A U C K L A N D A O T E A R O A N E W Z E A L A N D
The Advent Revolution: Culture, Jamming, Jesus Style
December 21, 2003
Advent 4 Luke 1:39-49
Why is it that the capture of Saddam Hussein this week offered such hollow pleasure? After all, this was the reason for all the bloodshed in Iraq in the past months, wasn't it?
This was surely the type of reversal we love and hope for in the world. The tyrant is brought down to size. The mighty ruler is reduced to a hole in the ground, unshaven and at the hands of his righteous captors. The despot will now get what he deserves. This is what we've been waiting for all year. And what better time than Advent to get the news, amidst the narrative of the great reversal story of Jesus? Good eventually triumphing in its own time.
So why do I not feel hopeful after the capture of Saddam? Is it because the bombs in Baghdad didn't even pause long enough to acknowledge the capture of Hussein? Is it because even the global economic markets had only a minor shift in direction at the news? Is it because the 'good' or the 'right' has become very unclear in this whole drama? Is it because if this is a choice between Hussein's dictatorship or America's imperialism, the best we can hope for is the lesser of two evils and I'm not even sure which that is?
The Jesus revolution was all about reversals. However it was as much about the victory over violence (e.g. Hussein) as it was a reversal of the subtle violent power politics of imperialism (e.g. the USA).
Keep in mind that this whole Jesus drama began in the face of Roman imperialism. It was a revolutionary movement toward liberation. The context of the world into which Jesus came was a world in which the people of Israel, God's people, Jesus' people, were in a country occupied by a foreign power, a backwater province in a vast Roman empire. There was social disruption brought about by heavy taxation, loss of land, movement to cities, and the ever-present Roman legions. The period is spoken of as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace.
The Jesus revolution would critique and work for a reversal of the current Pax Americana movement.
The Gospel story today offers a fascinating lesson in reversal. It's a story of gender liberation, but not necessarily the type of gender reversal we might expect.
Women in Jesus' world were considered to be lesser beings than men, useful for child birth but not for the type of miracle which we would associate with God becoming flesh. So we have a woman, not even a full citizen bearing in her body the revolution's leader. The revolution which would be so concerned with inclusiveness and egalitarianism arrives via the labour pains of Mary.
What I love about all this reversal is that it comes via the very instrument which some would claim leads to women's oppression; child birth. Do you see my point? If according to the story a virginal conception takes place, would you not expect also that Mary might avoid those hot and heavy summer months, the morning sickness, the Braxton-Hicks contractions, labour and all the other trials of child bearing?
Here in today's gospel story, we have babies kicking and later in the story we have Mary and Joseph searching for a place for the birth. All so ordinary and human. The term "virgin birth" is a misnomer, even if it occurred that way. It was a virgin conception according to the story, but a thoroughly actual and conventional birth.
So the reversal is there, but not always in the way we might expect or hope.
In the 1990's, Naomi Wolf spoke about the reversal of fortune for women, but said that more reversals were needed. She spoke about the Beauty Myth which suggests that women are sex objects and men are success objects, meaning that society pressures women to ooze sex in their appearance and men to ooze success in theirs. She suggested that the beauty myth was more insidious, and harder to challenge than all the 1980s gains of women's' liberation:
"During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty. Pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal. More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers."
I get the impression with gender liberation, a little like the capture of Hussein, that we expect reversal. It's just that we don't always look in the right places. In looking in the wrong places, we just might thwart the very reversal we are working towards.
So, women are worse off, according to Wolf, and men are worse off as they now carry the double burden of having to compete with men to prove hardness and compete with women to prove softness. The sensitive new age guy is confused.
It's the media messages which confuse us. When Pax Americana controls the media, how do we get inside the real stories? When the media present idealised visions of women's bodies and men's success, where do we learn the reality? At Christmas, when the media is manically selling these messages in the interests of more sales, where do we find the signs of hope?
The Italian sociologist, Umberto Eco, coined the phrase "semiological guerrilla warfare", which became the catch-cry of the practice known as 'culture jamming'. It was a vision of freedom from the messages which bombard us, and a tool for fighting back. Eco wrote, "The receiver of the message seems to have a residual freedom: the freedom to read it in a different way. I am proposing an action to urge the audience to control the message and its multiple possibilities of interpretation. One medium can be employed to communicate a series of opinions on another medium. The universe of Technological Communication would then be patrolled by groups of communications guerrillas, who would restore a critical dimension to passive reception."
I recently saw a great example of culture jamming. It was a wrap around poster on a light pole which said, "Do you want to lose 2500 pounds in a day, call this number." Or there is the clever pamphlet which has the form of a religious fundamentalist tract, but in its detail spreads an anti-globalisation message.
This is getting close to the Jesus revolution. Always about reversals, but not always where we expect to find them. In Advent we honour the arrival of the greatest culture-jammer of all time. We tell the story of the arrival of one who sought a revolution; free from the dictates of society's rule makers, free to be fully alive in your own way and style. Into a world of social, ethnic and religious division Jesus way was all inclusive.
Personally, my hope for you for this Christmas is a wonderful reversal of any aspect of life which is holding you in the past. Believe that the Jesus story offers that possibility.
My hope for this church is the reversal of any aspect of its life which is held back by institutional expectation. There are too many people waiting for the church to be relevant.
My hope for our planet is to see that there is nothing yet being offered which effectively replaces the tyrant in Iraq. The reversal we look and work for is far more significant and earth shattering than arresting an aging murderer.
Reversals are the name of the game, even the reason for the season. Just don't look in the wrong places.
Which city is the brightest and most shining example of New Zealand at its best? That might depend on where you are. I used to think it was Christchurch. But don't worry. I'm a little more enlightened now that I've lived in Auckland for a year.
For many people though, no matter where they were last Monday night, Wellington was Middle Earth. It was the brightest of all the cities of New Zealand. It was certainly the part of the country that was on show to the world during the world premiere of the third installment of director Peter Jackson's version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Over 100,000 people turned up for the parade of the Middle Earth stars. It was like a fashion show of sorts. The NZ Herald called it a 'fashion bonanza' for NZ designers. In the parade they were mostly dressed up to look their very best, or their very worst as orcs, ringwraiths, and other 'fell' creatures.
Yes the designer clothes were out, but what captured the newspaper headlines and hearts of the fans was the simple T-shirt worn by Orlando Bloom showing the star's love of NZ and of the NZ people. The red carpet was down and a banquet was laid out, but the one thing that seemed to matter most to the stars was that NZ had let them become like family.
This is rather in the style of John the Baptist. The basic and the rough are praised above the elaborate and the refined. John the Baptist clothed himself in the roughest of clothes and sought to live in the most basic and rough way. He had been referred to as a wild man.
In his own way, John sought the shadows. He sought them to find enlightenment, and that is exactly what he found. He found truth, knowledge, and prophetic wisdom. From within the shadows he was able to recognise the reality of the light in Jesus. The shadows are uncomfortable for us but often it is through them and because of them that we find and recognise reality and light.
I'm not suggesting that we all need to seek the basic or ascetic way of life. We don't need to mimic the rough lifestyle of John the Baptist. I enjoy the blessings of an affluent life-style as much as anyone else here. However, shadows are many things and they will be in our lives regardless of what we do. Shadows within us and around us are inevitable.
The shadows for Ekhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, were found from within. It wasn't the only place he found shadows. But his life-changing experience of shadow was an inner experience. In the shadow of his despair he found enlightenment.
For C. S. Lewis the shadows are the world around us. He called this world the Shadowlands, from which he distinguishes reality or the Kingdom. The descriptions of the real Kingdom in his children's series The Chronicles of Narnia are helpful insights to his understanding of shadow and of the Kingdom (reality).
At the end of the final book, The Last Battle, when the characters finally find themselves in the real Kingdom, they immediately recognise it as something that they know of from home. But the reality is sweeter, brighter, larger, deeper, and richer than anything they have previously known. The grass is greener, the sky is bluer and the mountains are larger than anything they've seen before. The children's recognition of reality came through their knowledge of the Shadowlands.
The Lord of the Rings is a story of shadows and light. It is set in Middle Earth, a place of roughness, of shadows and violence, a place of darkness and war. The character of Gollum epitomises the shadows in humanoid form. He has become a shadow of his former self, a shadow of the one known as Smeagol. But without the shadowed, ruined Gollum, the reality of light cannot come to Middle Earth. He has an important and necessary part to play.
The shadows, whatever they are for us, are inevitable. We need not hide from them, we need not fear them, we may even seek them. For out of the shadows comes the glimpse of light. Because of the shadows, we can recognise reality.
During Advent we anticipate the coming of Jesus. The coming of light from the shadow. Jesus was born in the shadow of a stable. He was born in the shadow of the cattle and other animals around him. He was born in the shadow of a Roman king and in the shadow of concealment. According to the Gospels only a few wise men and shepherds knew how important he was, apart from his family.
Jesus brought us light from the shadows. The shadows within us and around us are inevitable. What we do with them is our choice.
(Sandy is on temporary placement at St Matthew's frrom St John's College, Auckland)
It was my first Anzac Day in Auckland in 2001. I found myself at the dawn service at the Museum, without an official role, but with my dog collar on. With the event underway and no Padre in sight I was spotted and handed a microphone. I was told to pronounce the official Anzac blessing in front of this crowd of 10,000 people, live on National Radio. As I framed the question to ask the MC as to whether there was some particular words to be used he said, "Right, you're on in three seconds!"
Let me tell you about those three seconds. My mind went crazy and my heart beat for dear life. Three seconds felt like three hours. I began hearing my fourth form teachers voice as I was saying to myself, "I am not good enough to do this. I can't project my voice well enough. I cant gather my thoughts well enough." It was like my life was flashing before my eyes. I thought about everything except what it was I was actually going to say.
As the numbers counted down three, two, one... I was on! I stood frozen in front of the microphone for a split second then opened my mouth still with my mind empty of ideas. To this day I don't know what I would have said, because just before a sound came from my mouth, I heard the voice of the Padre who had arrived and was speaking now from another microphone in the crowd. Phew! That was close. I could safely say it was the largest crowd I almost spoke in front of.
Advent is a time when we venture into unknown territory, and ponder the enormous potential and possibility of God in human flesh, even our own human flesh. It's a time for personal transfigurations and enlightenments, time to hear the voice of God which tells us there are no limits to what we can achieve. Yet there are other voices, like my fourth form teachers and these hold us back and form part of our inner critic.
For many years I could not imagine ever being a public speaker. As a 15 year old, I stuttered and spluttered my way through a school presentation and was told by the teacher that I couldn't project my voice, I couldn't gather my thoughts usefully and - whatever else happened in my life - I should never consider any job where I had to speak publicly. I just wasn't good enough at it.
Teachers say things like that. At least some teachers do. I'm sure they speak without considering the possibility that their voices could remain lodged in our heads and psyches. Comments like these become haunting echoes of past failures. They feed our egos, our identities, our 'I am' statements. They become voices which recur at moments of opportunity saying "I am just not good enough", and so we become locked into either failure, or mediocrity or only occasional achievement.
We all have 'I am' statements. I am a burden, I am useless, I am hopeless, I am stupid, I am weak, I am guilty etc. Whatever they are they feed our egos and limit our experience of life. When I speak of ego I do so aware of the complex and diverse opinions about ego and definition. I am no expert, as I have no psychological training, but speak of ego something like Jungian theory which sees ego as the conscious representation of the deeper self. Unlike Jung I see ego as an illusory or a false self. It is a creation of our mind and the part of our psyche which is open to other people's criticism, comments and judgments. It is up and down, in a constant state of flux as it exists in individual isolation.
Ego could be summarised as 'Edging God Out' as the true self is our spirit which tunes into the universal energy or God or love or whatever the guiding principle is. Our egos take on critical messages and live into them. 'I am just not good enough' could be the anthem of the human ego. It needs struggle and criticism to feed its dependence. The ego is dependent and fragile.
I want to urge you to journey past the ego this Advent, as we honour the imminent arrival of the great 'I am' into human experience. As you delve past the ego, and discover your true being, your true voice, life will open up with possibility beyond your wildest dreams. It will be the magic of Christmas. It will be the flame of hope which will drive you to live fully in the present. This will be the miracle of a transfiguration where life can be pure joy and peace.
It was Popeye who said "I am what I yam and that's all that I yam." This could be an alternate Advent anthem. God may even have been quoting Popeye when, as quoted in Exodus 3, he said to Moses with the Hebrew YHWH, "I am who I am." God is true being, or as Paul Tillich taught, the Ground of all Being. To the extent that God is within us, God is our true Being, our source. To the extent that we are made in the image of God, we live out God's being. Jesus lived as a wonderful, even unique, manifestation of true Being. He often made "I am" pronouncements; the gate, the living bread, the good shepherd, the way, the truth and the life, etc. He was unaffected by ego, as he put criticism and attack to the side and lived out powerfully his purpose and vision.
Now, rather than saying, as some would, that this makes Jesus the only way to God, I would rather say that Jesus has modelled full humanity as the way to God. That way is the deep journey inwards, between and beyond to true being. If only we would take on board the voice of YHWH or 'I am', the voice of the Good shepherd telling us that we are complete and good enough in our true beings. If only we would hear the words 'Well done! With you I am well pleased' instead of the voice of the inner critic. This morning the confession has been left out of the liturgy, as the weekly communication of inadequacy may feed the ego but does little to foster powerful lives. God forbid that we should actually feel that we are doing quite well in life. What role would the Church have then?
If there is any theme running through this Advent season, let it be a call to living powerful and authentic lives. Let it be a church which communicates positive and powerful messages about achievement rather than locking people into the codependent egotisical patterns of underachievment. As an aid in this Advent process the prayers will be handled slightly differently. As many of us no longer see prayer as a form of petition to a controlling God beyond the clouds, we will explore prayer as an inner journey through silence and reflection into an experience of I am, not the inner critic 'I ams' which rule our egos, but the powerful true self where God dwells.
If the ego's anthem is 'just not good enough' lets conquer it by living out Popeye's Advent anthem "I am what I yam and that's all that I yam." Whether you open your can of power spinach by squeezing it with your bare fist, or with your trusty blow torch, or however it is you find energy, the call this Advent is Popeye's, "I am what I yam and that's all that I yam."
The readings today provide a rich array of opportunities for us to get stuck in to some in-depth scriptural analysis. The reading from 2nd Samuel is the last words of David, King of Israel. These words are almost ironic as they reflect David's understanding, finally, at the end of his life that what is important in leadership is justice.
This comes after David's tumultuous life as shepherd, warrior, musician and poet, and husband of one, no two, no three, no, too many wives to name, and lover of numerous concubines-so much for Biblical family values. Indeed, to be called a "Son of David" was to number you among a cast of dozens; Matthew traces Jesus' lineage back to David and, yes, Bathsheeba, his fourth named wife. [Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba].
David's family life is one that makes the House of Windsor look positively tame, as David's eldest son and heir raped his half sister, and was pursued and killed by another half brother, Absalom, for doing so; Absalom later led a unsuccessful rebellion against David his father, and was killed in battle. It is little wonder that at the end of his life David reflects that justice is the key virtue of any leader. But what could I add here at St Matthew's, which already has such an active ministry of justice?
As we end the Church's yearly cycle of readings, the Revelation to John offers an apocalyptic vision of the end of time, and a vision of the final victory of Christ triumphant over the world. This vision is offered to Christians in a time of tremendous tumult and persecution, and it is very tempting to draw parallels with this time and other terror-filled times in history, and the reign of Christ in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. But what could I add here at St Matthew's, which already has an active on-line ministry, and who only recently hosted Bishop Spong and his vision of the new Church?
Today on the last Sunday of the Church's year, I would like to draw your attention to the reading from the Gospel of John. This reading obviously comes from the trial of Jesus before Pilate, and occurs immediately before Jesus' humiliation and crucifixion. The trial brings into sharp focus many of the theological points that John makes throughout his gospel account.
In order to understand what John is doing in this story we need to remember two things about John: firstly, that in every story in John there are three levels of belief, represented by three characters or groups in the story: 1) there is the character who represents unbelief, who cannot believe that Jesus is anything but an unimportant magician; 2) there is the character who represents cautious belief, who understands Jesus as a good teacher, perhaps a prophet after the OT tradition; and finally, 3) there is the true believer who understands that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of God.
Second, in John you will remember that the identity of each of these characters is signalled to us by John's use of light: Nicodemus comes by night, a man approaches who has been blind from birth, Lazarus comes from dark to light, and so forth.
In John 18, which takes place after the second cockcrow as dawn is breaking, Pilate is in the Praetorium, personally conducting the interrogation and trial of Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus effectively says to says to him, "What do you say?" You decide. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has been inviting his followers into a full belief in him, and this, now, is his most urgent demand. On trial for his life, Jesus calls on his followers to make a decision about him. They must decide whether he is teacher or prophet, or the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of God. Jesus demands that Pilate make a decision.
It is merely the twilight of dawn however, and the turbulent crowd outside stands in the dark. In the flickering light of the Praetorium, Pilate is confronted with his own moment of truth. This was not Pilate's first confrontation with the Jews, and he knew how dangerous they could be. Pilate is encumbered by his own political concerns and personal ambitions; he must satisfy an array of competing political interests and hold his region together; he must keep the nationalistic Jews content, and he must represent the military and political interests of the Roman emperor, otherwise his political future is finished.
Although Pilate proclaims Jesus king twice, and innocent three times, he does not, or cannot, make his own commitment to acknowledge for himself who Jesus really is. Pilate's only reality is a political one, not a personal one. He remains in the dim twilight of his ambition. When the full light of day comes, Pilate has vanished, to be remembered by history chiefly for his indecision and political ambition. When Jesus demanded that Pilate make a decision, Pilate was distracted by the cares and occupations of his authority, and the opportunity for a bold, if unexpected, declaration of faith is lost.
In his gospel, John demands that every one who encounters Jesus make a decision about who he is. In his gospel, John demands that each of us decide who Jesus is, and make a frank confession of our faith. This is no easier in the apocalyptic 21st Century than in the first, for this is a confession more easily promised than made. Each of us is caught by the care and occupations of our own lives, and we are easily distracted by the demands of the children, the boss, the government, the rugby (ouch!), the mortgage-holder or the IRD. And yet by our very presence here each of us has said that we are trying to live out the decision that we made at our baptisms: that Jesus would be Christ, Messiah, and sovereign in our lives. Although it may not seem so to us at this moment, being a Christian today is a brave act, as Christians around the world are being tried and killed for their faith by both the powerful and the angry.
But John's gospel calls us to make this decision about who Jesus is not only as individuals, but also as the community of faith we call the Church. It is easy to forget that our liturgies, our polity, our synods and meetings, our leadership, are all intended to point beyond themselves to the Christ who reigns eternally. But how simple it is to be distracted by the immediate cares and occupations of our lives and our church, and to lose our vision.
As you well know, the Anglican Church is caught up in one of its periodic tizzies that so fascinate non-Anglicans, and once again it appears to be about sex. Sigh. (Although I think it really is about ordination, but that's for another time.) It would seem that the new bishop of an obscure North American diocese has been given the ability to break apart the church founded by Latimer, Ridley, Cramner and an adulterous royal nearly 500 years ago. These apocalyptic threats of disunity, collapse and the general End-Of-Civilisation-As-We-Know-It are both familiar and tendentious. They not only do a disservice to the community of Christians called Anglicans, but they are ultimately unfaithful.
They are unfaithful because they forget that the Church is the Body of Christ, and that Christ dwells in the Church. If we truly believe that the Church is the body of Christ, if we truly believe that Jesus Christ dwells within the church, then it can only be changed, not broken. We proclaim that humanity was restored to wholeness with God through Jesus broken body on the Cross. We proclaim that the Church is made one in the breaking of the bread at the altar. We can also remain confident that the body of Christ can remain whole even whilst it appears to be breaking apart. Jesus Christ will manage the church and will lead it into the next place, even if that place looks quite different from what we know now. We and Anglican church leaders are now confronted by Jesus' question, "What do you say?" And if they are distracted by tumultuous and desperate calls for unity in the church at all costs, then we, like Pilate, will have missed a crucial moment to declare our faith.
We have begun to hear the expression "post-Christian" tossed about these days, as though Christ were somehow like Nanna's old armchair in the lounge that we'd like to get re-upholstered. If that expression means that we must re-create our understanding of Christ in the same way we had to reconstruct our understanding of God in the years after the Holocaust-Hiroshima events of the second World War, then it is no bad thing. It means that we can create a robust, lively, and attractive church that responds to the world today.
