and yet we do so as zombies.  You know, the walking dead who have no zest for life, no joie de vivre.  In the passage we read this morning from 1 Corinthians chapter 10, the Apostle Paul speaks about the history of God’s people Israel and points out that even though the people of Israel saw the reality of God with their own eyes - having been led out of their slavery in Egypt with great power and an undeniable series of miraculous signs - when they found themselves in the desert of Sinai they nevertheless began to hanker after everything they had left behind in Egypt.  They hankered even for the conditions of slavery from which they had been freed.  They longed, in other words, for that which is evil, for that which makes not for life, but for death.  Many who were possessed by that desire in fact perished in the wilderness.  Their corpses littered the desert.  Now how do you explain that?  How do you explain a desire for evil and not for good, especially when evil’s greatest longing is for our death? 

Psychologically, one might refer to what is sometimes called the ‘battered wife’ syndrome, that is, the tendency of a person to return to a place of evil and abuse simply because living at home with an abusive spouse is, in the end, less scary that moving out into an unfamiliar world where one has to discover a completely new identity and reason for living.  ‘Who am I if not a battered wife?’ someone once asked me. ‘How do I handle emotions other than fear and self-loathing? I’ve completely forgotten, if I ever knew them at all, how to feel joy, or peace or love?  I don’t think I could handle it.’  In the face of such uncharted territory, many a person will return into the storm rather than head for safe harbour.  ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ says the proverb.  But there is a theological way of speaking about these things, also.  The apostle calls our preference for evil rather than good by the biblical name ‘idolatry’.  Now, an idol is an object we make, but then forget that it is we who made it. We then elevate that self-made object into the place that only God should properly occupy, the space of our greatest desire, the place of our deepest love and worship.  But here’s the rub (and the philosopher Feuerbach wrote about this extensively more than a century ago):  any object that we make and then elevate to the status of a deity most often symbolises nothing other than ourselves, our deepest desires, the things we long for most.  To then worship such a thing is therefore to do nothing other than worship ourselves.  It is become like Narcissus in the Greek myth, who becomes so enamoured by his own image on the surface of a pool that, in the attempt to hold and possess his own reflection, he falls in and drowns.  The love of things in other words, is really the love of ourselves, a worshipping of our own ingenuity at creating ever-new ways to deceive ourselves.   And it is a sad fact that most of us would rather worship ourselves than God.  Even if, by so doing, we make ourselves miserable with hunger and thirst.

For miserable is what we are, is it not, when no matter how hard we work and how many things we obtain as the just deserts of our hard work, we nevertheless feel as empty as a drum?  The truth is this, you see:  we cannot, no matter how hard we try, replace our need for God with an idol that represents ourselves.  The good and the beautiful and the true, the life worth living, the life that is meaningful and joyful is not something we can actually create for ourselves by the sweat of our brow.  Human beings are not God.  We cannot create such wondrous phenomena out of nothing.  When they come our way, the good the beautiful and the true arrive not by hard work or ingenuity, but as sheer gift or grace, an act of unconditional love from God.  Such gifts are indeed priceless, as Isaiah says:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
No matter how clever or rich or hardworking you are, you will not be able to buy, beg or steal the life of joy.  It is like the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert of Sinai.  It is like the water they drank from the rock.  It is a gift that cannot be stored or profited from.  It is God’s gift in Jesus Christ, and in the way of life that he represents.  It is grace, and mercy and peace with one’s enemies. 

So if you feel like you are on a treadmill, or like a mouse on one of those wheels in a cage, or if you value your house, your car, your toys, your clothes, your social reputation, or even the apparent ‘needs’ of your family more than you value the gift of God, then I would encourage you to ‘repent’.  Yes, ‘repent’!  Not a fashionable word, I know, but then again preachers are not called to be fashionable!  When the gospel-writer talks about ‘repentance’, he means this: to change one’s heart, to stop longing for things and start longing for God; to stop going in one direction, to turn around 180 degrees, and go in the opposite direction.  Repentance, you see, is not just for the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, those whom we rightly see as evil incarnate.  It is also for us, with our far more ordinary and prosaic evils.  The evil, for example, that is content to let the rest of the world starve to death and descend into endemic criminality so long as we are able to preserve the comforts and relative affluence of our own homes and hearth.  Repentance is what Lent is about.  It is a return to the promise we all made at our baptism to turn away from the devil, and all his works, and turn instead to Christ and his gift of life, life in all its fullness.  It is to turn from a life of empty slavery, in the thrall of our many idols, toward a life of thanksgiving for the many gifts that God bestows upon his beloved people.  It is to reimagine the fruitfulness of our lives, not in terms of the quest for safety and status and the accumulation of things, but in terms of our readiness in the power of God to produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience and self-discipline.

So let us reflect on our lives in the light of the word that is able to give life. Let us give away the appetites that lead to death, and let us repent.  A change of heart can make all the difference, both for ourselves and for the world at large.