We heard dire threats when the Anglican Church became more inclusive in membership and leadership in the past: and yet I submit that the American Episcopal Church was greatly enhanced by the ordination of the first "Negro" [Absalom Jones] in 1802; the Church in Aotearoa was greatly enhanced by the ordination of the first tangata whenua priest [Rota Waiota] in 1853 and finally Pihopa [Frederick Bennett] in 1928, and the first diocesan bishop who is a woman [Penny Jamieson], although all of these ordinations were vigorously protested with apocalyptic threats in some parts of the church. The church has not only survived, but flourished because of those historic events, and it will survive and flourish now, if only its leaders will have the courage to allow it to do so.
If we have decided as individuals that Jesus Christ is ruler of our lives; if we have decided as a community of faith that Jesus Christ is head of the Church; then we must have the confidence that the will of Jesus Christ has been expressed by the Church in its due deliberations and processes; and to suggest that the unity of the body of Christ is under threat for sociological reasons, or to hold the church hostage to any cultural point of view is ultimately faithless, and is not worthy of our church, its leaders, or our historic tradition.
We, you and I, must remind ourselves, our lay leaders, our bishops and archbishops, not to be distracted by trying to satisfy an array of competing political interests simply in order to hold the church together.
We remind ourselves why we are here: to proclaim our faith in the Risen Christ. John's urgent question this morning comes to us as individuals and as a community. You have responded as individuals, for you are here. Now the Church must get on in the brightness of the day with the much more urgent business of proclaiming an inclusive hope, and working actively for justice in the world, and allow Jesus Christ to take the Church into a new age.
Dr Mark Henrickson
Mark has worked for many years in HIV-related health and mental health care before joining Massey University. He has published on HIV prevention, care delivery, and programme design and evaluation. His current research and teaching interests include human sexuality, alcohol and other drugs, cultural competence, and social work field education.
A well-worn five dollar bill and a similarly distressed twenty dollar bill arrived at a Federal Reserve Bank to be retired. As they moved along the conveyor belt to be burned, they struck up a conversation.
The twenty dollar bill reminisced about its travels all over the world. "I've had a pretty good life," the twenty proclaimed. "Why I've been to Las Vegas and Rome, the finest restaurants in New York, performances on Broadway, and even a cruise to the Caribbean."
"Wow!" said the five dollar bill. "You've really had an exciting life!"
"So tell me," says the twenty, "Where have you been throughout your lifetime?"
The five dollar bill replies, "Oh, I've been to the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Anglican Church...."
The twenty dollar bill interrupts, "What's a church?"
Of course not true of St Matthew's! There’s also that long standing joke about the bumbling minister who chose as the offertory hymn for stewardship Sunday, 'Jesus paid it all'. His treasurer resigned immediately following the service.
At least once every three years you will have heard a sermon on the famous story of the Widow's Mite; her small offering at the temple. For me as a lifelong Anglican, that's coming up for 12 sermons. For some of you that number could be doubled. I think I could safely say that 10 times I have been competent to listen to the sermon. I could safely say that 10 times I have been told to be just like the widow; that is, give everything, do it with a generous heart, do not to be pretentious like the scribes. Its always been a nice passage with a good moral; good one for the kids in Sunday School. Easy to preach on and most listeners leave resting comfortably that they are alright.
Most of the sermons offer sentimental lessons about Jesus, as he sat by the road and watched the tens of thousands of visitors who would have travelled past the temples golden trumpets which doubled as money scoops during Passover. He watched and singled out one lonely woman amongst the throng. He gave her his special attention and she became the pin up girl for generosity. So the moral is to be generous, especially to the Church. Give - even give everything - as the widow did. Sounds fair enough. So, "Be like the Widow," right?
But stop and think about it. The point could be the exact reverse. Why do you think the scribes are wearing their long extravagant robes and parading through the streets? How do you think they got to afford the best seats in the synagogues and invites to the prestigious parties? Wasn't it from the extortion of the offertories of people like the widow? They had done nothing to support widows, in fact they had abandoned them. Instead, they lived it up themselves.
Breaking the pattern of decades of sermons, I am here to tell you this morning DON'T BE LIKE THE WIDOW! Don't give up all your money to anyone! Especially don't give any money to people who trap you in a system of oppression. This passage is a savage critique of the temple system, which masqueraded as a spiritual home, yet fronted a system of cashing in on poor people's dependence. The temple was a religious system of domination and control. It trapped people in a system where they were classed as insider or outsider, included or excluded. Widows in this scheme were less than human being women, and even worse, women without men. The temple was a place of exclusion and domination.
Jesus sat and watched all of this oppression taking place and the poor widow enrolling right on into it. We can only wonder what he thought! I can only imagine he thought, "Don't be like the widow. Don't support oppression."
What about the Church today? You be the judge. Our global Church leaders are currently voting for unity over truth, in their fear of a split. They can’t seem to agree over whether gay and lesbian people should lead the Church. Surely for followers of Jesus that's a no-brainer. Aren't we on about inclusion and diversity?
While people abandon the Church in droves, they discuss issues which have long been put to pasture by the wider society. You be the judge. Support Christian ministry which is life-affirming, support work which honours the dignity of the least in society, don't prop up a system of domination. Support ministry which is inclusive. Stand against religion which stigmatises people because of their sexuality or social standing.
Don't be like the widow. Be discerning. Be bold. Be generous to worthy causes. With Advent on our doorstep, you could say that Jesus is sitting by the temples and churches of our world watching. He is not looking for piety as opposed to pretension. He’s looking for radical attention to social and personal needs over religion which is pure and righteous.
Be real! Pity the widow. Fight for the widow. Stand against the systems which made her a poor and second class citizen; don't perpetuate them. Pity the widow. Don't be like the widow!
Ordinary Sunday 29 Isa 53:4-12 Hebrews 4:12-16 Mark 10:35-45
Many of you know that I have been happily scooting around town recently on my new Vespa. Someone described me as the 'quicker Vicar', which is ironic as the scooter goes at about the same speed as a ride on lawn mower.
I love my little Vespa. I ignore the laughter at traffic lights, and putt along at my own pace. I also try to ignore the scorn from motor bike riders who seem to think they are cooler because they have bigger equipment. A typical male stigma no doubt. In any case, I heard a story recently which particularly captured my imagination as a new Vespa rider...
A guy rolled up at the traffic lights on a tiny Vespa. (Let's call the guy Friedrick Nietzsche just for fun.) He pulled up next to a guy in a brand spanking sizzling red hot Ferrari. (Let's call him Sigmund Freud just to make a point. Can we maybe add that he had his mother in the passenger seat just to be cheeky?)
Nietzsche poked his head through the passenger window of the Ferrari and admired the car and its interior features. Freud glowed with pride and proceeded to boast of its dimensions, the details and the speed of his gazelle of a car. He gloated, "This baby will take off and reach 100ks an hour in 4 seconds. Just watch and see."
Sure enough, the lights changed and with little fuss Freud raced ahead. Within seconds he saw the tiny Vespa like a small speck in the distance through his rear view mirror. He smiled with pleasure, but his smile turned as the speck grew larger in his mirror and before he knew it the Vespa had raced up and overtaken his Ferrari. Nietzsche was charging ahead! Freud decided he couldn't let this happen. His Ferrari was being mocked!
So, he sped up and sure enough raced past the Vespa again. He relaxed when Nietzsche was just a speck in the distance again. Blow me down, it happened again! The Vespa came screaming past the Ferrari. After this happened three times, Freud was baffled but refused to let up. The fourth time Nietzsche sped past the Ferrari, he went completely out of control and crashed his Vespa.
Freud screeched to a halt and leapt out of his car. He found Nietzsche lying in a crumpled mess on the side of the road. Seeing that he was just alive, Freud asked him, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Nietzsche whispered what could well have been his last words in a breathy hush, "Please unhook my suspenders from your side view mirror."
~ ~ ~
I don't know what the moral of that story is, except maybe never underestimate a Vespa! Or maybe never put an existentialist behind the handle bars of a Vespa. In any case a couple of themes from today's readings related for me. Job was a character a bit like Nietzsche on the Vespa. His life seemed out of control, spinning into destruction and there was a power figure who seemed to be mocking him throughout his demise.
The other was the reversal theme of the gospel passage. The hare and tortoise tale holds in life. So often what we assume to be the greatest is not actually so great; what we assume to be the fastest is actually the slowest and least effective and most dangerous.
Let me come back in a moment to the readings. But first a brief journey through a book I read a decade ago, When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession; set in the 1880's, a time when the philosophical foundation of existentialism collided with psychoanalysis in a new form of therapy commonly called the "talking cure".
It tells the story of Dr Breuer, a student of Sigmund Freud, who was asked to heal Nietzsche of his suicidal despair, as nothing less than the future of philosophical endeavour was under threat if Nietzsche was lost to the world. Nietzsche was suffering from a broken heart and a strong skepticism about religion and the concept of hope.
Nietszche agreed to the therapy under the condition that this would be a mutual arrangement. This would be a true talking cure, as each would be therapist for the other. Breuer's ploy to uncover Nietzsche's depression by being vulnerable about his own lost love led to doctor being treated by patient.
The roles became fluid. Teacher became student, healer became sufferer, philosopher became psychologist. The conversations which evolved became a test case in existential psychotherapy, and possibly even narrative therapy where the conversation becomes its own healing story.
A similar theme was picked up in the more recent novel Tuesdays with Morrie, where an older man with only months to live is visited by a young journalist, a former student. He wants to help by visiting each week, but in the process of their conversations finds himself helped beyond words. Again the roles are fluid. Again there is a reversal.
Back to the readings. They speak of suffering, healing and the potential for power when human beings give up their own ego battle and live as co-creators.
Job was in despair, as if in a whirlwind. Today's passage has him in conversation with the Almighty. It could be read as cruel mocking of his suffering. Here we have a man who has lost everything, suffered all manner of pain and despair amidst the deafening silence of the God he was standing by, and the first words he hears from this God are "Gird up your loins like a man!" Sounds like a macho father who sees his son arrive home after school with a black eye and tells him, "Stop crying like a sissie. By the way, did you get some good shots on the other guy?"
The Almighty goes on for three chapters outlining his awesome creative power and wisdom. The end result is Job throwing himself in the dirt and repenting like a frightened dog, uttering the words, "I despise myself." The good news is that he went on to live a long and full life, the text tells us.
Now, either we conclude that God was a nasty tyrant in this story, or we see this as a clever conversation of role reversals taking place. The God figure is pointing to the power of choice. It never needed to get to this point for Job. Each of the acts of the God figure were creative choices for life and meaning. Why would Job as a co-creator chose any other? Why would he choose to take on a battle which never had to be fought? Did he in some way buy the religious notion that suffering is good for the soul? As Nietzsche would have asked, did he need his belief in a personal and powerful interventionist God as a crutch to show how weak he is?
Did he need the comfort or familiarity of the struggle? As Tolle would say, "Once the pain-body has taken you over, you want more pain. You become a victim or a perpetrator. You want to inflict pain, or you want to suffer pain, or both. Look closely and you will find that your thinking and behavior are designed to keep the pain going, for yourself and others. If you were truly conscious of it, the pattern would dissolve, for to want more pain is insanity, and nobody is consciously insane." (The Power of Now, p. 31)
Job the man is in conversation with the God figure, seeking help from the almighty oblivious to the power he himself held to choose his own circumstances. A role reversal, where as co-creators even the human and divine roles are fluid.
Jesus understood this well. He may have been described in Hebrews as a high priest but he was a human being first. The text tells us he lived, suffered and cried tears of pain. He may have been a great teacher and miracle worker but was a fellow journeyer first. He embodied co-creation. In one person he was a unique blend of human and divine, helper and helpee, healer and sufferer, philosopher and psychologist, oppressed person and social revolutionary.
His greatest achievements were not his miracles of bringing back the dead, rather it was the ordinary moments of humanity where he pushed others to shine and take the lead.
When you and I realise the enormous freedom and power we have on account of the fact that God resides within and between us, how could we not do great things in our life beyond our wildest expectation? Won't the greatest things we achieve be those ordinary times when we inspire others to greatness?
When we get over religion as a crutch, it can add so much to our lives without being about codependence. When we practice co-creation, we will even be practicing role reversal with the Almighty.
Ride a Vespa if that is your thing, ride a Harley or a Ferrari or ride nothing at all. Move slowly or quickly, but know that life is no competition. Be authentic to your own vision and purpose in life, but do it knowing your role as partner with God.
Choose power. Choose greatness. Know that the best way is often the way of reversal. Choose not to enter battles which don't have to be fought. Choose humanity first of all.
Ordinary Sunday 28 Amos 5:6-7,10-15 Hebrews 3:1-6 Mark 10:17-27, (28-31)
I want to say something this morning about suffering, in particular about emotional suffering. Not to say that there is no connection between physical and emotional suffering. There clearly is, and the biblical story of Job would testify to it. I want to focus however on the type of anxious struggle which we all know at some times in our life and led Job to despair, "God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!' "Can you hear the torment in the statement? Can you relate to the sentiment of vanishing in darkness, a little like the wish to be swallowed up by the earth? Those who relate, will know the desire to pass beyond such suffering. This is surely the aim.
We are part of a long tradition in the Protestant church of glorifying suffering. The whole emphasis on saints and martyrs worries me when it is their suffering in itself which we recall. We adhere often to the spiritual equivalent of the sports adage 'No pain, no gain.' You could be forgiven for reading today's gospel as no suffer, no salvation.
Listent to this from Augustine: "Suffering is a sign of godliness, and the suffering of Christians is intended to meet a quota to fulfill the sufferings of Christ."
And the Greek philsophers: "Wisdom comes alone through suffering."
If we need any evidence that not all suffering leads to wisdom, we need look no further than the infamous Darwin Awards. Named in honor of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, the Darwin Awards commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it in really stupid ways. Of necessity, the honor is generally bestowed posthumously.
One example is the martial arts graduate who was told by his teacher that now the class were skilled enough to defeat a wild tiger with their bare hands. The man took his teacher literally and broke into the zoo that night. In the Tiger's cage, the man found himself up against not just one tiger but a whole pride. The next morning a hand and a few bones were found in the cage, with straggles of red hair clutched in the loose fingers. Sounds like urban myth to me, but you get the point.
First Place in 2003 was given to James Elliot. When his 38-caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a holdup in Long Beach, California, would be robber James Elliot did something that can only inspire wonder: He peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it worked. There is no virtue in dying, especially not in a Darwin style act of lunacy. There is no virtue in suffering, especially not in a false act of piety such as leaving family behind.
The Gospel for today raises the question of suffering, and seems to suggest that there is some virtue in suffering and loss. Or does it? If you replace the notion of Kingdom of God with a place of enlightenment, an ideal, an arrival at a state of nirvana, a complete happiness, it is surely the absence of suffering. This is it. This is about good news, not struggle. This is about fuller life, not harder life. Its about overcoming anxiety, not being locked into it.
The passage suggests that you can be filthy rich or desperately poor, and neither can get you to this state. You can be surrounded by people, or completely alone and it wont get you there. The journey to enlightenment begins inside. It's a journey inward first of all, not to the wounds on the surface, but to the deeper addictions and to the struggle with self. That's why a person can be riddled with cancer and radiate with the contentment of a child at play, because they have been deep within themselves and have grown to like what they see. That's also why a person can be in perfect health and have a cancerous inner world, conflicted and full of self loathing.
Eckhart Tolle wrote the book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Its been in and out of my to read list for several weeks which my wife finds quite ironic; procrastinating over the "power of now". I was however given recently the CD of the first chapter of the book, and have now taken a dip. Tolle begins by telling some of his journey inward. He describes his early 30's when he experienced a period of suicidal depression. He had a recurring thought. "I cant live with myself any longer." It was the thought which would change his life. Was he one or two people, the I and the self? Maybe only one of them was real. He speaks about the chatter of voices in our minds, which rule our lives. They tell us constantly of past mistakes and limitations and project our futures like a movie screen. These voices, they are not our true selves, they are our constructed egos. They lead to our suffering in many cases.
He wrote this about suffering which grows out of cravings: "All cravings are the mind seeking salvation or fulfilment in external things and in the future as a substitute for the joy of Being. As long as I am my mind, I am those cravings, those needs, wants, attachments and aversions and apart from them there is no 'I' except as a mere possibility, an unfulfilled potential, a seed that has not yet sprouted."
This is the type of journey which frees us from being locked into the patterns of the past, and yearnings for an idealised future. Bringing this back to the passage, the kingdom of God is not a past reality, nor is it a future hope. The kingdom of God is concerned with Being powerfully in the present. Rich or poor no matter, both will have their challenges. No matter what else is true, you have to leave family; parents, friends, and colleagues, even just for periods of time to engage in the journey within. If we really believe that this is one of the places where God resides, how could we not?
There is no glory in suffering. Suffering is a reality, for all of us. Suffering is a reality for our world. It's a reality, but not the last word. We believe in resurrection. We believe the aim is an end to suffering. Why don't we live like we believe it? People who suffer because they are insensitive or brainless, including some saints, martyrs and prophets, are insensitive and brainless and no closer to God because of it. People who suffer because they leave family and friends in search of a guru, including some fundamental religious groups, are no closer to God because of it.
People who take the journey within, so often a lonely journey, will see suffering face to face. These are the people who see God face to face. These are the people who learn of life and joy and meaning. These are the people who in the joy of Being know so much more than suffering.
"I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable." -- Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
There is a diner in Indiana, which doubles as a service station. It has a giant billboard out the front proudly declaring, "Eat Here and Get Gas!" Sounds enticing! It reminds me of the famous church notice board message which states, "Don't let worry kill you. Let the church help."
If we were to place a giant billboard outside our church, what message would we put on it? And if we were to place a billboard around our necks as individuals what message would we want to convey? Whatever the particular words, the boards should have a message along the lines of living life to the full, of people realising the untold potential within and around them. Whatever the message we convey it must surely be about living authentically in the present, making a difference in the world. Advertising generally works at convincing people that they are lacking something in their lives, a gap which only their product will fill. How would this work with an organisation whose product is spirit, like a church?
I would hope that we could embark on a radical style of honest advertising, something along the lines of the 1990 movie Crazy People. It had obvious appeal for me. It's not a must-see movie, but it did have an interesting plot whereby a group of psychiatric patients kept themselves amused by inventing advertising slogans with a twist. The twist was that the slogans were starkly honest. For example Volvos were promoted as being "boxy but safe" and United Airlines had the by line, "Most of our passengers get there alive."
The Church's long history of emphasising sin and struggle, with a leaning towards co-dependency, points to an advertising campaign which, if it were honest, would look something like this. “If you are lacking in your life, struggling, feeling unable to cope or find hope, come to church and we'll kick you while your down. Have us confirm that you are lacking because you are sinful. We'll make sure you become dependent on struggle by telling you suffering is the nature of life, and make you dependent on our offer of forgiveness." Doesn't sound particularly life affirming, does it. Sounds more like the original, "Don't let worry kill you. Let the church help."
We can and should do better. So how might our various liturgies and advertising messages look? Imagine if our meetings were more about affirmation of the good that is within and all around us, than about what is lacking. Imagine if we spent more energy affirming the achievements, the growths, the learning than the sin and suffering.
It seems to me that there is one fundamental truth which should be emphasised in every service and on every billboard; that all people are people of spirit, made in the image of God. If this is the case, then the hope is there for all people to access great courage and achievement.
The readings this morning make the same point. The proverbs, first from the Hebrew scripture, then from the letter of James, remind us that all people are one. Some have more money, but it doesn't change the essence. The James reading warns against treating people with prejudice or favour as all people are one. The reading from the Gospel of Thomas was a new discovery for me this week.
I learnt that this Thomas, who is named by the author of John's gospel as the doubter, was anything but a doubter. His was a positive message of self-knowledge and discovery. It suggests that there is a poverty more severe than financial poverty, and that is lack of self awareness. I wondered if the exclusion of Thomas from the canon of the Bible, and the sneer from John may reveal a little threat in such a positive message.
I uncovered in the Gospel of Thomas the blueprint for a belief in the power of God which resides inside each one of us. It is the gospel of egalitarianism. It is about the potential which is in all people. It turns the message of John's gospel on its head; that Jesus is the only way to God, and rather suggests that Jesus is about oneness. So it leads to the view that all things are connected, rather than making Christianity absolute over other truths.
I strongly recommend reading the Gospel of Thomas as an inspiration for life lived well. It is no surprise that a message as open and liberating as this was too much, too threatening for the canon and for the church through the ages. However as we move past church dogma, it will prove to be too inspirational for us to let go.
So, my suggestion is that in our meetings we might affirm possibility more than limitation, potential more than sin. My suggestion is a new form of honest advertising. Instead of "don't let worry kill you, let the church help," how about "You have a full and productive life, let the church share in some of that action."
Rather than market ourselves for people in crisis (which of course it can be too) how about, "You have your life together. We want a piece of that. Come and share your secret with us."
What about, "You are a person of great spirit, a person made in the image of none less than God. You have so much to offer. Come and share with others of potential as we explore together the meaning of life, the power of now, the beauty all around us, the strength within, the connections between, the possibilities beyond."
Rather than so much "Forgive us our sin, unworthy even for the crumbs under the table, so much sinning through our own deliberate fault," how about some of "Everything you need you already have. You are complete right now, you are a whole, total person, not an apprentice person on the way to someplace else."
In this we could be authentic to the spirit within. It will be honest advertising. Most importantly it will be life affirming, as it will foster human potential which arises out of the indwelling of God.
Ordinary Sunday 22 Wisdom 1:16-2:(1-11) 12-22 James 3:16-4:6
His lover waits expectantly in the bedroom; oils burning lightly, music playing softly. He hears the voice of his beloved: "Look," she says, "Here he comes, leaping through the door, bounding vivaciously around the room, like a gazelle, like a young stag." And the young stag's heart fills with pride, and his ego fills with hot air, and as he prances proudly around the bedroom. Nothing could stop this stallion! He is almost superhuman in his splendour. And as he glides poetically to the bed he catches sight of himself in a mirror. The Barry White music comes to a screeching halt, the oils fizzle and his head sinks. Our young stag sees in the mirror, not a stag, but a rather portly gorilla.
Does that sound a little like the first two readings this morning? The gazelle, or stag of the romantic Song of Solomon is brought back to earth with a great thud by the mirror of the James reading. As we stand in all our naked splendour before our lovers and their only comment: "That outfit could do with a bit of an ironing."
I want to take some liberty this morning with the concept of the mirror in the James reading. The problem with mirrors is that they don't show us reality at all. Not only do they not reflect our true hearts, but they show us the outside only through the ego tinted glasses we wear.
Imagine if we could stand before a metaphysical mirror and see our bare souls reflected for us to gaze upon. Imagine if we could see our naked hearts reflected as if in a mirror. If you were to see your soul reflected would you be pleased with the sight? If the true intentions of your heart were laid bare in a mirror would you like what you see reflected? I hope that your answer is yes, or at the least like me you might say you are growing to like the look. The gospel reading is a call to see our souls for what they are, and to be pleased with the results.
In our culture where appearances are everything, in a world where straight teeth in the mouth are more important than the words that come out of them, we are called home in the gospel to our soul. We are reminded that our essence is our heart, our true self. This is the space out of which we find our real courage, beyond what we ever knew was possible. This is the place where we show real compassion, beyond expectation, and express authentic love beyond words. This is home, because we are reminded that God resides with and alongside us, and if God resides there how could we not achieve great things. It is our destiny as we are no less than collaborators with God.
The passage points to pure hearts, which I take to mean authentic hearts rather than 'pious never think evil thoughts' hearts. We are truly present to our own core, our past, our reactions, our dreams. This is the state of being where events and thoughts and other people's words come and go, are seen for what they are, and the heart stays on course.
A quote from the Tao Te Ching The wise person, or the Tao, acts without doing anything, teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn't possess, acts but doesn't expect. Where her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever. She stays behind, that is why she is ahead. She is detached from all things, that is why she is one with them. Because she has let go of herself, she is perfectly fulfilled. She observes the world but trusts her inner vision. She allows things to come and go. Her heart is as open as the sky.
Some of you joined in the meditation sessions with our Buddhist Monk Tenzin a year ago. One thing I will always remember about these sessions was the lead-in words of Tenzin. He stilled our minds, relaxed our bodies, made us aware of our breathing. He then suggested through the meditation that we allow thoughts to come and go, to offer no judgment on them, simply allow them to move through our minds. Allow them in, allow them out, but know the essence. The bare soul reflected as in a mirror, with no judgment, just endless acceptance.
Of course another feature of Buddhism which we take to be important is mindfulness. What goes in is important. It's just that it is unable to disturb the essence. So, we watch our diets; both our food intake and our intake of violence and Hollywood idealism. We watch our weight, our bodies, our looks. We just don't confuse these things with the essence.
Be mindful. But also be realistic. I like action movies, but don't expect that I will one day run rampant in the streets because of it. Watching violence will no more make me a violent criminal, than watching Billy Connelly will make me a hilarious comedian. Live with freedom. Just don't confuse the external with the essence.
I made a decision the day my daughter was born, one year and two weeks ago. I don't know why that day, but decided after several years of not taking care enough about my health that I would begin that day. And so I did. In the past year I have exercised regularly, and eaten well. My body is in better shape than it has been in for years. My cholesterol levels have plummeted, blood pressure is good. I have taken up regularly reading for pleasure, even taken up playing the piano again after many years away. All great things. I recommend all of them. Yet if the heart is not true, if life is not being lived authentically and fully in the present, then these external changes cannot bring real contentment.
And so, about a month ago I looked in the metaphysical mirror to assess the state of my heart. I have to tell you I didn't like everything I saw. When I looked at my soul as if in a mirror, I saw a person who spends so much energy defending himself from attack, that he has blocked out a whole lot of love, including self love. In that mirror I saw a person who is reluctant to be depended on, because eventually he will fail. This person could never be good enough, never acceptable, even to himself so it would be better to protect himself from getting too close.
I saw as if in a mirror a person who was locked into safe and protective patterns from the past, recreating them in the present and setting them up for the future to happen all over again. When I looked I saw a person who was not becoming more compassionate, but less compassionate, not feeling more but feeling less.
You will understand that it is not easy to say this publicly. In fact as I prepared I kept taking parts out, then realised that this too was an unnecessary protection. If it comes out of my essence, then how could it be wrong to speak it? So, having looked in this mirror, I decided to make a change. I stand before you today in the midst of this journey towards living more fully in the present; present to God who is inside me in the form of meaning and spirit, present to God who is between me and the universe, connecting me to all things, present to God who is beyond me filling the universe with possibility.
This is an exciting journey, but also one of some anxiety. It has been a long time since I experienced life without having to defend and protect myself. As I conquer that pattern and move into possibility, I don't know what life will look life.
You too will have your stories; some of which you will share, some of which will just be that part of your soul which is reflected as if in a mirror. Take the journey to your essence; strive for authentic living, acceptance and possibility. Do so knowing that home is the soul, where God dwells, so how could you fail?
Think about what you put in to your body. But know also that these things can neither bring about your ultimate demise, nor make you complete as a person. Only your essence can do that. Live with freedom.
It is the essence from which you will achieve greatness, and dwell in possibility. It is here that you will know the power of fulfilment right now, the wonder of endless love.
I end with two quotes from the Jesuit Priest and Paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin:
"Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."
"Our duty, as men and women is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation."
Today's gospel reading leaves me with an awful feeling of déjà vu. Jesus is the bread of life, the living bread, the bread from heaven etc. I could have sworn that was the theme of last week's passage, and the week before and possibly the week before that.
It seemed to be John's intent to make whatever point he was making in a repetitious manner, leaving the preacher with the challenge of saying something new on the subject. So, here we go one more time, at least for now, exploring food, consumption, spirit and Jesus. This week I have reflected on cannibalism and bulimia as twin themes in the makeup of society.
I read about cannibalism in a book called Food: A History. Listen to this delicious quote: "Cannibalism is a problem. In many cases the practice is rooted in ritual and superstition rather than gastronomy, but not always. A French Dominican in the 17th C. observed that the Caribs had most decided notions of the relative merits of their enemies. As one would expect, the French were delicious, by far the best. This is no surprise, even allowing for nationalism. The English came next, I'm glad to say. The Dutch were dull and stodgy and the Spaniards so stringy, they were hardly a meal at all, even boiled. All this sounds sadly like gluttony." After the rugby of the past few weeks, you could say that there are a few South African players who know what an Australian tastes like!
In any case, the book traces the various revolutions of food where cannibalism marks the transition from eating to survive on to eating for meaning. It highlights the alchemy of eating, the journey of food through health and illness, the interconnections of the personal and social, eating incorporates ritual and magic. It is power giving and identity forming.
The book describes bulimia as "ironic eating, where excess and obsession meet; the sufferer gorges in secret and induces vomiting." My reflection revolved around aspects of our culture which are both cannibalistic and bulimic. They are cannibalistic as they devour the individual by absorbing them into the whole in such a way as to remove their distinctive identity. They are bulimic as they draw the individual in, only to then spit them out.
The sociologist Levi-Strauss described this phenomenon in relation to crime and punishment. He saw in primitive culture the tendency to absorb criminals, include them, rehabilitate them. In modern societies the tendency is to eject or, as he would say, vomit criminals out, excluding them from society.
All of this points to the extremes; the smothering inclusion of cannibalism and the judgmental exclusion of bulimia. Neither are truly accepting as one wants to absorb or change the person into a group norm while the other will reject the person outright as useless.
The invasion of indigenous lands and peoples by colonisers is another example of the inclusiveness of cannibalism. The native peoples, those that survive, are given complete freedom; to become westernised, that is. Their languages, customs, names, cultures are devoured by the imperial predator. Those that don't survive become the collateral damage; they are not useful so they are excreted.
This theory applies equally well to church communities as to prisons. What some people mean by inclusiveness in church is people being welcome to join in, as long as they assimilate and become Anglican or whatever the culture of the church is. This is little better than outright exclusion, in fact may be more hurtful as it offers the illusion of acceptance. All people are welcome, just as long as you stop being gay, or stop using drugs, or start believing in a certain way, and on it goes.
I saw this happen in a striking way in the church in Kings Cross in Sydney. The church building was situated in the midst of streets lined with prostitutes and drug users. It was an eerie experience to be praying inside the church and to know that outside the church men from the suburbs were preying on young girls on the street corner. One particular sex worker came in to church one day; straight from a client no doubt and still dressed accordingly. She walked past signs and billboards which declared that all people are welcome, only to have some respectable lady so devour her body and clothes with judgment that she left before the service even began.
Is not what we long for most in life to be truly accepted, somewhere, by someone? To have that deep contentment of knowing that there is nothing to prove, or to be other than yourself? It seems to me that Jesus found just the right balance between inclusion and exclusion, which avoided both smothering paternalism and dismissive judgmentalism. So maybe that's why he gets to be called the bread of life.
Jesus sat at tables and ate food with people of dubious social standing. He affirmed people of difference without even hinting that they should change. He got to the core of human experience, so that the stereotyped markers of difference would mean nothing any more. This was true inclusion, and it revolved so often around food.
The breaking of Jesus will on the cross, the bread of life, is the moment when all boundaries of difference are named for what they are. Full life is knowing true acceptance despite, even while affirming, difference.
It's a real theme for us here at St Matthew-in-the-City, where all sorts of people feel a belonging to our church even if they don't come on a Sunday morning. The challenge for us is to find that same balance; where people are welcome, truly welcome, to belong in their way and not in our prescribed way. Its about boundaries between community and individuality, its about spaces in our togetherness.
Let us work together at being an accepting community; where we are not cannibals, devouring each other with judgment, nor where people are drawn in, engorged, then spat out. In this we will be journeying in the company of the bread of life.
I'm sure you've all heard the joke about Anglicans and light bulbs.
Q. How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb in a church?
A: CHANGE? You want me to CHANGE the light bulb? My grandmother donated that light bulb!!!
I want to make some comments on change this morning, in the light of our AGM after the service. It seems an important theme, and not just because the stereotype of Anglicans is change resistant. Its an important theme because change is the nature of the universe and of life. Someone has said that change is inevitable except from vending machines. More profoundly, someone else said "Change is inevitable, growth is intentional." (Glenda Cloud)
Its an important theme because in our lives we are all on a journey of understanding change; we can choose to be resistant, confused or we can choose to be intentional about our response to change. Its an important theme because as we learn to deal with change, we learn the wonderful art of non attachment which will allow us such power, such open futures, such success.
"If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren't afraid of dying, there is nothing you can't achieve." (Tao Te Ching)
The Jesus story is all about change. The whole death to resurrection narrative is one of ultimate change. In particular it is a story about how those very human disciples dealt with change and learnt the hard lesson that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it will not grow. We have the bread image again in our gospel text, and again we are reminded that our communion celebration is a memorial of change, a celebration of the growth which arises out of brokenness.
I heard a parable which describes the process of change and open futures nicely.
A pack of monkeys live in a cage, an unattractive and sparse space. They have no existence outside the cage, but the older monkeys philosophise and wonder about what life is like on the 'outside'. They have given up trying to escape the cage and instead spend their days playing and squabbling for food.
The philosopher monkeys are divided. Some think there is no 'outside'. Some think that good monkeys go to the 'outside' when they die and that bad monkeys are sent to live in the plumbing when the die.
Some of the younger monkeys notice that their food comes into the cage through an opening, and wonder about this door. If food can come in, maybe they could go out the opening.
The idea is squashed by the philosophers, but some of the young monkeys persist, experimenting with poking at the door from the inside, and sure enough the door opens and they escape.
The philosophers conclude that the outside must be bad as the young monkeys never return, so they get on with the business of accepting the cage as it is and doing nothing more than wondering about life outside.
The monkeys continue to sit in their crowded cage, carefully avoiding looking at the open door.
Our lives, and the life of the church, have doors which open on to exciting futures, if we have the courage to experiment and explore from the inside out.
The shock for the disciples of losing their leader and having their dreams of a mighty dynasty led by their Messiah dashed, was a major crisis point. It was a crisis on which the Church began and grew. Life outside the known and the expected became the ground on which the Church flourished. It was the Church's open door.
On the other hand, the fear of new possibilities has at so many points halted the progress of the church. The resistance to Galileo and the Copernican revolution was one instance. At these points the Church opted instead for the sparse and uninteresting option of a cage of fear.
At every point that progress was embraced, the Church took some major leaps forward. We have seen one this week with the appointment of an openly gay bishop in the American Episcopalian Church and the moves in that church towards official recognition of same sex blessings. At every point that the Church embraces science and new discovery, and leaves behind the cages of Bible literalism and dogmatism, it takes a leap forward.
As we embrace change and intentionally work with it, as individuals and as a church, we shatter the confines of the cage and leap into an open future, loaded with possibility. So as we head into our AGM, we will try to answer the question of how many progressive Christians does it take to change a light bulb? I hope you will join in the challenge of being St Matthew-in-the-City in the coming years and as we become the change we wish to see in the world, we will find out the answer to that question.
Let us explore together our open door, our future full of possibility.
Jesus, the Bread of Life: Nourishing the Real Hunger
August 3, 2003
Ordinary Sunday 18 John 6:24-35
Much is made in the Bible of bread, including the well known expression, "Man cannot live on bread alone." Of course, the processed bread we experience is a far cry from the unleavened bread of Bible times. Still, bread gets a bad rap these days. For example, there is a group in America called the Partnership for a Bread-Free America. They produce a tongue-in-cheek document called 'BEWARE OF BREAD!' Some of the facts include:
1. More than 98 percent of convicted felons are bread users.
2. HALF of all children who grow up in bread-consuming households score below average on standardized intelligence tests.
3. Bread has been proven to be addictive. Subjects deprived of bread and given only water begged for bread after as little as two days.
4. Bread is often a "gateway" food item, leading the user to "harder" items such as jam, peanut butter, and even cold meats.
5. More than 90 percent of violent crimes are committed within 24 hours of eating bread.
6. Many bread eaters are utterly unable to distinguish between significant scientific fact and meaningless statistical babbling.
Since the Metro magazine came out early this week, some of my personal habits have now become quite public. So, it will be no surprise for me to tell you that I have been living for the most part without bread for some time now. The Atkin's Diet is all about high protein and low carbohydrate intake.
If Dr Atkins was exegeting today's gospel text he would say that it is the protein which is the food that endures unto eternal life. He would say the carbs are the food that is perishing. While I don't advocate a strict observance of the Atkin's Diet, it has nevertheless taught me some important lessons about myself. It has made me more aware of what goes into my body and has conquered my addiction to sugar. It has made me realise the Taoist principle of losing weight, that a consistently content stomach rather than an empty stomach is the way to a flatter gut. In fact according to the diet you eat more; more fat, but less sugar and certainly less bread.
Above all it was one of the changes I have made in my life this year which has made me feel more connected to my body, which I believe is part of being more connected to my spirit. I learnt about the variety of hungers, which hunger to feed and what to feed it to sustain it more lastingly.
When Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, I suspect he is hinting at connected spirits or a nourished heart; that experience of being deeply in tune with our hopes and purposes in life. I would define a connected spirit as having closely aligned our present reality and our dreams and expectations for life. Maybe it could be described as just that right blend of realism and idealism. Maybe a connected spirit is being so in tune with our convictions that our practice falls easily in line.
I get a sense that society is craving for spiritual nourishment at present. With rapid social changes, I sense that people can easily lose their sense of identity and connection. So there is great hunger to be fed with meaning and value filled ideas. The problem so often with a disconnected spirit is that we feed the wrong animal.
There is a story which makes the point well. It is about a man who bought a parrot to fill some of his lonely hours. The very next day, however, he went back to complain, "That bird doesn't talk."
The store owner asked if he had a mirror in its cage, and the man said he didn't. "Oh, parrots love mirrors," he explained. "When he sees his reflection in the mirror, he'll just start talking away."
The bird owner was back the next day to gripe that his parrot still hadn't said a word. "That's very peculiar," said the pet expert. "How about a swing? Birds really love these little swings, and a happy parrot is a talkative parrot." But he was back the next day with the same story. "Does he have a ladder to climb?" the salesman asked. "That just has to be the problem. Once he has a ladder, he'll probably talk your ear off!"
The man was back at the pet store when it opened the next day. "Didn't your parrot like the ladder?" he asked. His repeat customer looked up and said, "The parrot died. He did however finally speak." "What did he say?" the shopkeeper asked. "Well," said the customer, "in a weak little voice, he asked me, 'Don't they sell any bird seed at that pet store?'"
There's nothing wrong with vanity, with taking care of physical looks. There's nothing wrong with ambition, getting ahead in career and life. There's nothing wrong with acquiring possessions and having our toys to amuse us. The problem is when we line our lives, like a cage, with these things thinking that they will satisfy our deepest longings. Our hearts need real nourishment.
There is no better example of feeding the wrong animal than eating disorders. One woman who had suffered with an eating disorder for many years described the experience like this: "My whole day revolved around food. I really felt like I was in jail. I couldn't break out. There was no freedom. There was no me left, it was just this disorder taking over my life. I'm no longer abusing food. I found other things in my life to replace what I was asking the food to do. My whole eating disorder was really about a disconnection from my own spirit, me not listening to my inner voices and not being able to trust them. "A doctor who specialises in eating disorders described it like this: "Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a disorder of disconnection, disconnection from feelings and from self. Over involvement with food and 'food thoughts" are the ways people with BED self-regulate intense feeling states."
Maybe food is not your weakness. Maybe for you, the longing for recognition, the longing for fame or fortune drives your hunger. We end up in cycles which are never satisfied. We get hurt by them, recognise that they are like sugar, short lived and addictive, yet go after them again the next time.
As human beings we find our true hope in our spirit. We need connected spirits to keep our life in balance. Jesus is the bread of life, our inspiration for life lived consistently; practices matching belief.
Bread, despite its pitfalls, is an important food and symbol around the world. In most cultures bread symbolises so much more than the ingredients: In Egyptian the word for bread means literally 'life'. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East bread symbolises community and welcome. In our worship tradition, bread is central. The bread is broken, reminding us that Jesus took all our disconnection in his broken body. The broken bread is brought together again, reminding us that Jesus is the bread of life, who inspires us to reconnect with our spirits.
So, as we break and share bread today, let us reflect on our lives; the areas where we need to reconnect with our spirit, the areas where we need to reconnect with our dreams and hopes, the people we need to reconnect with, the earth we need to reconnect with, the broken people, families and structures in our world which need reconnection.
Let us be mindful in this communion of the appetites of our hearts, the false hungers, and the deep longing for spiritual nourishment. Finally, let us remember the words of Robert Farrar Capon.
"We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great."
A six year old was asked to write a story explaining God - One of God's main jobs is making people. He makes them to replace the ones that die so there will be enough people to take care of things on earth.
- He doesn't make grown-ups, just babies. I think because they are smaller and easier to make. That way, He doesn't have to take up His valuable time teaching them to talk and walk, He can just leave that to mothers and fathers.
- God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere which keeps Him pretty busy. So you shouldn't go wasting His time by going over your mom and dad's head asking for something they said you couldn't have.
- You can pray anytime you want and they are sure to hear you because God and Jesus got it worked out so one of them is on duty all the times.
- You should always go to Church on Sunday because it makes God happy, and if there's anybody you want to make happy, it's God.
- If you don't believe in God, besides being an atheist, you will be very lonely, because your parents can't go everywhere with you, like to camp, but God can.
- But you shouldn't just always think of what God can do for you. I figure God put me here and He can take me back anytime He pleases.
- And that's why I believe in God.
Sounds like the type of apologetic I was taught in an evangelical Theological College. This type of literalism is understandable in children, most will grow out of it with a bit of luck. The other feature of a child's makeup as seen in this explanation of God is idealism; the belief that what they do can make a difference. This is something we should never grow out of.
I learnt this lesson again during the week. For most of the week I had no voice due to severe laryngitis, and watching my kids' reactions was fascinating. My silence was a curiosity to them. My eight-year-old made the most of the opportunity, one-year-old thought I was playing a game and smiled every time I said nothing. Three-year-old took it all very seriously and literally. "Have you found your voice yet Dadda?" he would ask me each morning. He even offered to help me look for it. That's the way of three year olds. When I said the car had been fixed that day, he asked where the band-aids were. Three year old really believed he could make it better for me. And he did.
Or there was another time when eight-year-old handed me an envelope with the words 'Auckland City Mission' on the front. Inside were six two-dollar coins, earned by washing neighbourhood cars. Without fanfare - a freely chosen act of service - he gave the money believing fully that his donation would make all the difference, and it did.
The idealism of children is a theme picked up in Arundhati Roy's prize winning 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Despite the enormity of the social and personal tragedy, the plot and style is straightforward. The story is told for the most part through the eyes of twins who live an existence both privileged and precarious, as children of a divorced mother from an affluent Indian family. It's a story of love and loss, life and death, caste and class, gender and growing up. Above all, as the novel begins; "They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much."
This is it. This is the genius of children. Of course we adults spend 15 odd years socialising them, getting them to follow our rules. Yet they have a wonderful sense of spontaneity, they make their own rules. They are fully present in any situation and give when they want to give, and not if they don't. They love when they feel love, they love who they love and how they love. And they decide how much. Again this is always enough.
The Gospel story for today - the feeding of the five-thousand - is framed amidst enormous social and personal tragedy. There is poverty, oppression, sickness and fear. Into this chaos, two people leave their mark. First is Jesus, who chooses to say very little. He gives the impression that he is taking in the sounds around him; hearing the pain of the people, the fear of the disciples, the stormy seas and the cries of illness. He chooses not to problem-solve, and instead allows the space for another unlikely hero to emerge. Second is a young boy, nameless and ageless (although I suspect that he might have been three.) He did what I have seen my own kids do so many times; offer the most brilliantly understated solution to a massive problem. With his packed lunch of sardines and a meager bread loaf, the crowds are satisfied and again the small offering is seen to be more than enough.
Aren't people like Jesus and the small boy what we all long for in the midst of the tragedies of life? That is, someone to be completely present for us, to offer us what they can, which will be just enough. Into our lives and our world, a world of war, famine, violence, struggle. Our lives full of betrayal, fear and frustration. Into our situations a person who hears our cries of pain and a small boy, reminding us that change is always possible. The script for our lives is open, and ready for a miracle.
We celebrate today the birth of a baby, the growth of baby, the milestone of a family, the welcome of a community. We honour today all small things, because small things so often have the largest meaning. We commit to living with the idealistic spontaneity of a child, to give what we can give, and to know that this will be just enough.
I finish with two quotes from Mother Theresa, herself a hero who understood well that change is always possible.
"We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love."
"Oh that we might be faithful in small things because it is in them that our strength lies."
The announcement that Barry White had died came through as I got off the plane from one of the most romantic weddings I have been involved in. I don't know why I was so struck by the news; I had never particularly listened to his music and there was other more pressing global news. Maybe it was what he represented, or maybe it was because of the heights of emotions I had just experienced. It was my sister's wedding in New York City and it was spectacular from start to finish.
She arrived looking stunning in a park under the Brooklyn Bridge, with a Didgeridoo greeting her. They were married and then performed the grandest swoop kiss I've ever seen. Then it was onto a water taxi for a ride to the reception past the Statue of Liberty. All this excitement shared by a family for whom it is rare even to be all in one place, let alone in NYC. Even a hard nut like me got a little choked up by all this romance. How could you leave an experience like this and not feel motivated to find more romance in life? It is at times like these we find inspiration for the earthy and human joys, the love making and friendships. So maybe that's why I was so affected by the loss of Barry White, the sultry saint of romance.
I came back wondering why we don't talk more about the earthy matters of everyday life in the church. The passions, the tragedies, the enlightenments; these are some of the great moments, we talk about them with our friends, but for some reason in church, we become too pious. Maybe we need to introduce a Barry White Saints day, where we urge each other to keep believing in romance. I can imagine an exclusive "Eros Mass" at St Matthew-in-the-City (inclusive liturgy of course - an inclusive exclusive!) Aucklanders would flock to it!
The strongest impression I gained from my trip to the US was an appreciation of the secular nature of New Zealand, and Auckland in particular. Churches in America are impressive. They have an array of programs which outdo anything I have seen in Australia or New Zealand. I went to churches with staffs of 140. I saw churches with 1000 people attending. I went to a church where their kid's Sunday school program needed a separate room for each age group. There were burgeoning soup kitchens and psychotherapy centres, cafes turning people away because they are so popular.
Yet, in so many of the places I sensed a distinction between what happens in Sunday worship and what happens during the week. New Zealanders on the whole have solved that problem for us, they have for the most part given up on Sunday worship. However, for New Zealanders there is a strong sense of spirit. Over and again I talk to people at parties, some even here in the church, and we talk about spirit; about meaning, about love, about connections. Spirit is alive and well in secular Auckland. There is just a lessening need for religion and ritual.
I have come back with a strong sense that what the church needs to do in this country is have a two pronged approach; good quality and consistent liturgy and ritual, and opportunities for meaningful and spirited connection with people beyond liturgy and ritual. If all our eggs go into the Sunday worship basket, we will end up with an aging omelette. If we don't make our Sunday worship more consistent with postmodern ideas, we will end up with scrambled eggs. So the challenge is there, quite different to the challenge in the US, although I suspect a similar trend will occur there in time, possibly even in reaction to the extremism of George W Bush and his regime.
In Dutch Calvinist Grand Rapids, Michigan, I found two church communities living out an alternative path of faith. I met a former minister of one of them, a 90 year old man who, in the 1950's, was preaching a radical post-theistic message to a huge crowd of people many of whom had grown up within the tight confines of their Calvinist families and churches. Dr Littlefair had come out of the 'naturalist' Chicago Divinity school, and was still lively fun to talk with and discuss theology.
I arrived at Grand Rapids, near Michael Moore's hometown, with his book 'Stupid White Men' tucked under my arm. I wondered what to expect after he had savaged Michigan. I was pleasantly surprised to find communities of resistance to the Bush "shock and awe" policies. We have much in common with these communities.
I saw in New Jersey the most inclusive liturgy I have yet encountered. In this Episcopal church they have been openly marrying gay and lesbian couples for over a decade. We can learn much from them about the inclusive energy of a church as well as the liturgical reforms they have explored.
However, the church I found which matches our location and present community use policy most closely was St Marks in the Bowery in NYC. Despite visiting several times, there was never a priest in sight. I saw no prayer books nor heard any classical music playing. Yet this was a beautiful historic building. The site is taken over during the week by dance, poetry and theatre groups. They make the space their own and it is alive with spirited energy.
So there is much to learn from churches in the US, but also a major cultural difference. There is so much more I could tell you about from the trip. I will have to let the stories arise other weeks.
Now briefly a comment about the gospel text for today (Mark 6:14-29) which brings us back to Barry White and Lawton family weddings. This is a dramatic text which tells the story of the demise of a great and courageous prophet. It is also the story of an evil tyrant. This is soap opera, tragedy in an almost Shakespearian setting. This is the story of impossible love, dysfunctional families and insane passion. It is captured best in the opera 'Salome', where in most versions Salome will be found to be knee deep in muck, making passionate love to the severed head of John the Baptist. Salome falls in love with John, the one man who will not even look upon her beauty. She also dances insanely and seductively for her maniacal stepfather, Herod in order to get ahead (excuse the pun!) This is high drama. It doesn't tell us how to live, what to do or not to do. It is just a highly charged and earthy tale of romance and tragedy.
These stories need to be told. The insanity, the beauty, the passion, the deceit, the horror, the connections of our lives are the stories which the church needs to be telling. These are the stories which your families, who don't go to church, are living, hopefully without anyone losing their heads.
We've all been to weddings like the one I just enjoyed in NYC. If I can offer you anything out of the experience it is to urge you to greater romance in life. It will be experienced differently for each of us, it will always be tinged with the reality of unhappy endings, but we each have a story to tell. Stop looking for spirit in another realm. Oh, that the church would stop urging people to seek spirit in other worldliness. The spirit is right here, in the everyday, the romantic, the tragic, the real and beautiful moments of our lives.
So we must love while these moments are still called today
Times are tough. Markets are volatile, you might even say diabolical at present. Only the bravest or foolhardiest investors are in the game. It's a market where fortunes can be won and lost in hours let alone days. In any case the best investment advice in these troubles times I have heard went like this- apologies to readers of the Saturday Business Herald, where this joke was printed. But it was mine first.
If you had bought $1000.00 worth of Nortel stock one year ago, it would now be worth $49.00.
With Enron, you would have $16.50 of the original $1,000.00.
With Worldcom, you would have less than $5.00 left.
If you had bought $1,000.00 worth of Budweiser (the beer, not the stock) one year ago, drank all the beer, then turned in the cans for the 10 cent deposit, you would have $214.00.
Based on the above, my current investment advice is to drink heavily and recycle.
If I was to say to you that the Kingdom of God is like the current global markets, would I lose all credibility in your eyes? Think about it! Jesus says the kingdom, or if you prefer the realm or way of God, is like weeds which grow rampantly and have the ability to destroy plants and may even do so quickly. He says it is like a mustard seed which is prolific, unpredictable and produces pungent taste with fiery effect. Like the weed, the mustard seed has the ability to destroy the garden; like the weed it can be deadly. And another thing. Weeds and mustard seeds tend to take over where they are not wanted.
So, Jesus says the way of God is less like the mighty cedar of Lebanon as we might have expected and not even like a common weed which we could deal with, but more like a deadly shrub which takes over and is only wanted in small amounts, if we could control it at all. Sunday school lessons taught us that mustard seeds start small and end up big. That's digestible as a moral. But pungent and deadly.
Then speaking of indigestion we come to the leaven. The leaven is in the Bible a metaphor for corruption- the leaven of the religious legalists. Leaven is all darkness and heaviness. And yet it rises and then it creates. Ah, I hear you say, at last a nice thought. This was all getting a little uncomfortable. Stay with the discomfort for a moment longer. Let me explore two situations with you, one personal the other social.
During the week I received an SOS from a woman who was desperately lost and confused. She wrote to me via email asking for help. She first of all questioned why God allowed unjust suffering. Then she went on to express her own desperation which for her felt like the end of a road; there was no light at the end of her tunnel and she imagined herself hanging in the garage from a rope. I thought long and hard about using her situation this morning, and wondered if somehow I was betraying her trust. I decided because she lives in another town that it was alright. In any case if she heard or read these words I wouldn't mind because I want to affirm the courage of this woman to seek help and face her crisis. I relay her story with only admiration, no judgment.
It struck me on reflection that suicide has some of the qualities of a mustard seed (unpredictable patterns, pungent taste). This was a woman at the point of the deepest of crises. It struck me that the rope she referred to was not a physical death so much as the end of a stage or dilemma. It was the light at the end of a tunnel. She stood at that awful moment at the point of decision and choice. The choice to move forward and make a change. None else could tell her what that place is or feels like- only she knows its pain and only she can know its resolution. Yet I couldn't help sensing that this was a point of rising up and creating something new and beautiful.
I wonder whether you have had times like that in your life, or even if you know that pain now. Take some heart from the parable of Jesus- the way of God is not a way of manipulation and cruelty. Its not a story of a God who allows or is even indifferent to suffering. The way of God is a journey to the centre of pain and from there a recreation of life. Don't minimise the pain, or spiritualise it. It is awful. Yet it is not the end of the story. The parable of Jesus is not a pious tale of morality. It is a lesson in travelling to the heart of reality, no matter how unsafe or frightening that journey.
Come now on a social journey. We have explored in this country in recent times the GE question. It is an issue which has tormented me. I have swung from a strong environmental and food safety stance, GE free, to a progressive 'it will have to happen sometime' position at various times. It has raised all sorts of issues around multinational hegemony, labelling of food products and environmental ethics, yet above all the fear of my children being guinea pigs is the strongest motivator. The thought of my own children growing up in a world of environmental danger is overwhelming.
Yet in spite of these reactions, consider the issue from the perspective of the parables. Unpredictable, pungent, hard to control, fiery- its starting to look like the way of God might just match GE experimentation. Risks must be taken in the interests of growth. The crisis must be faced and the journey undertaken- some time.
Which brings me to one final point about the way of God in the parables, and to my bottom line currently about GE; timing. Timing is often raised in the parables. Timing is everything. At the right time, the way of God becomes a reality more than a vision. So, at the right time the personal crisis is faced.
And so at the right time, when the calculated risks have been weighed, GE in fields should be explored. It seems to me that it is not now. It may not be in the short term. It may not even be in our life time. Yet there will be a time. At that time a risk will have to be taken. Our hope is that the risk is taken, with the interests of as many as possible in mind and not ruled by bottom line or power questions. This was my understanding of the essence of the Royal Commission recommendations.
So, whether the journey is personal or social, the way of God is always a journey to despair and loss first. It is always a matter of facing death and change head on and in that moment finding the strength to move on and recreate. God give us strength. Strength to hold on and strength to let go. God help us to change. To change ourselves and to change our world. To know the need for it. To deal with the pain of it. To feel the joy of it. To undertake the journey without understanding the destination. The art of gentle revolution. "That which is Christ-like within us shall be crucified. It shall suffer and be broken. And that which is Christ-like within us shall rise up. It shall love and create." Amen.
Recently the Church has been involved in two controversies on sexual morality: the Prostitution Reform debate in this country, and the proposal to appoint a gay priest as a bishop in England.
On the first issue, prostitution here has never been illegal in itself. The Bill sought to provide protection for prostitutes against exploitation, health risks or violence, and the church leaders endorsed that intention. But having listened to a representative of the Prostitutes' Collective speak on the topic earlier this year, I was not convinced the Bill would offer a great deal in that regard. In Australia, decriminalisation has still left many operating outside the legal frame-work, as reports this week on the trafficking of Asian women in Victoria has graphically shown.
Media reports this week report that the new law has been condemned by a United Nations committee aimed to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. The UN committee likened prostitution to pornography, and classed it as oppressive and humiliating of women.
Some MPs supported the Bill from the classic liberal position of the freedom of consenting adults to do what they like in private without State intervention. They classed prostitution as a victimless activity which should not be subject to official restriction. There is a prima facie case to support such an approach : individual freedoms should not be curtailed unless it is necessary to prevent harm to others. But it does not appear that decriminalising brothels would be a victimless act. On the contrary, prostitution would more likely become a normalised form of recreation which would attract more clients, and hence more young women, into prostitution.
I was twice asked about the ethics underlying our stance, and replied that ethics should be based on the outcomes of any activity. The approach we took could be described as that of utilitarian ethics, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number. A lesser good (limited protection for some prostitutes) was balanced against a greater evil (the drawing of more people into the web of prostitution, damaging both the individuals concerned, and undermining key elements of the wider social fabric such as committed relationships and stable family environments). On this assessment the Bill would do more harm than good.
While it is not always appropriate to offer an overtly theological perspective in a public debate, yet theology is an essential under-pinning for the Church's approach to sexual morality. One theological plank in respect of prostitution is that of care for the well-being of individuals, and Jesus' love for all people, especially the poor and marginalised amongst whom many prostitutes are numbered. But, as indicated, it was necessary to balance the well-being of one group against that of others, and to make a judgment as to where the greater good lay.
A broader theological principle lies in the Church's understanding of the relational nature of sexual expression. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, established at Oxford in the 1980s an institute for the study of Christianity and sexuality. His research led him to conclude that biblical teaching on sexual relationships puts as much emphasis on bonding, with its essential ingredients of love and fidelity, as it does on human reproduction. By contrast the casualisation of sexual activity, or any form of sexual abuse, falls short of Christian standards for the well-being of individuals and society.
An emphasis on bonding between two people, and between parent and child, undergirds church teaching on marriage as being lifelong in intent, and as providing a secure environment for the raising of children. Pastoral and psychological evidence supports such a view. This teaching was affirmed by the 800 Anglican bishops from around the world who attended the ten-yearly Lambeth Conference at Canterbury in 1998.
Some would hold that any relationship which does not conform to the marriage and family pattern lacks divine approval. Rowan Williams would disagree, asserting instead that a relationship should be measured not by its outward form but by its inner essence. This is not a new insight. The Anglican Church in New Zealand changed its rule banning remarriage after divorce in 1970. In so doing it maintained its commitment to the life-long nature of marriage, but made pastoral provision for situations where in spite of best endeavours a marriage had irretrievably broken down.
Many single parent families, in spite of the social and financial challenges they often face, also demonstrate strong qualities of love and stability within the family unit, and should be affirmed rather than judged or excluded by church and society.
The issue of homosexuality is one on which opinion is hotly divided, as the recent nomination of Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading in England has indicated. Given the fact that he is now living a celibate life, and hence one would think satisfying those who believe homosexual relationships to be wrong, it is a sad outcome that he has stood down from that post.
There are many gay and lesbian people in the Church around the world, including clergy and doubtless some bishops. They are people of integrity in living and conviction in believing. Archbishop Williams' emphasis on bonding as a central criterion has led him to the view that faithful and committed same-sex relationships may also be acceptable in the eyes of God. While the experience and perspectives of one group in the Church may lie beyond the understanding of another group, that is not a reason to make a judgment on the convictions of other members of the Body of Christ.
The Archbishop has said he will not seek to impose his view on the Anglican Communion, but will lead a process of dialogue. At a time when an early consensus on homosexuality seems unlikely, that seems a constructive strategy. We should agree to journey together with respect for those of differing convictions, engage in dialogue, study the biblical and contemporary evidence, and prayerfully seek a greater understanding that lies beyond current perspectives.
The issue of human sexuality is not an easy one for the Church to speak on. We are fearful of being accused of Victorian morality, or being anti-sex, or unprogressive, and hence have too often said nothing. Yet the Church's teaching on commitment in relationships is not based on some archaic set of rules which are disconnected from reality. Commitment in relationships leads to fulfillment in living, and security for children where children are involved. There is solid social and psychological evidence to support this. Our morality is not prescriptive (prescribing a set of rules to be obeyed), but descriptive (describing what works in human life and relationships), and offering a vision for all to seek.
It is in line with our understanding of the Trinity which symbolises a community of relationship within the Godhead itself, and sets the pattern for all of life.
bullying: to intimidate, to abuse. -- Concise Oxford Dictionary
Some years ago, in the course of studying for a Masters Degree in the United States, I came across the concept of a 'wicked problem'. Professors Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber made the distinction between more one-dimensional 'tame' problems and the others-which are complex, have inter-related causes and similarly have devastating effects.
These, the 'messy' ones, are usually by-passed by policy makers, PC-advocates, or planners who prefer the 'tamer' option.
From both personal and professional experience, I now know bullying to be among the most 'wicked' of the myriad of other such problems some of us face, but many others chose to ignore.
The frustrating thing is that so much can be done about this problem, but so little actually is.
Thirty-five years ago, unbeknownst to me, I became a statistic; that is, one of 75 per cent of the population who is bullied. In my case, I joined another set of statistics to become one of ten per cent of those so horribly hunted and abused that the effects became both life threatening and changing.
There are more statistics, but with a human face. The perpetrators, and there were six of them, make up the seven per cent of people who, for complex (make that 'wicked') reasons confuse leadership, strength and power with a delight in persecuting others.
I was in my first year at secondary school in New Zealand. They were second year students. Being an American who wasn't much good at rugby and cricket perhaps made me a marked person. My parents were overseas, and I had one older brother at the same school, but being a boarder meant there was no escape.
And there was none for a year. After the first night of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, the day dawned with even more horrible encounters. These went on for a number of days. I asked for help from teachers, and even my brother, but was given the impression this was "all part of the programme."
So, with very little choice I learned tremendous skills of stealth, hiding and not drawing attention to myself. I also learned how to survive. It all ended after that year. I went back to the United States, but the time bomb started ticking.
I went on to achieve some rather remarkable things, particularly in the context of being told daily while at the school that I was "useless", "a disgrace" etc. Being from a proud and old family I guess I had other messages that also were playing.
The past finally caught up 2½ years ago. My partner and I were on holiday in Fiji, a place we love and the first time we took our little daughter Holly away. I had been very concerned and obsessed with the many 'what ifs' prior to the holiday. In hindsight, being prepared and 'on alert' for the worst possibilities had punctuated my life since the bullying began.
I had done 11 years of martial arts to be prepared for any situation, but the residue of all this was a depletion of my serotonin levels. We arrived and I was like a coiled spring - what if one of those boys trips her? what if she gets lost? what if she drowns? Finally the spring broke.
It was like having a heart attack. Huge chest pains, loss of breath, dizziness. I was rushed to an A&E clinic in Nadi and pronounced in 'good health'. Maybe just a little tired, but you're in great shape, I was told. Just check in with your GP when you're home.
I made that appointment which then began a journey that was both devastating but enlightening. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was, in a supportive way, told I was the most traumatised person the doctors had ever seen that wasn't dead or institutionalized. "You must be made of strong stuff," they said.
I had periods of contemplating suicide. I went through situations when I 'took on' bullies everywhere I could, which finally cost me my job. I was a mess.
But then, through a combination of good counseling, good exercise and good medication, I re-learned' how to live life. Strongly, peacefully, with no fears and no expectations. Instead of blending in, I now love standing out, and where I was frightened to give I now love sharing. The experience left me with a desire to find out more about bullying and to fight it where I can. But in a calm, constructive and powerful way.
This is what I have learned about bullying:
1. What it actually is
Bullying is physical and emotional abuse that, stripped of its 'social conditioning' would often amount to criminal violence. Children rank it worse than sexual abuse, and second only to losing a parent as the most traumatic occurrence in their young lives.
2. Its extent
Bullying in New Zealand and around the world is at epidemic proportions. Almost three-quarters of New Zealand school children report being victims of bullying. Its destructive impact on the lives of individuals, families and society is enormous.
3. The 'Blind Eye'
Unlike, for example, social education about domestic violence over the past generation, bullying remains largely socially acceptable as 'part of growing up'. As a society we largely turn a blind eye to the true nature of bullying and its social costs.
4. Bullying harms everyone
Research shows it is bullies, as well as their victims, who suffer with bullies being five or six times more likely to end up in prison. Making New Zealand free from bullying is as much about safeguarding bullies from a life path of anti-social behaviour as it is about protecting those bullied.
So that is how 'wicked' the problem is. Sadly, like so many wicked problems, it takes vision and leadership to make a difference. Facts and evidence say that bullying CAN be stopped. With a group of others sharing a similar vision we're now working to this end-where there is a will there is a way but to date those that could help us make a difference prefer the less messy, 'tamer' view of the world.
I want to talk with you today about controversy. What would you say to me if I suggested that it was more important for the church to be controversial than right? What would you say if I suggested that controversy is more important for the church than unity? What would you say if I suggested that Jesus taught controversy over unity? In fact this is a message often more comfortable for evangelicals than liberals, so may offer an interesting challenge to (the people of the church of) St Matthew-in-the-City?
Jack Spong made some points in his talks here which have stayed with me. The first was: "unity in the church is not the great aim we are told it is", and the second: "the church may die of boredom but it will never die of controversy'".
His point being - amidst his life of pushing the church to boundaries never imagined, that so long as people are excluded from full involvement in the Christian Church because of their gender and sexuality and creed, controversy is essential in the church. The only option is indifference, and that will certainly kill the church even if it is veiled in unity jargon.
This is a point which might get us close to some understanding of the gospel reading for today, a strange passage and often best left alone; in the interests of unity, of course! Shattering forever any illusions of a meek and mild Messiah, Jesus claims that his purpose on earth was not peace at all, but division. He came with fire, and assured his disciples that the message would turn even families against each other. Was Jesus just in a really bad mood that day, or is unity not part of his purpose. People would by his message be forced to make choices or form conclusions which would create controversy; as compassion, social justice and open minds would be primary pursuits over religious observance, political correctness and the hierarchical status quo. Not peace, but division. Not unity but controversy. What does this mean for a community like ours?
Surely this is the history of our church as it is the history of so many great churches and social movements. Isn't this the lesson of the faith history of which Hebrews speaks? We have a great cloud of witnesses who have walked the path of controversy before us, and inspire our lives of faith. They more than inspire our lives, they mystically walk with us.
It was said in a speech about the civil rights movement in America:
'Booker T Washington started to teach so Rosa Parks could take her seat. Rosa Parks took her seat so Fannie Lou Hamer could take her stand. Fannie Lou Hamer took her stand so Martin Luther King Jr could march. Martin Luther King marched so Jesse Jackson could run.'
Each controversial step forward in the civil rights movement depended on the faithful step of one who went before. Each would be commended for their life, but none would receive the fulfilment of the promise. Their lives were foundation stones on which others could build. These were lives which divided opinion as they forced people to form their own conclusions and take a stand.
The same could be said of the Bible's story of faith and perseverance. Abraham travelled blind to a place which was foreign. He was the father of a nation which would travel blind into untold struggle and oppression. Yet Abraham never received the fulfilment of the promise. His life was a stepping stone for a nation. The history of Abraham's people includes the Red Sea crossing, the tumbling walls of Jericho, the courage of warriors up against enemies and lions, suffering under torture, jail and death. These too stood up as Abraham had, divided opinion no doubt, yet never received the promise. Yet, altogether, these radical steps, often blind, were taking God to all peoples, causing a stir, breaking down nationalistic prejudice.
The beginnings of our notion of an inclusive church. This is the history of our church. A church which has divided opinion in the community, and been divided in itself. No strangers to controversy - whether it was Cowan linking with the City Mission, Blackwood Moore being banned from the radio, Buckle taking St Matthews to the City, Russell establishing a Church for gay and lesbian people, Mullane fighting apartheid and the abuse of women in the church, Beck taking money from the Casino and walking the Hikoi; all stances which divided this parish and this community. Even still there would be differing opinions about their rightness or otherwise. Yet the point is that the ministry of this church has always been one of standing for something, having a clear voice on issues, and inevitably leading to division.
Yet the promise has not yet been received. Nor will it be any time soon. Our task? - to continue the controversy. We will be stepping stones for future St Mattheans. What will they say about Lawton and the congregation of the new millennium in 50 years time? What will be the issues and stances over which we will risk division, both inside and outside the church walls?
Jesus said he came not to keep the peace, but to stir people to open minds and action.
That is our special call as a City Church with a long history of controversial public ministry. We will help to recreate the people's vision for a church which pushes boundaries, asks belligerent questions, opens minds and stirs action.
To quote Spong, the mainstream church will not die of controversy, but could easily die of boredom. Our unity will be our common purpose to be an open community of journeyers, struggling together for wholeness and integrity, working for the good of people over structures; a public voice and a persistent presence. The outworking of that unity will be controversy and diversity; held together in creative tension.
Heaven: Elderly Poodles and the Expectation of Perfection
June 8, 2003
The Day of Pentecost John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
This week, heaven has been much on my mind. On Monday my beloved Lucy the Poodle died. Almost 17, blind and deaf, she'd had a wonderfully pampered and indulged life. I find it almost impossible to explain how I felt about this dog, how she taught me about unconditional love, about how we lived interconnected lives able to clearly communicate with each other across the boundaries of our species.
Unwittingly, I found myself imagining her in some kind of doggy heaven. I wanted to write a liturgy for her that involved running free and sighted, with those long silky ears streaming out behind her like Snoopy on a mission. I wanted her to be whole again, to be the dog she had been as a young poodle. But she wasn't and to be honest, part of the interconnectedness we had grew as a result of her frailty. She needed me as much as I needed her.
So why this yearning after some place of perfection? Why this desire to have things as they were in a time I fondly, but probably mistakenly thought was heavenly?
Health funding, or the lack of it, always makes good press. Friday morning's Herald led with the headline, 'Patients wait as theatres lie idle'. Buried further down the story is the more accurate reality that health dollars need to fund a lot more than just elective surgery and there will never be enough money to meet all our expectations. But the hit has already been made. The headline buys into and encourages a sense of injustice by highlighting the idea that good people are missing out on something that is their right.
We live with a list of expectations, impossible to satisfy and if we explore a little, discover they are often not of our own making. Our bodies are tested, cut, poked and sutured to get them upright again and back in the race. We probe our families and relationships for signs of dysfunction lest any of us grow up traumatised by the reality of our own lives. We want our kids to have an education that will make them competitive in the job market.
Our own work history must show enough flexibility to denote broad experience and ability to cope with change, without sounding as though we are unreliable job hoppers. And to top it all, we must pay off our flexi mortgages as fast as possible, preferably on a home that does not leak, so that we can get on with the creation of wealth, which is meant to give us choices in life. And if you haven't cosseted yourself from hurt or dis-ease with all that, then a good course of psychotherapy will do the trick.
Today's gospel is an interesting one. The characters are not prepared to believe that Mary's son, someone familiar, ordinary, whose foibles were well known to them, could amount to much. Or was it that this local carpenter was just not fitting in? He kept doing and saying annoying things that taken seriously, would upset the way they did things around there.
Jesus was on about living differently. His wisdom suggests an intentional life that is actively concerned with challenging the values and behaviours of the most powerful and wealthy. Taken seriously, it can be personally disturbing.
Canvas; the new weekend magazine, this week has an article titled 'Basic Instinct'. It says that while 'men's manners have improved markedly since Genghis Khan's day… at heart,... we're the same animals we were 800 years ago. Which is to say we are status-seekers. We may talk of equality and fraternity. We may strive for classless societies. But we go right on building hierarchies, and jockeying for status within them'. And this is not just a male thing, it's just that men, apparently, 'pursue it more doggedly than females at every stage of life.'
Perhaps this inherent dissatisfaction with our raw selves and inherent grasping for more, may well have fuelled some of the heavenly theology that despite space travel and an understanding of the infinite nature of the universe, remains difficult to live without.
Every generation has to deal with their own set of what are, at heart, outrageous expectations. Continuous quality improvement and striving for a better world are of themselves positive aspirations but I wonder if there is a point where the longing for more or better becomes a rejection of self and the imperfect, messy lives that most of us have to grapple with.
This relentless engagement with the exterior, with getting on and making something of ourselves in life, resulting in try to meet the outrageous expectations, ensures we avoid the journey to the interior where hard questions threaten to turn our world upside down.
Some of the most difficult questions we face are about what we believe. What we believe or the set of principles we base our life on, provide the structure for our understanding of life's purpose - or put another way, is the thread of meaning running through our life. This thread of meaning, this belief system comes into sharp focus during hard times. It stands or falls on whether it makes sense to us at times of pain and loss.
Sometimes we are distraught, because the beliefs we had some years ago have not stood the test of time. It seems as though God has deserted us. Belief is not meant to be static and time bounded. As we grow and develop our understanding of our self and our world, our way of making meaning has to match this development. Our theology, what we understand about the godstuff, has to change to fit this developing vision.
Neil Darragh, an Auckland theologian, a local lad, encourages the development of an Earth centred spirituality. When he speaks about the Earth, he doesn't just mean this spinning ball we are attached to, instead the whole atmosphere is included. And so we live within the Earth, not on it.
He wonders if we could perceive ourselves as an interdependent part of the whole Earth? He asks, what if God is about location and not so much about being? What if God is located within the Earth along with us, and elderly poodles?
These interconnectedness ideas are already part of our common café conversation. They gain purchase in society because they make sense of our context and our understanding of life. And more, this theology offers a way for people to be involved, do their bit for the Earth, even if it's as small as putting out the recycling every week.
But taking on these theological ideas challenges us to rework the old words and ideas that we used to describe meaning. We are forced to redefine the concepts of sacred and holy. To relinquish the idea that these are things separate and apart. Instead we have a growing understanding that by living within this Earth, we are living within the sacred and holy every day of our lives. The challenge of Jesus remains. How are we to live intentionally within this sacred Earth?
We said goodbye to Lucy the Poodle on Friday night and returned her ashes to the care of the Earth. My expectation is that she is gently absorbed back into the Earth's burning heart, becoming part of the ongoing re-creation, bringing life and hope to us all.
May she and all of those people and beings we have loved, walk with us in the day and companion us through the long nights.
May the memory of their love inspire us to live now, in this moment, content in the love that surrounds and surprises us at every turn.
The primates of the Anglican Communion around the world met in Brazil this past week. As a result they wrote a Pastoral Letter to all bishops, clergy and people of our churches, with the desire that it be read or distributed at public worship on the Feast of Pentecost, 2003.
There was a preamble about areas of growth and hardship in the Anglican world, especially Sudan, the Congo, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Pacific. The agenda was set as theological education, the continuing engagement of the Church with HIV/AIDS, and the nature of communion. The statement outlining the meeting of our global Anglican leaders and their global conversations.to this point seemed a worthwhile document, particularly on a day when we affirm difference and the universal love of God.
It then made a statement about human sexuality, which was where it came unstuck in my opinion. It made this statement: "The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites.
This is distinct from the duty of pastoral care that is laid upon all Christians to respond with love and understanding to people of all sexual orientations. As recognised in the booklet "True Union", it is necessary to maintain a breadth of private response to situations of individual pastoral care."
On a day when we recall a momentously inclusive symbol of language and culture affirmation, the effective communication of exciting and relevant messages to people of all sorts and cultures, we read the conservatism of the Primates. No blessing of same sex unions, because there is no consensus on the issue. Heaven forbid the Church might be proactive on an issue like human sexuality and lead by example of openness.
On a day when we honour the adventurous spirit of innovation and courage all we get is stock standard piety and conservatism. In effect, the statement is urging us to a double standard; to hold to a position privately, but not to own it publically. We can do better than this as a communion. We will have to do better than this if the Church is to have a future in an open world.
This Pentecost, I offer you the radical, open, courageous, innovative, surprising, even shocking, life-affirming spirit of God. May your lives this Pentecost find new energy for living and loving and justice seeking in the power of this spirit. May the Church this Pentecost see past its fear of difference to a new energy for proactive, life-affirming, inclusive ministry.
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
- Dylan Thomas
This morning we get one last bite of the Easter cherry, as we celebrate the Sunday nearest Ascension. The Dylan Thomas poem above echoes the Christian gospel. Though all would seem to be lost, though leaders are killed and followers may become traitors, yet love is not. Though Mary would slouch forlorn outside the tomb of despair, Judas would lose his mind and Peter lose his nerve, yet death would have no dominion. For love is stronger than death. It conquers even the loss of hope. Jesus would give his life, even to the point of ultimate abandonment, with a love stronger than death.
The Christian gospel echoes our lives. Though all things change, friends are fickle, partners less than perfect, though our ideals are steadily eroded, love can conquer fear for it is stronger than even death and loss. Though we fail; ourselves, our friends, our ideals, love can conquer even this failure.
Ascension is often recalled as a glorious story, a little strange and hard to believe, but glorious. This is the episode of Jesus' space travels! As astronomer Carl Sagan pointed out, if Jesus set out 2000 years ago rising to heaven above the clouds, he would not yet have left our galaxy! In any case there is something more worrying about this tradition than its lack of scientific sense. It teaches that Jesus overcomes this world and rises above the base concerns which we endure and he had to endure for those 33 years. His victory is seen as an escape, which becomes the ideal which his followers are encouraged to strive after. So you can see that much of the other worldly piety which keeps Christianity firmly in another age finds its inspiration in ascension interpretations.
I would want to suggest another way of understanding ascension, the complete opposite of the traditional understanding; an interpretation which affirms the human, is based in this world and the real experiences of existence, in particular the human struggle with change. I would suggest that ascension is a story about leaving, about having someone close leave, about dealing with the grief of loss. Ascension is about those crisis moments which seem to mark an end, yet in time open up endless possibilities.
For the disciples it was the second losing of their leader. This time they would understand a lot more fully than the first that though they lose their leader yet his love would not leave them. In fact he would leave a Spirit of love with them. The Spirit would comfort them, guide them into wisdom and draw them together in love.
The struggle of these first disciples was the struggle every group of disciples has battled with ever since; that is holding onto the inspiration of Christ even without his physical presence. Maintaining unity even without Jesus holding them physically together. And so they would need the Spirit of Jesus to empower their living and loving. The Ascension is just as much a celebration of the leaving of Jesus as it is the celebration of the indwelling of the Spirit of Jesus.
The lessons of Ascension are often taken alongside the lessons of the letters of John, which have a straightforward, yet hard to apply message. God as love is expressed in love of neighbour. The mark of Easter communities is their loving, as was the theme last week. John also points to another truth when he says that true love conquers fear.
If this is true then why is there so much fear in the church? And why is there is so much fear in the church's message? A woman came to me recently to talk about life at St Matthew-in-the-City. She had been a life long member of another church, and had led their Sunday school for several years. When she announced to the leaders of the church that she was questioning her sexual orientation, it was made clear to her that she was no longer welcome. Their fear of difference was greater than their love. What tragedy!
The Church has struggled with gender for many years, and in some places still can't work it out. My experience in the conservative Sydney Diocese is that hiding behind odd and literalistic interpretations of the Bible is the real fear that men will lose their power. In 1968, the (then) Anglican Archbishop of Sydney made the following comment, which even though spoken many years ago could accurately describe the attitudes of many in the church in Sydney today. He said that the Ordination of Women "would mean the death knell of the appeal of the Church for men." Honest, yet not exactly love conquering fear.
No-one could deny the real life stories of people who leave churches or never enter churches because they weren't accepted, and they weren't accepted because some people couldn't tolerate the differences; whether it was a difference due to sexuality, gender, background, even theology or social opinions. Why do some in churches find difference so threatening? What is at stake? I suspect it has something to do with a fear of change, and a need for an 'other' to demonise in order to remain 'righteous'.
There is also too much fear in the Church's message. The message should be one of peace and security, and not "turn or burn". The message of hell, fire and brimstone is a tragic miscommunication of the truth that love conquers fear. Our message must be the enormous love of Jesus which would drive him to live and die our human death. Our message must be the perfection of love which drives out fear of death, and punishment and judgment.
If the love which is the mark of the Church is one of contentment and never needing to compete or measure up, our lives will be so much fuller. We may also just find some inspiration for dealing with change.
The words of the Tao Te Ching are helpful here:
If you realise that all things change
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying
There is nothing you can't achieve.
Whether the death you are dealing with is the loss of a friend, an ideal or a dream, try loosening your grip. Just let go for a moment, stop controlling. You just might find that the connection becomes stronger in the process, and so much fear will vanish.
"True love conquers fear for love is stronger than death, many waters cannot quench it.'
Finally, A prayer frrom Micahel Leunig, 'Let it go. Let it out. Let it all unravel. Let it free and it can be a path on which to travel.' Amen.
A man was called up to see his boss. He stood in front of his employee's desk for several long minutes before he was asked, "Do you believe in life after death?" "Yes " replied the employee, nervously. "Good," said his boss, "Because after you left early yesterday to attend your grandmother's funeral, she came in for a visit!"
Today I want to talk to you about life after death. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the sad but inevitable loss of the Church. We will hear eulogies presented which will show the wonderful deeds of the Church over many centuries, the good it has done for individuals and for society. You have just heard a bell toll for every century of the Church's existence. We will come again to realise that the Church can take credit for some significant social and moral reforms. Some of you here today will bear testimony to the benefits of the Church. Some of you will have been baptised and married by her, some will have been counselled by her, inspired by her, even nourished by her for daily life. Her worship and fellowship for some of you will still be profoundly important. This is a sad occasion indeed!
However even those of you present who benefit from the Church are here today to mourn its passing. You know that your children and their children simply don't need her any more. They have no need for her worship or her counsel. At the most they find moments of connection, by using her for baptisms and weddings, or attending the occasional Xmas service. But their lives are full without her, they find fellowship in other places now. The public comments of the Church are worlds away from their experience of reality. So you will hear eulogies which explain why the Church has to die for the sake of your children and their children if it is to have lived for a purpose.
With honour we will leave the Church at rest in God's care, certain in the hope of resurrection to eternal life. After we have heard eulogies, we will look forward, as the Church would have wanted us to do. The Church would not want this to be a mournful occasion, rather a celebration of happy memories and a looking forward to the way a resurrected Church will function in the future; so you and your children and your children's children will have something to be proud of and to participate in for many years to come.
There have been so many good times. We honour the contribution of the Church to literacy and to understanding of classical culture and language. We give thanks for the education systems provided by churches, for welfare agencies run by churches. We remember social reform; the Church's role in emancipation, women's liberation, even in some places global conflict.
I look back at the life of the Church, and wonder when it was she became so ill. I wonder if we had seen it, could we have done something for her? I wonder if it was even in the first century, when the disciples closed ranks and waited for the end of the world. I wonder if it was the self righteous piety which even then re wrote the whole Jesus story to fit their insecurities. I wonder if it was the way they domesticated such a radical and earthy story and made it about personal salvation and righteousness. Could that have been the beginning of the end for the Church?
But enough of that, lets reflect on the good times. The first tribute comes from a great friend of the Church. Within three centuries of the common era, the Church was officially recognised by Constantine, who was one of its highest profile converts. Riding on the back of Constantine's reforms, the Church built itself into an organisation which parallelled the Roman state. Yet on reflection was the role of Constantine all beneficial? The Church faced less struggle because of him, so lost some of its fighting character.
In any case the sudden rise of the Church was an impressive achievement. Many cared so much for the cause that they gave their lives to gain the Church this position in society. This was the age of councils and creeds, organised religion. The creeds were reflections of their time, but not of course reflections of our time. Part of the sickness of the Church is the maintenance of creeds which say little or nothing to our age, and fail to recognise the scientific and theological understandings of the past centuries and the present.
However I digress. The Church was on the move at this stage, spreading beyond the cities, and beyond Judaism. This advance spread to the conversion of the Barbarian peoples from the 5th century. The Church was so successful, against the odds, in the face of all manner of persecution. The Church brought literature to the Franks and the Vandals (of course, it was Christian literature.) The Church became bigger than any one nation, a strength which carried it through the Middle Ages. Of course, through this time the Church also developed a tendency to convert people out of their culture as a form of imperialism, and tended to indoctrinate through education. I wonder if this was when the rot set in. Was this the precursor to the Church's role in genocide and stolen indigenous cultures in later centuries? Was it the wealth which they attained out of the conquests which set the Church on the wrong path? After all this was the Church which called for lives of poverty while it amassed enormous wealth for itself. Or was it the dogmatism they established in the face of many new and different ideas which set up its narrowness? Was it the hostile resistance to paganism which locked the Church into a tragic dualism between sacred and secular, sinner and righteous? Was it the mediaevel world and the missions which confirmed that the Church had a terminal illness?
But not to get negative. By the 11th Century Europe had become almost completely Christian. The Church now enjoyed great wealth, a hierarchy and good numbers of educated men as clergy. It had a liturgical structure and canons to keep people accountable. The impact of the Church in the Middle Ages was tremendous; the spectacular architecture and amazing Cathedrals, the pilgrimages to holy places, the relics, icons and popular movements. It was also a time when the Church became entrenched in a clerical system, a subjugation of the masses, controlling language, literature, salvation and morality. There were large numbers of heresy trials. I wonder if this was where things became terminal. What was intended to be an open and socially radical system was becoming a centralised and controlled system. The edges were being pushed out of bounds altogether. In effect the Church was losing its origins. Its pioneer, Jesus, who never came any closer to the institution than its edges was now being hidden from view.
Let me break now and have a funeral reading.
How To Hide Jesus
by Steve Turner
There are people after Jesus.
They have seen the signs.
Quick, let's hide him.
Let's think; carpenter,
disturber of religious comfort.
Let's award him a degree in theology,
a purple cassock and a position of respect.
They'll never think of looking here.
His dialect may betray him,
His tongue is of the masses.
Let's teach him Latin
and seventeenth century English,
they'll never think of listening in.
Man of Sorrows,
nowhere to lay his head.
We'll build a house for him,
somewhere away from the poor.
We'll fill it with brass and silence.
It's sure to throw them off.
There are people after Jesus
Quick, let's hide him.
The Renaissance offered the Church some hope, with its optimistic intellectual, scientific and artistic revivals. Yet the Church resisted this rebirth and freedom and squashed some of its great hopes, including Copernicus and Galileo. These scientists niggled away from the edge of the Church, their theories never allowed into the centre of the life and thinking of the Church. The Church appeared particularly frightened of the Copernican revolution that suggested that the sun was the centre of the universe, and not the earth. After all if the earth was not the centre of the universe then it threatened the order of Church doctrine, with God intimately involved in the daily events of earthly life. Exonerating Galileo in 1992 was just a little late for the Church. A Jesuit Priest Bernard Lonergan once said, "The Church always arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late." Maybe it was the fear that humanity was not just part of creation, able to be controlled by a supernatural and controlling divine force, but now able to intervene in nature and create its own future which was most challenging to the Church.
Newton offered the Church another opportunity to understand that there were natural explanations for what had to that point been declared by the Church to be God's mysterious providence. The Church rejected the opportunity out of fear.I recall here the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide."
Was it when the Church resisted humanism and Greek Philosophy and artistic pleasure for fear of having its systems of control unravelled that it committed suicide? I wonder if it was this other worldliness which killed the Church. I recall the comment of Dante "My home is the world" and only wish the Church had taken this on board.
The creeds recited in churches today still seem to ignore the Copernican Revolution, let alone outer space travel. Issues such as evolution and euthanasia still are kept at the edge, as if they still might threaten a controlling all powerful God. The question in my mind; how big is this God if science and progress can be a threat? The Church's limited response leaves me with a heavy heart.
Of course the Church wouldn't want us to be too heavy today. She would want us to celebrate life with a bit of a laugh as well. Listen to these actual high school student essay quotes, written about some of the historical periods I have mentioned.
"In medieval times most of the people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the times was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verses and also wrote literature. Another tale tells of William Tell, who shot an arrow through an apple while standing on his son's head."
"In the Middle Ages the Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense."
"The Renaissance was an age in which more individuals felt the value of their human being. Martin Luther was nailed to the church door at Wittenberg for selling papal indulgences. He died a horrible death, being excommunicated by a bull. It was the painter, Donatello's interest in the female nude that made him the father of the Renaissance. It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Guttenberg invented the Bible. Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Francis Drake circumsised the world with a 100-foot clipper."
Coming back though to my reflection on the life of the Church, I pondered the Reformation. Was it here that the illness took a turn for the worse? Was it the ultra-conservatism of the Reformation which stated that God rather than the Church would control events, which marked the end? Its just so sad. The Church moved from clericalism to a superstitious God, and neither way offered a path to health. The Church became locked now into a literalistic reading of the Bible which became the precursor to so much hatred and violence, with wars fought over different interpretations.
The Baroque intellectual revolution offered such hope. The Church would have found such freedom in exploring the questions of the day. I look back and see that the instilling of emotion in religion, the rise of mysticism gave the Church some life. However the overall trend was a further separation of Church and scientific progress. The rise of the Jesuit order with their radical social justice programs was a sign of life, but even they were side lined. It seems that whenever the Church has been given a life giving transfusion of energy it has just isolated the threat, beginning with the story of Jesus life. Maybe that's the cause of the illness.
Industrialisation and social movements were another opportunity in the 19th century. Again the Church preferred safety and established itself as a safe middle-class haven, refusing to take up the causes of the working class other than to offer charity to poor people. Of course there were exceptions to this trend, throughout history. The Church did a great deal to further music and art, as well as providing many scientists and missionary aid. Churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement of the 20th Century. The Liberation movements in Central and Southern America offered a lasting legacy in their challenge of unjust structures. The death knell for the Church seems to have been the inability to affirm the work of these activists, and instead sideline them. Controversy has always been a problem for the Church.
So there is a very sketchy and brief history of the illness to which the Church has now succumbed. The time of death I place somewhere between the ascension of Jesus and the current day. It has been a long and painful death with some moments of relief along the way. The cause of death I suggest is fear and boredom; fear of the unknown, fear of progress, fear of controversy. The tragic irony I suggest is that the death has come about not through the unknown or the controversial but through the lack of embracing the various enlightenments which history has offered as an opportunity. The cause of death is boredom, as modern people no longer have interest in an anti-science, anti-progress structure. The Church's God in the sky, the Church's centralised and dogmatic control is too narrow for globalised citizens. The Church's literalism is too stifling for enquiring post modern minds.
And there we have it. Christian Church you have had your moments. For those we honour you today. You've also missed your opportunities. Today we grieve this death.
However there is something about the teaching of Jesus which comes to mind here; resurrection. One of the features of the Church which I haven't mentioned is its ability to survive. It survives struggles, even death and recreates itself. So there are no need for tears today. For today we usher in a new possibility; the resurrection of the church …again. There is light at the end of the tunnel, although in Auckland that light is about to be switched off. Woody Allen said, "I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens." It's a little like that for those of us left behind. Those of us who care about the future of the Church will at times fearfully help to usher in a new way of being Church.
I now want to tell you the stories of some inspirational people, some of them unlikely people. They are stories of real people who have resided only ever at the edge of the institution, and may offer signposts for the rebirth of the Church. The first two are both now dead. Socially insignificant, they both received paupers' funerals. Yet these men showed me more than any others what the Church can be. They might be part of our model for future Church.
The first was Brad. Brad was a homeless man in inner Sydney who 'doshed down' on the doorsteps of the church I was running. He was known as the 'Bear' for his big cuddles and gentleness towards local street people. Brad was clearly running, from family, from his bikie past, from debt and just plain running scared. He lay at night alongside some of the most desperate men and women I have encountered; people who would do anything to survive. Yet Brad was different. He had a gentleness which belied his appearance and his past. He befriended me and opened doors into the street world of that place so that I became accepted as friend of Bear. I learnt more from Brad about faith than I have from any church going person I have encountered. Finding Brad dead in the church one day with a stick of heroine in one hand and another syringe empty beside him was for me a profound moment of grief and for the street community a day of despair. I wouldn't wish Brad's life on anyone. Brad was no saint. If the Church would just discover some of his acceptance of all sorts of people it would be a new start for the Church.
Then there was Dennis. Dennis was one of the last products of the lobotomy procedure because of his mental illness. Dennis lived in a small boarding house and spent his days tending the 'little English flowers' as he called them in the church grounds. The day my family moved into the vicarage in inner Sydney suburb of King's Cross, Dennis was our first visitor. He walked, or more accurately he goose stepped, straight through our front door, brushing past us as we carried belongings in. Without saying a word he disappeared into a back room, and then reappeared with his pants off, and tucked under his arm. He walked straight to my mother and presented her with the pants. The zip was broken. We wondered what we had arrived into. From that day forward Dennis and my mum were great mates.
Dennis loved church. He came every week and sang, off-key at the top of his voice. He had a habit at the end of services of walking up to random people and reaching his hand across conversations to greet people. One Sunday night volunteers were called for to help with the communion. Dennis put his hand up, and we held our breath wondering what would happen. In a profound moment I remember receiving the bread from Dennis, with his fragile voice and callused hands. He mumbled the words 'The bread of Christ'. I wouldn't wish Dennis' life on anyone. Yet if the Church could learn something from his humility and openness we would be making a new start.
Then there was the woman who rang me this week. An elderly woman from the North Shore, a churchgoer. She rang to ask me why clergy these days are so closed to new ideas, especially the young clergy. We bonded and I felt here a soul mate at the edge of the Church, someone with whom I could see hope for resurrection, an enquiring mind, a restless spirit, a woman dwelling in endless possibility. So we look forward today with great anticipation.
The hallmarks of this new Church will include a move away from an unchanging object; an all powerful, all knowing God in Heaven, to a subject God. This God will move with the times, and be manifest in various culturally relevant ways. This God will be the 'Ground of our Being' and the source of our living and loving. This God will be the connections between people and between people and nature. This God will be the meaning we place on life's events, the purpose we discover in struggles, the hope we feel in dark times.
The new Church will still find its inspiration in the life of Jesus, but not in a literalistic or moralistic way. There will still be place for worship, but without dogma and always reflecting the times and changes of the world. Within this worship, ancient creeds will increasingly be problematic, words of prayers and hymns will have to change and sacraments will have to be relativised and revitalised.
This new church will find with its freedom from absolutes an ability to engage with global and local issues making use of the latest research and theory. This will give its ethical response new life within the marketplace of ideas. Free from absolute dogma, the Church will find new energy in its inter faith dialogue and in new community partnerships. This is all very exciting, and new energy is what is needed at a time of death. Even the Bible says that all new growth occurs only as a result of death. It has to happen, so that we can move forward.
God will be experienced differently. The Church will be structured differently. It will lose its hierarchy. It will become more accountable, more open to state responsibilities and protections, more aware of basic human rights and employment duties.
There will be less of a focus on joining a club; ancient and separatist practices will be reformed. Baptism of babies will be widespread but only as an affirmation of young life and potential, and as a reminder to the Church and family to dwell in possibility. Confirmation as a membership rite will be done away with, unless we can work out a way to affirm teenagers in their own experience of life. The Church will offer marriage to all comers, and not only those who are baptised or claim denominational allegiance. The Church will offer other ceremonies, such as blessings of same-sex couples or, as I was asked to perform last week, a blessing for a man and a transgendered woman. These blessings will be written up in our registers as equal rites of passage. The Church will offer support for divorcees, even ceremonies marking these changes in life.
The Church will get with the IT program. It will be willing to compromise the need for gathering in order to connect with people who don't want to or don't have time to gather. It will be involved in things like texting and emailing messages and blessings, as St Matthew's has become involved in recently.
Church buildings will be used widely; for concerts, parties, and functions. The whole distinction between sacred and secular will be broken down. We will become community partners with social welfare agencies and clubs and activist groups. Above all else, the feeling that some people belong and others don't will vanish. The Church will be a community of equals, open to all comers. It will be a 'come as you are' party. You will take from it like you take from a well; as the need is there. You will give to it as there is opportunity.
So we come now to the end. A little breathless, but hopefully not too late. We leave the Church at rest and seek a new incarnation which will survive the next historical epoch. For we know that the Church always survives; it has survived before and will survive again. The challenge now will be, can it survive without an authoritarian God and a Church which sets the rules of life? Can it survive post modernism? Can it survive the fundamentalism which since September 11 has marked many of the world's religions, including Christianity?
"The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." - Jozef Imrich
I'm 35 with a young family a long way from home. I love this Church, and yet hate so much of what it has stood for in the past. I believe it can and will change, and I want to be there to see it happen. I'm crazy enough to believe in resurrection, and for that reason have no regrets about saying to the church of my youth 'Rest in Peace'. I will remain at the edge, as only at the edge can I be faithful to the inspiration of my faith, Jesus who took risks, was always open to change and valued people over institutions.
Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And then out of the ashes something new and exciting will emerge. That I hope has given you some insight into why I journey the margins of the church.
Imagine the scenario; two churches not ten minutes apart. One church is a thriving and busy community in an inner city suburb. A church with hundreds attending on a Sunday, people queueing up to get on the rosters, early morning prayer meetings, study groups running every night of the week, church sports teams, a roster of musicians to play in the church services. Maybe you've even been to a service at a church like this. At the church I'm talking about, the services are a constant fever pitch of excitement, with spontaneous outbursts of song and prayer and talking in tongues. There are regular healings and anointings, at least a dozen conversions every week at the altar call. This church is so big that they recently ran an all day meeting of the church's medical committee. Maybe you would expect that this is a group of doctors who help out at the hospital. No. This is the group who carry the stretchers and smelling salts and help revive the people who are overcome at the weekly service by the enthusiasm of the worship.
The other church exists in the city and is doing well if there are thirty people in church; a small but highly committed group who care about the people in their neighbourhood. A once large group, many of their members had moved to the suburbs, leaving their church a neo-Gothic island in the middle of a decaying and desperate part of town. Their worship is structured, challenging, and inspiring but rarely spontaneous and outrageous. One of their biggest concerns at the end of the service is security; padlock the doors. And during the week the best that can be hoped for is a message stuck to the door with a phone number on it.
Let me ask you. Which church do you think had the spirit of God in it? Or to rephrase the question, Which church had a greater vision of the risen Christ?
These weeks after Easter take us on a journey through the early church, with two greatly contrasting scenes not many months apart. The first is the picture of the church in Acts leading up to the spectacular Pentecost. The early church was growing not by tens but by thousands we are told in Acts. They were living and worshipping together, sharing what they had with any in need. There were awesome miracles, lives changed radically, speeches to huge crowds.
The other Easter scene is behind the locked doors of a house where a dozen or so of Jesus friends cowered. They cowered for fear of reprisal, already expelled from the synagogue, now fearing worse. Their greatest fear was that they might be linked with the dead outlaw, Jesus. They gathered in the shadow of an event which had changed their lives. Jesus appeared there with them and offered some simple words, "Peace be with you." John tells us, "Jesus breathed on them, with the same breath which had burst through a locked door and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.' " No great miracles here. Just ordinary human reactions and doubts.
Where is the spirit in these two situations? Surely in both. Wherever the breath of God fills places and people with creative and loving power for service and compassion, there is the spirit.
The other gospel text today has Jesus offering his last words to his friends before his death, and the themes include love, friendship and bearing fruit. When seen alongside the gutsy social challenge of the vine text from last week, they offer the personal qualities of a community of Jesus followers. The marks of Christian communities will be mutual friendship and love, no matter what their preferred style of worship.
The breath of God today. Where do we find it? Everywhere and in every situation that a part of the character of God is experienced there is the breath or spirit of God. In other words spirit can be the spontaneous and outrageous enthusiasm of a worship service or it can be the everyday experience of compassion, friendship and love. Let me illustrate the everyday experience of the breath of God.
It is an end to the story of the small inner city church I told you about. Next door to that church there is a large hostel with cheap accommodation and it is full of people struggling with life. A small study group from the church began visiting in the hostel. A few weeks later they moved their study into the lobby of the hostel. Slowly a few residents began to join in. They started up a soup lunch. Eventually about a dozen residents from the hostel were joining in the Sunday worship time. Some of the church members said they began to feel a breeze blowing through a once tired old church. The door had been opened.
Maybe there are people present today who are feeling tired and a little breathless. Maybe your spirits are lagging, needing an energy revival. My hope is that you will feel the breath of God's spirit in your life. My hope is that you will sense the presence of the risen Jesus in your life, not likely with earth shattering miracles, more likely in the ordinary acts of kindness and compassion which a risen community is marked by.
A Jesuit Priest Bernard Lonergan said, "The Church always arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late." Let that not be true of St Matthew-in-the-City. Let us seek an experience of the breath or spirit of God, and share out lives and struggles, as the first disciples did. Living Easter. Living as a resurrection community, marked by gutsy challenges and loving community.
I remember being shown around Chicago a few years ago by a well-intentioned local. As we toured he offered a running commentary on the city. At one point he pointed to a building and told us it was the largest butterfly museum in the world. He wowed us with the figures of the numbers of butterflies, the amount of money spent etc. That was fine and interesting, but as the tour went on we realised that everything he referred to was either the tallest, the largest, the most expensive, or the most powerful in the world. I eventually got so annoyed that I felt like saying to him, "You may well be the biggest pain-in-the-butt in the world'.
You may have met people like that. When we drove to his home and he pointed out Michael Jordon's house we realised the nature of the universe we were entering. Everything in this world was measured by its outward value. Each would work harder and harder to keep up or even better outdo the one next door.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the two brothers in the US, one of whom lived in Rhode Island and the other in Texas. The brother from Texas went to visit the brother in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island brother was a gentleman farmer. He put on his tweeds and he took the Texas brother to the top of a hill. There he pointed out the borders of his farm saying, "I own all the land to the creek, to the tree line, to the hills and to the highway." Then the Rhode Island brother looked at the Texas brother who was dressed in old blue jeans and cowboy boots and he asked, "How big is your place?" And the Texas brother said, "Well, I'll put it like this. If we ate breakfast at my ranch house, which is at the center of my place, and then got in my old truck and drove until we were ready for lunch we would be about halfway to my front gate." And the brother from Rhode Island said, "Don't feel too bad. I once had a lemon of a truck like that."
It seems to be human nature to compete. We so often confuse greatness with size and wealth. The results can be devastating.
There are many examples of this in the world today; none are more frightening than the display of opulence from Saddam Hussein whose properties fronted a regime of hatred and tyranny. He has built his main palace modelled on the style of Babylon's palace of Nebuchadnezzar, including his throne room. Hussein has built on the exact spot where Nebuchadnezzar directed his oppressive regime. We can only imagine what violent decisions, what acts of brutality were planned by Hussein in this very throne room! And it was here that Nebuchadnezzar consigned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to the fiery furnace.
We have been recently inundated with images of this opulence as well as some of the mass graves, the fiery furnaces in Iraq. Of course the media has offered a limited perspective on the complexity in Iraq, and of course the US and the UK have their own demons to address. But it seems clear that in Hussein we have witnessed a tyrant hell bent on destruction while he displayed his wealth as a medal of honour.
He comes in a long line of tyrants, including Nebuchadnezzar, and more relevant to our text this morning, Herod, who ruled in the time of Jesus.
The gospel text is one which we need to revisit as it has been domesticated and turned into a comfort text. The usual take on the image of the vine has been something pithy along the lines of "You won't bear fruits if you don't have roots." It has been said to be about unity, and doing good and finding your roots in Jesus. All quite true and fair.
However we need to keep in mind that most likely these words were spoken in the context of the Last Supper, as Jesus prepared for his demise at the hands of Herod and others. Whatever the intention of the words, they must be speaking profound truths about death and struggling against violence. They come from a man on the brink of the ultimate act of tyranny. We can expect they are anything other than comfortable.
Herod, like Hussein, wore his wealth like a badge of honour.
First century Jewish historian, Josephus offers this description of Herod's handiwork:
"The whole structure (of Herod's temple), was lower on each side than it was in the middle, so that they were visible to those dwelling a great many furlongs off in the country, and especially to those living close by and to those that approached. The temple had doors at the entrance, and lintels over them, of the same height as the temple itself. They were adorned with embroidered veils, with their flowers of purple, and pillars interwoven: and over these, but under the crown-work, was spread out a golden vine, with its branches hanging down from a great height, the largeness and fine workmanship of which was a astonishing sight for the vastness of the materials and the great skill of the artisans. He also encompassed the entire temple with very large cloisters, designed to be proportion to the temple; and he laid out larger sums of money upon them than any had done before him, till it seemed that no one else had so greatly adorned the temple."
Did you notice in the midst of that description the golden vine? Could it be, could it just be that when Jesus said, "I am the true vine," that he was putting out a direct challenge to Herod? Could it be that he was scorning the golden vine, Herod's claim at greatness, declaring that Herod's greatness was an illusion? If this was his intention, what courage the night before the execution!
I don't doubt that Jesus was also picking up on the ancient use of the vine imageto describe Israel, and was referring to infidelity and judgment, nor that he wanted to unify the disciples at this frightening hour.
It is just possible that it was also a ballsy challenge to Herod. Jesus was offering his own life, this man who was superficially unimpressive, had no possessions nor status, as the greater life. He was offering his inspiration for non-violence and compassion as the greater way than Herod's opulence and supposed power.
Just maybe he was offering a message to the disciples, even a coded message, that they must challenge Herod and all that he stood for. His death would not be in vain if they did.
And so it will be for us. As we celebrate our communion, we take of the true vine of Jesus. As we do so, we drink of the vine as a direct challenge to power politics and to violence. The true vine is the way of non violence, compassion and justice, and there will inevitably be struggle, even death along the way.
As we drink of the vine, we do so only too aware of the tyrants, and the tyrant within. We drink in direct challenge to tyranny.
The hope of resurrection is that these deaths will find their new energy in the persistence and courage of those who stand up as Jesus did, and count the cost. As we drink of the vine, we affirm all those heroes, and the hero within who has stood up when it counted.
Today's gospel passage has been one of the most abused of sacred texts. I remember once attending a meeting of the Jehovah's Witnesses. It was a communion service, so called, but for me lacked any sense of belonging. The sermon was on the text from John 10. We were told that the sheep Jesus referred to were the sons of Jehovah, those who would inherit Heaven. The other sheep were those who would inherit the earth, that is a new earth. Not as good as heaven, but not bad. There would be only 144,000 inheriting heaven, obviously due to space restrictions. Something like predestined ticketed seats.
After this scintillating and encouraging sermon, the communion began. It was explained maybe for my benefit that only if you were one of the 144,000 should you take the bread and wine. The congregation remained in their seats and first the plate of bread and then the cup were passed around from person to person. Each person held the plate and the cup for a moment, didn't take from them, and then passed them on to the next person. Having always been a bit of a stirrer, when the cup came to me I lifted it to my mouth to smell, and you should have seen the whole place turn around. Some of them must have had eyes in the back of their heads. The most gullible amongst them would have thought, what's the chance of that. Only 144,000 in all of history and we have one here in our little meeting in a small hall in a small suburb of Sydney, Australia. It was an extraordinary experience. Even the insiders were outsiders.
When the communion is used to mark one person as different or more holy than another it has lost the radically inclusive meaning it had from its inception. Its meant to be communion. Communion means participation. It means sharing in common. It speaks of belonging. Its certainly not an opportunity to exclude, whether because of age, stage or situation.
I came across a wonderful church web site during the week. It was the site for an Episcopal church in Morristown Newark. It has a street bill board which states, "We are one family; male, female, children, seniors, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, christian, non christian, dreamer, questioner, in recovery, partnered, single, skeptic." Now that's a definition of communion! They have a banner hanging in the church which declares, "This is a come as you are party."
At Church of the Redeemer, there is no age or instruction requirement to receive communion. Both grape juice and wine are consecrated to fully include children and people in recovery. Now there's an idea for inclusive communion. (http://redeemermorristown.org) The governance of Redeemer Church attempts to model the same inclusiveness. It is attempting to get away from the usual church structure which works a little like the sheep and wolves analogy.
A Democracy: Three wolves and a sheep voting on dinner.
A Republic: The flock gets to vote for which wolves vote on dinner.
A Constitutional Republic: Voting on dinner is expressly forbidden, and the sheep are armed.
Federal Government: The means by which the sheep will be fooled into voting for a Democracy
The parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd challenges exclusive notions of belonging and narrow church structures. It comes in the context of the healing of a blind man. The account makes clear that his disability made him an outsider, less holy than the religious people. His healing led only to religious quibbles. Jesus as shepherd was about radically including those who had no place. It was far more than physical healing. It was about truly belonging.
The Acts healing is no less astonishing, and just as political. The miracle was not just that the lame man was standing. The miracle was that he was standing there alongside Peter and John in the courtroom. He hadn't been arrested. He was standing alongside them in solidarity, as exhibit a for resurrection freedom. This was their message. Resurrection brings the freedom to be, to worship, to be a citizen despite the best efforts of political and religious elitists. This healing, this wholeness, this belonging, this freedom is available to all people.
The sheep analogy is unfortunate in some ways. It fails to capture the need for common sense and intellectually rigorous opinions and worldviews. It fails to capture the freedom of being and worshipping as an individual. It fails to capture any of the ideal of democratic church structures and governance.
There is a great cartoon by Gary Larson that shows a group of sheep grazing in a field. In the middle of the herd, one sheep is standing up on his back legs. With his front legs raised in the air, he proclaims: "Wait! Wait! Listen to me! We do not have to be just sheep!"
So I stand in this pulpit today. With arms in the air, I say to you we don't have to be sheep! The Christianity I inherited makes little sense to me anymore. I choose to leave it behind. I do not have to be a sheep. The narrowness of the teaching, the hierarchies of its structures, the prejudice of its God - all these I choose to leave behind. I hope you do too.
I hope you find yourself free in the church and free out of the church, to be true to your self and to your calling. This is the radically inclusive, wonderfully affirming, life giving Easter message. This is the life modelled by the Good Shepherd.
Every community has its eccentric characters. Churches seem to attract more than their fair share. I remember as a boy going to church with Jesus' sister. She would have Sunday excursions from the local psychiatric hospital, moan and groan her way through the service, and then during the sermon curl up on the front pew and snore loudly. As a child these were the moments which made the day. Not sure if the preacher felt the same enthusiasm for Jesus' sister. The local hospital meant that there was no shortage of characters in that parish.
In the parish of Kings Cross in inner Sydney, a number of odd characters made their way in to church. And that was just the clergy. Then there was Gary who loved communion,… wine that is. He would walk to the steps and queue up soon after the peace, trying to look pious. There was Dennis one of the last living examples of the ancient and cruel lobotomy technique for curing mental illness, who would sing at the top of his voice, way off key.
Some eccentrics, like Dennis, would always remind me that faith is so often found in the least likely places. His dignity, gentleness and persistence were all marks of a resurrected life. There was a wonderful moment where volunteers were called for in a community style communion service. When Dennis goose stepped to the front to volunteer, a certain nervousness filled the air. But as Dennis handed out the broken pieces of bread with his callused hands, his eyes which spoke of such pain and anguish, his voice weak and troubled great meaning was added to the celebration. Having the bread administered to me by Dennis, with the words, the body of Christ broken for you, was one of my most significant communion services. It certainly meant more to me than having bishops and archbishops hand me communion. With Dennis that day it felt I was in the presence of the resurrected Jesus.
With Dennis that day it felt that the broken bread truly captured all the broken dreams, lost lives and fractured souls which fill our world. An ordinary encounter, an extraordinary life giving moment. Of course, St Matthew-in-the-City has its assortment of eccentrics. But you can relax, I won't be mentioning you today. You will be fodder for sermons in my next parish.
Today, still basking in the glow of Easter hope, we remember the quite ordinary, but moving account of Jesus appearing to his frightened disciples and eating fish with them. Fish represented many of the disciple's working life. Even after the highs, lows and dramas of their three years with Jesus, the calling of most of them was to go back to work, to take care of the ordinary.
As the disciples found the peace of the presence of their resurrected leader, so we seek peace in the communion and then in the everyday work and play of our lives. Our eyes are open, we find resurrection all around us.
"Have our eyes been opened, risen God?
How much have we recognised you among us in one another, deep in our souls and in the heart of all that has life: the light within the sun's brightness, the breath within every living creature, the goodness within human company and the wholeness in earth's gifts of food and wine shared?
Have we glimpsed your presence in these things and merely glimpsing with inner eyes not been able to hold you fixed in sight before our vision fades yet glimpsing have our hearts not burned within us and assured us deep down of your presence like those whose eyes were opened at table?
And maybe even more than catching the merest glimmering of you in creation or momentarily feeling your freshness in the wind or tasting it in the fruit of the earth is it not when the beauty of the outward begins to break apart that we have glimpsed you most certainly, like those whose eyes were opened at the breaking of the bread and who recognised among them the One who died yet lives? Has it not been in seeing life's instability that sometimes we have been given sight of your eternity in our midst? Has it not been at life's edges in our falling and failing that you have shown yourself to be the centre of our lives, unshakeable?"
For these glimpses of resurrection presence, even though they vanish before we can name them, we give thanks. Today as all days we seek the ordinary, even the surprising and eccentric, as signs of hope in our midst.
As we approach the communion rail this morning, we do so not only as a private moment, but in solidarity with all that is broken and fragile, with the Iraqi people, the refugees, the unemployed, the lonely and the desperate. We touch the bread and drink the wine, aware of the labour which has produced them, the system which profits from the labour, the exploitation of workers and the degradation of the environment. These deaths too find their meaning in the communion.
We commune, we partake, then we go out. We go to family and friend. We go to work and to rest. We go a little changed, after all we have found peace, but we go. For it is in the everyday that we now express our communion; lives of justice and healing of all which is fragile and needs care. In that we live as the presence of Jesus for others.
Who could deny that for the child chocolate eggs are the essence of Easter? This is as it should be! Long live the chocolate egg I say. The Easter Bunny, like Santa Claus, is part of the experience for a child of pushing the boundaries of fact and fantasy. I say long live the Easter Bunny.
It starts very early in life, that journey through death and loss. We quickly learn where we can find certainty and where we need faith, where life's struggles begin and where they end.
I remember as a child having an imaginary friend. His name was India. He wore a turban and spoke broken, lyrical English. India was good to me and good for me. He always appeared at the fence in the backyard, as if signifying the boundaries of where my family began and where I moved into independence. He always appeared when I needed him. He always spoke the words I needed to hear. He had no guile, no judgment, perfect wisdom. He was all that you could hope for in an imaginary friend.
The day came when India stopped appearing at the back fence. My loss was immense; nothing in reality could match India. This was my first experience of death.
It stands alongside the day my younger brother came home from hospital and I met him for the first time with great joy as a two year old. These are my two strongest childhood memories; life and death alongside one another. India taught me that hope always begins as a figment of your imagination, then grows like a seed, bearing rich fruits. Hope serves to make reality more fantastic and fantasy more real, growing and building dreams. Easter is in part about the small distance between fact and fantasy.
Since then my life has been much like yours; a series of mountains where death and life mingle sometimes so close together that they are at times unrecognisable and inseparable. My conception of God has died and risen to new life and meaning. My belief in relationships has died and been rebuilt. My belief in myself has been shattered and reconstructed, over and again. My belief in the inherent good of people, alongside the blatant hypocrisy of people has twisted and turned. My lack of trust in institutions and structures has waned and worn.
All of this has sharpened an interest in justice and life lived to the full; resurrection. Easter is in part about the small distance between life and death; even three days.
At Easter we affirm the living God; the God who won't be boxed in a tomb or in human categories; the God who will keep coming back into our lives in the most surprising ways when we least expect it.
At Easter we affirm the living example of Jesus, the hero of non-violent revolution; the God who stands up to injustice and refuses to let evil have the last word.
At Easter we commit to living the way of Jesus, and refusing to give in to violence. While we still have breath, despite all the signs to the contrary, we seek gentle revolutions in our souls and in our world. We seek resurrection. Long live Easter as the gentle revolution of new life.
"The entrance into Jerusalem [on Palm Sunday] has all the elements of the theatre of the absurd: the poor king; truth comes riding on a donkey; symbolic actions -- even parading without a permit! Also, when Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem," what was involved was direct action, an open confrontation and public demonstration of the incompatibility of evil with the Kingdom of God." (David Kirk)
When my father was a bush priest in Western Australia, we had a Bishop who was like no other Bishop I have come across. His name was Howell Witt. Wit by name, wit by nature. He was an old styled worldly man with an edge, slightly eccentric. He played rugby, smoked like a chimney and swore like a trooper. When he came to our place for dinner, which he did often during my childhood years, he would be asked to say grace. We five children would close our eyes and wait with excitement for what he would say. He never disappointed; "Dear God, before we start to eat, I thank you for this lovely meat," and other such pithy prayers.
Bishop Witt became a national icon, once being interviewed alongside Australian Dennis Lillee on the Parkinson television show. There was one memorable occasion when Bishop Witt was asked to take part in a debate. It was in a church with two pulpits, so he took his place in one pulpit and each took their turns while the other spoke. At a certain point it became clear that the other speaker was winning crowd support, so Bishop Witt began humming into his microphone. With this song under his breath he then proceeded to undress; first his robes, then his trousers and his shirt. He stood in the pulpit with just his underwear on, then looked up innocently as if surprised that the other speaker had stopped speaking. The congregation was hooting with laughter, his colleague never regained his train of thought and Bishop Witt won the day.
When I say Bishop Witt was slightly eccentric, I mean he was a Bishop who took to heart the Jesus of Palm Sunday; riding into the capital with no permit, on a lowly donkey. He could at best have been mocked, at worst executed. His point was well taken. The crowds felt the victory of his protest. He won the day with his creative dissent.
Palm Sunday, in the shadows of the roller coaster death to life Easter story, reminds us that we need to take risks. Risks will inevitably lead to loss but have the lure of resurrection always in mind.
Palm Sunday is a day to celebrate all those courageous people who have stood up to tyrants and oppressors through the centuries.
Palm Sunday is a reminder that standing up for a cause is often best done in a counter cultural way. The soft overcomes the hard, the gentle overcomes the rigid. Palm Sunday says 'be as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove'.
We've seen from the US the opposite logic and time will tell what damage is done. The Bush and Blair alliance claims to be using weapons of destruction to stamp out weapons of destruction; war to defeat war.
They ignore the United Nations in order to make clear to Saddam Hussein that the United Nations cannot be ignored. Peace is too important not to take up arms to defend. If the only way to bring democracy to Iraq is to invalidate the democracy of the Security Council, then they feel honor-bound to do that too, because democracy, as they define it, is too important to be stopped by a little thing like democracy as the UN defines it. They cannot leave in power a dictator who ignores his own people. And if their people, and people elsewhere in the world, fail to understand that, then they have no choice but to ignore them.
This is the logic of the first century leaders who killed Jesus on suspicion. They had a system to protect after all. They would execute an innocent man to uphold a system which claimed to protect innocent people. They would break the natural order of fair trial and justice in order to maintain their brand of order and justice.
Jesus in turn offered another way, a way which confounds the logic of power and self righteousness; the way of persistent, courageous non violence. He chose his timing, his mode and his message. Resurrection was his victory, the ultimate act of civil disobedience.
Oh that Bush and Blair might realise this. Oh that we might be inspired to live by these values this Palm Sunday.
May the God of everyday life surprise us at every turn.
I've got a friend; a best friend whose had her share of lovers and partners. She's a deeply passionate woman, she's engaging, and looks straight at you, deep into your eyes. But you know what? She has no idea of the colour of her lovers' eyes. I say, "How do you do that? How come you don't know?" "Oh come on Sande," she says with something of a twinkle, "I really do know. There's that Mediterranean one, I'm sure he's got brown eyes." Yeah right, I think; a guess of high probability rather than any actual knowing. When she's more serious, she tells me (and I believe her) that it's not the eyes she's gazing into but somewhere far deeper, far more significant than the surface. As she would say, there's always more going on here than you get at a first superficial glance.
In 1st century Palestine, Jesus had gathered a following with his teachings. He was something of a troublemaker, wanting an inversion of society so that the weak, the outcast and the poor were valued. In our run up to Easter we find this Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt. His disciples have great expectations of him. They have, one supposes, looked deep into his eyes and been engaged by something of his sincerity and passion so that they become not merely observers, but followers of his way. Like many dreamers for a new world order, their hopes are dashed when their hero is killed. But something happens in the subsequent story telling. The hero, dead and in his grave, comes to life. He is not just human anymore but has been transformed into a god.
According to the Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, Hasidic Judasim has an admirable passionate vision of the presence of the holy within the ordinary. They say it is in this world that we must find God. If God is absent, then it is into this world that we must bring God. In this model, we draw God into the world so that all evil will be stilled.
The writers of the gospels did exactly that. They took responsibility for the placement of God and drew God into their world as a corrective to what they saw as the evil in their time.
But ideas about God have a very limited shelf life. They are developed within a context, a particular space and time. And while they may have elements of transferable wisdom, what was relevant 2000 years ago is unlikely to be so today.
Here in the institutional church we ought to have noticed that most people in society are not the slightest bit interested in these stories of crucifixion and resurrection that we annually trot out. Does that mean the people who have left the church or have never bothered to join up are not interested in God? That is not my experience.
Throughout my theological training, I continually rejected the parish in favour of exploring the worker-priest model. These days I work in the health sector full time, hang around the edges of St Matthews and wonder a lot about who you are and what you are as a worker-priest in 2003. Where do you do it and what do you do? Who is your community? How does it all fit with the notion of a deconstructed, pared down, contemporary construction of God?
Another mate of mine said to me the other day, "Look Sande, what's the story I'm meant to tell people? They don't understand how come a minister hardly ever goes to church and into the bargain, doesn't even like it much." I don't know what story I'm meant to come up with yet, but what he's getting at is true. To me, church, in its most familiar forms, is almost completely irrelevant to my everyday life.
However, my calling is, beyond question, to be a priest. My struggle is in the expression of that. For I believe that God, that which connects us and makes us whole, those fragmentary glimpses of the holy, are not found in church but in the interconnectedness we are destined to explore in our daily interactions. You could say, when looking into each other's eyes, often in conversation over wine and food and at the point where you get past the superficial.
Just lately, I've been soaking up the atmosphere at a tiny little bar in a suburb not so far from here. I get a real buzz out of drinking chardonnay and chewing the fat about life with whoever ends up on the stool next to mine. And once they get over their disbelief that priests can have pink nail polish and an attitude, I find that people often want to talk about the stuff of life that goes beyond the banal. I can see it in their eyes.
My theological training was a lot about good news ideas that people who don't go to church can grasp. For instance, Neil Darragh, Catholic priest in Auckland offers us an ecotheological perspective. Instead of being concerned with the definition of God, Darragh positions God within the Earth pushing us to acknowledge our interdependence with this planet and consequently the emerging holiness of our context. Whereas, Lloyd Geering suggests that God can be defined as those ideals that call us on, things like justice, peace, truth and love.
Instinctively, many of the people I meet on neighbouring bar stools understand this modern theology though they wouldn't call it that. They know about the need to value the Earth, feel strongly about justice, have recently been concerned about peace, daily struggle with the torment of being honest with each other. And then there's love. Well, they know along with me that discovering what love means is perhaps the whole of our life's work. But you'd never see these suburban theologians in church, because there is an irrelevancy for them about what we do here.
Easter offers us, in the church, an exciting but dangerous challenge. If we are going to take seriously the responsibility for bringing God into the world, or even to be able to glimpse the contemporary holy, we must have the courage to be complicit in the Easter killing as well as the resurrection. There is a need for us, with honesty and transparency, to kill off the old God ideas that do not work for our society and our time. To let them fall into the Earth to rot, eventually providing the compost for the regeneration of fresh thinking that meets the burgeoning spiritual exploration found these days in almost every bar, café, magazine, movie, television programme and newspaper.
Then we might be able, with some integrity, to look deep into the eyes of the world and know there's more good news going on here than we might have first thought. To recognise, to name, to nurture and to encourage the spiritual quest that is just aching for expression. In this way we recognise the holy within the ordinary and assist with bringing relevant, contextual ideas of God into our contemporary world.
But here's my worker priest problem again. Where are we doing all this great stuff? I don't think it's going to happen in places like this. After all, nobody much comes to church to relax, kick back and chew the fat about life and its meaning. To do that I hang out with my mates in a bar or café. Funnily enough, I note that the gospels portray Jesus as dallying with his friends and assorted disreputable characters over wine and food. Perhaps, instead of expecting people to come worship at our altar, priests may have a hospitality role behind the bar encouraging the suburban theologians.
Are you ready for the rough ride? For Easter, done well, is not a time of comfort. Instead it ought to be a time of great challenge, a place of questioning, where we are prepared to face up to reality. A time to look deep into the eyes, to see past the surface and the superficial. To sit with the vulnerability and discomfort that that brings. A time to get to the guts of our lives and our theology, and to wonder, alive with hope and possibility: where to from here?
During the week I watched the movie The Hours and was completely captivated. This is a movie which asked universal questions about life, death, love and meaning. The interconnections of three women's lives in the course of a century reminded me that the human questions of existence in the face of tragedy do not change greatly.
There was a wonderful moment when Leonard was talking to his wife Virginia Woolf about the book she was writing. Virginia was struggling to work out which of her characters would die. He asked her, "Why does someone have to die?" Her answer could be a theme for the church at Easter time; "Someone has to die, so that the rest of us will value life."
Death is inevitable, always tragic, yet finds its meaning in driving those left behind to value life more dearly. As we approach the memorial of the tragic and unnecessary execution of Jesus at the hands of political tyrants, we search again for meaning. As we come to terms with our sadness at losing Les and Michael and so many others, we search for purpose in their suffering and in our sadness. As we watch news reports of the phony war in Iraq, the senseless and tragic death of children and other innocents, we wrestle with the ultimate question of existence. Why innocent suffering? Why tyrants who seem to hold all the power? Why God, why?
Then Almitra spoke, saying, "We would ask now of Death." And he said: You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life? The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light. If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
Into the most hopeless of all situations, the Christian gospel offers the wonderful message that resurrection is an ever present reality. Just don't be looking for any empty tomb. That is the place of the dead. Look rather in the heart of life in the places where you find your passion for living invigorated.
In our readings this morning, the Hebrew lesson has the homeless Israelites asking the ultimate existential question of their God; "Why have you brought us to death, and why here in the wilderness?" Astonishingly, in the story it is the serpent, the snake of death, which is held up literally as the sign of life. The Epistle reads like maybe Paul had just a bit of the French philosopher in him. It speaks of the meaninglessness of following the desires of the flesh, yet says that the experience of being alive in Christ is found in the midst of death. The Gospel offers one of the most hopeful of all sacred texts. It has God showing God's love by offering eternal life and endless possibilities in the inspiration of the life and death of Jesus.
The current war is like all wars, and like The Hours. The players change, the moments pass, the context shifts, but the reality of unnecessary death and tyrants rear their ugly heads with regularity. Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, George Bush. Four men separated by the Hours, playing out the same tragedy. These are the men of death, who create for us the question of purpose and meaning. Why God, why then, why now, why the children, why the innocents?
Why? To inspire those left behind, those who will pick up the pieces to value life more dearly. Resurrection. Where do we find our resurrection signs; in the life and death of those other players, so often the victims; Jesus Christ, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, all those who resist evil where they see it.
We will celebrate this Easter most likely with the images of war still filling our hearts and minds. This will make it easy to recapture the futility, the tragedy, the suffering of the first Easter. Oh, that we might catch a glimpse of the resurrection of that story in our lives now and in the world at war. At Easter, as in the deaths of loves ones, as in the innocent loss of lives in Iraq, we search for meaning in the unity of life and death. We look in the heart of life.
Three times they asked me, "Is prostitution a sin?" Twice I answered, "That's not the point!" The third time, more out of frustration than careful thought, I answered, "No!"
The occasion was a talk back radio interview after going public in support of the decriminalisation of prostitution. After I finally gave in and said no, the interview tailed off and the interviewers cut the phone dead as they cursed my lack of morals. I felt a little like Peter at the time of Jesus' execution with the repeated questions attempting to nail me.
The issue of sex work and the law is being hotly debated at present and seems a good issue to explore as we begin the journey through Lent. It raises many important questions. What is sin? Is sin only personal and private? What is the connection between personal choice and law making? How do we mend broken social situations, and how can the law aid this process? I hope to begin to address some of these questions by telling some stories of my experience of prostitution on the streets of King's Cross in Sydney where I saw some of the reality. Keep in mind that my experience in the early 1990's was pre-decriminalisation in NSW.
One of my jobs was to drive errant clients out of the area after they had refused to pay or abused a worker. The grapevine worked effectively and within minutes there would be scores of male, female and transsexual street workers baying for blood at the doorsteps of the café the church operated. My task was to escort the drunken middle aged men through the crowds and into my car, then drive them to the next suburb's train station. I usually left them with the advice to not show their face again. The major damage was usually to my car which, to the day it stopped running, had the marks of the stilettos in its doors as a constant reminder to me of the violence of the world I was living in.
Who was sinning in this situation? Was it the sex worker choosing to live amidst this violence, or the perpetrator who inflicted the violence? Of course it becomes a ludicrous question. The whole situation is tragic, and personal sin is the least of all considerations. You could even say that the law sins when it criminalises the victim and supports the perpetrator.
On another occasion I observed a sex worker attend a church service, conspicuous by her dress and clearly in between clients. The respectable people in the congregation were able with their judgmental glances to make the woman feel so out of place, so 'other' that she left cursing the church. Who is sinning here, the woman who has chosen a life of violence or the religious people who can't see past their prejudices?
Lent has been hijacked in some circles as a time of reflection on personal sin. Traditionally it is associated with preparation for baptism and often includes fasting or being denied a pleasure. What is rarely considered is that baptism itself is a corporate act, particularly when we baptise infants. It is an act which unites family and church and community. In fact many groups who have moved towards the practice of adult baptism have turned it into a personal righteousness initiation. They have left behind the radical and political nature of baptism in the time of Jesus. It was an act of defiance, a public declaration of allegiance to a cause, and it was an act of solidarity.
So for Lent the act of fasting, if that is chosen, should be more a matter of solidarity with the hungry, or those who are oppressed than a matter of personal cleansing. Come back then to the issue of prostitution. I'm well aware that there are different opinions on the issue. It is not straightforward. The number one consideration for the church should be solidarity. In this case solidarity with the sex worker who in the Jesus scheme is prime candidate for God's preferential love. The way we can show solidarity with the sex worker currently is to support decriminalisation, as it will make their choice (or lack of choice in some cases) safer. It will minimise the harm.
We have the ashes of last Wednesday still faintly marking our foreheads, the reminder that God's hope arrives, always arrives in the midst of despair, often in the least likely places. We move towards the memorial of the political death of Jesus, travelling the way of solidarity, the way of God's love for the despised in society. We move towards Jerusalem constantly reminded that the seat of power will go to extreme lengths to maintain its privilege, and we reflect on the global role of the US at present.
We follow the Jesus journey with the good news of the constant possibility of resurrection always before us. There will be risk involved, but the reward will be fresh hope. If we decriminalise prostitution we are told there are risks, an increase in sex work and exploitation. We are told that it has happened in places like NSW. My experience on the streets of Sydney tells me that the self-regulation which occurred in the early 1990's could not have been any more violent and destructive. What the industry lacked was solidarity, from the law, from police, from politicians and especially from the church.
The Easter lesson for me was the resistance to the presence of the café in the same street as a respectable church school. We fought for its future, we kept coming back because we believe in a God who keeps coming back despite the resistance. The Easter lesson for me was the trannie who came out of the cold into the café for a chat and a coffee between clients. She was tired and struggling, and her humanity was overwhelming as she asked us about our lives and our church. The reminder again was that faith is found especially in those who have experienced loss and despair.
Our Easter journey is to know and feel the suffering, the isolation, the fear of our neighbour, even the sex worker, and to offer solidarity. In that we will show how much we have loved.
A Progressive Church: Beyond Evangeliical and Liberal Boundaries
March 2, 2003
Last Sunday After Epiphany Luke 9:1-6
Speaking our Minds!
The greatest gift we can offer those we care about is the gift of clear messages. No games, no beating around the bush, no protection of feelings. Just clear messages. Listen to this story of messages gone haywire in a relationship.
A guy named Roger is attracted to a woman named Elaine. They go on several dates, have a good time and share the following conversation on the way home in the car. Elaine begins - "Do you realise that as of tonight we've been seeing each other for exactly six months." There is silence in the car. To Elaine it seems like a very loud silence. She thinks to herself; 'I wonder if it bothers him that I said that. Maybe he is feeling confined by our relationship.'
And Roger is thinking - 'Yoiks! Six months.'
Elaine is thinking - 'Maybe I don't want this kind of relationship. I mean where are we going? Are we heading towards marriage? And children? Do I really know this person?' And Roger is thinking- 'Let's see... Six months. That puts it at February, which was right after I had the car in for service, which means…lemme check the odometer…Whoa! I am way over due for an oil change.'
Elaine is thinking; 'He's upset. I can see it on his face. Maybe he wants more from our relationship, more intimacy, more commitment. Maybe he is reluctant to say anything because he is afraid of being rejected.' And Roger is thinking - 'And I am going to have to have them look at the transmission again. I don't care what those morons say- its still not working. 600 dollars later I expect better.
Elaine is thinking - he's angry. And I don't blame him. I'd be angry too. I feel so guilty putting him through this. But I can't help the way I feel. I'm just not sure. And Roger is thinking- 'They'll probably say it's on a 90 day warranty. Frauds.'
Elaine is thinking - Maybe I'm just too idealistic, waiting for a knight to come riding up on his white horse, when I am sitting next to a perfectly good person, a person who is in pain because of my self centred school girl romantic fantasy. And Roger is thinking- Warranty? I'll give them a warranty. I'll take their warranty and stick it ...
"Please don't torture yourself like this," she says, her eyes filling with tears. 'Maybe I should never have…O God I feel so…." She breaks down sobbing. "What?" says Roger.
"I'm such a fool," Elaine sobs. "I mean I know there's no knight, and I know there's no horse."
"There's no horse?" says Roger.
"You think I'm such a fool, don't you?" says Elaine. "No!" says Roger, glad to finally know the correct answer.
"It's just that…I need some time," Elaine says. There is a 15 second pause while Roger, thinking as fast as he can, tries to come up with a safe response. Finally he comes up with one that he thinks might work. "Yes," he says.
Elaine turns to face him and gazes deep into his eyes, causing him to become very nervous, especially if what she is about to say involves a horse. At last she speaks, "Thank you Roger," she says. "Thank you," says Roger.
And they go home. Elaine weeps on her bed, a tortured soul, until dawn. Roger opens a bag of chips and becomes engrossed in a game of tennis on the television. A tiny voice in the recess of his mind tells him that something major went on back there in the car, but he is sure there is no way he would ever understand what, so he figures it is better if he doesn't even think about it.
The next day Elaine tells her closest friend and they talk for six hours over every painstaking detail, exploring every word, every expression and gesture. They will continue to discuss it for several months, never coming to any conclusions, yet never getting bored of it.
Meanwhile Roger, while playing basketball one day with an old friend of Elaine's, pauses before shooting, frowns and says, "Norm, did Elaine ever own a horse?"
And that's the difference between men and women.
There's nothing startling in the suggestion to offer clear messages. We all know we should. Yet most of us find it quite hard. We prefer to avoid the topic.
Yet what if I told you that today's gospel is urging us to clear messages. Jesus engages here in an exercise with some of his disciples. He sends them out to share a clear message, a message of peace and an assurance that the peace of God is close by, even within the human soul. He assures them that the message won't be straightforward. In fact it will feel like being lambs amongst a pack of wolves. Yet he says take this clear message and if it is welcomed take the response at face value; eat and enjoy the company. If in taking this message you are not welcomed, then offer another clear signal; move on and refuse to be treated that way. It seems to me that this has nothing to do with people holding different opinions. We have no right to jump up and down and curse people for disagreeing with us. This is rather about being made to feel unwelcome.
My sense is that most of us know that being direct in conflict is the better way, yet find it a great challenge. There is even a Christian piety which would suggest that unity, that is peace keeping, is the greater virtue. As individuals the call of the gospel is to be direct and clear and demand to be treated with this same respect. It has application also for us as a church. Many see us at St Matthews as being a liberal church, even offering liberal leadership.
Let me offer a critique of liberal Christianity. I'm not much into labels. They mean so little. Where I came from to be called liberal was akin to being sworn at. Over here is it a badge of pride. Let me illustrate what I mean by liberal, as opposed to evangelical.
Q. How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb? A. None. God has already preordained when the lights will be on.
Q. How many evangelicals? A. Evangelicals do not change light bulbs. They simply read out the instructions and hope the light bulb will decide to change itself.
Q. How many liberals? A. Ten, as they need to hold a debate into whether or not the light bulb exists. Even if they can agree upon the existence of the light bulb, they may not go ahead and change it for fear of alienating those who use fluorescent.
(Just for fun) Q. How many United Methodists? A. We do not choose to make a statement either in favour of, or against the need for a light bulb. However if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship to your light bulb and present it at a forum which will explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, fluorescent, three way, long lived and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence through Jesus Christ.
The point is that liberal Christianity can at times spend so much energy showing that everything is unclear, and avoiding an opinion, that the message becomes mixed. So much liberal energy goes into saving the Bible from contradiction, into safeguarding unity, that the possibility that the Bible may just be wrong at points is ignored. The strength of liberalism is that it opens up possibilities rather than prescribing life answers.
One problem with evangelicalism is that so much energy goes into ignoring the contradiction in the Bible, and ramming an over simplified message of judgment down people's throats that it lacks compassion and relevance. The strength of evangelicalism is that it believes boldly in its message, proclaims it strategically, and cares little for unity. The message is clear; If only it wasn't so bankrupt.
Far more useful is what I would call a progressive position. It would be willing to call the Bible a spade, useful in parts and in other parts needing to be left behind. Yet no need for anxiety. Far more significant is the clear message to all people that the peace of God which is powerful for healing in lives, and for social transformation, is not locked away in the Bible but is right here; in the human psyche, in the neighbour and in the ordinary sensory experiences of life. The Bible may help. But it is not the end of God's revelation, and may not even be the beginning for some people.
Progressive Christianity is what John Spong is on about. I believe it accurately describes his fight to open the church to all people and close the gap between belief and science, church and society, faith and ethics. Progressive Christianity is a wonderful vision for St Matthew in the City. A church which is willing to engage with the issues of contemporary life, break down the dividers between those who are in the church and those out of the church, and offer a space and a message which is clear and bold; speaking of wholeness and lives lived with integrity, signifying healing and social justice, faith and life. Belief in a God of peace who is as near as your own spirit, as ordinary as the touch of a friend or as surprising as the connection with a stranger.
As a church lets be direct. We owe that to each other. As a church lets offer a message which is clear and bold. We owe that to the pioneer of our faith. That's the gospel he lived and died for. The openness of the liberal message, the integrity of a progressive pursuit of relevance, and the boldness of an evangelical strategy. The best of all three worlds. That's a worthwhile vision.
The Alpha course, with its 50-minute lectures, neat didactic style and fluffy filler jokes is un-Anglican in my book. I grew up an Anglican. I have Anglican blood, whatever colour that is. I cut my teeth on the most tedious of Prayer Books, the Australian Prayer Book of the 1970's. I counted the pages of the hymn book rather than listen to the sermons. I played number games with the hymn boards rather than sing the dirges. I found more joy in tricking the priest into giving me communion twice than receiving the sacrament.
Yet here I am an Anglican priest of ten years, and going strong. The most common question I field these days, asked with a hint of amazement, is why I am in the church and what led me there? After all, they say, 'you don't look like a vicar!' I am an Anglican priest because of ten minute sermons. I choose a worship tradition that values symbol and silence alongside word and teaching.
I choose a tradition which values diversity. I am inspired by Anglican Bishops around the world who teach non theistic faith, by Anglican Bishops around the world who are social justice activists, by Anglican Bishops around the world who fight to open the church to people of all sexuality and gender and difference, who engage in inter-faith connections. These are the champions who excite the possibilities for my Anglican future.
I follow my father into an Anglican future, as he too is a hero. He too has stood against fundamentalism, for women in leadership, for social justice, for people on streets and all within a tradition of sacrament and corporate prayer. This seems worth pursuing. The beauty of symbols is the lack of need to define and confine their meanings. Symbols are what they are experienced as. They are nothing more and nothing less.
The strength of the liturgy is the interconnection of the personal and the corporate, the individual and the social, the now and not yet. The confidence of the liturgy is the unselfconscious breath of the past which permeates all that happens without restraining its future.
The wonder of Anglican ideology (if there is any such generalisation) is the refusal of dualism as an assumption. Nominalism is alive and well, allowing attenders to be anonymous. There are no Christians and non-Christians. So you see the fit is a good one. Not so for Alpha however!
Alpha is primed as an attempt to offer meaning to life. It suggests that it can offer reality in a confused world, life in a dark place. This all leads to the conclusion that wherever you are before you arrive at the course it is unfulfilling and Alpha has a better way to live. I find in Alpha no mention of symbol and no room for silence. Alpha fails to interact with the breadth of Christian scholarship. It offers only a theistic God who hears the prayers of the righteous, and works primarily through the supernatural. I see nothing in Alpha of the radical Jesus social movement, no attempt to follow the lead to inclusiveness. On the contrary I see a regressive and exclusive view of women, gay and lesbian people, divorcees, and people of different faiths.
I hear no mention of racism or poverty or any of the great social issues of our day. I sense little interest in empowering people of spirit for lives of growth. Rather I sense a hocus-pocus style spirituality where those who have the most pious experience are the most spiritual. The aim in Alpha is life after death, and so the claim to offer meaning to life is misleading.
There is in Alpha too much talk about the evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus, and too little about the need for people to lose, even die, in order to grow and progress. There is too much kudos given to certainty, and not enough value given to questions. The Bible is seen to be more a closed book of divine commands than a history of social movements and an attempt to live with integrity in an ancient world.
In Alpha, prayer is individualistic, magical and offensive in its depiction of God as prejudiced. In Alpha the Holy Spirit is the height of powerlessness and supernatural fatalism. There is too much emphasis on defining evil as external and cosmic, and too little on the evil of human oppression and the human tendency to stagnate. Alpha encourages an offensive and insensitive attitude towards evangelism and an irresponsible view of healing. Its view of church is more at home in the self styled Pentecostal than in the Anglican Church in which it arose. Finally the last chapter is a call to effectively "let go and let God". Within the theistic framework of Alpha, this seems to present a limited sense of human responsibility and freedom.
Alpha lacks the personally empowering, socially challenging, life affirming Gospel emphasis. It is, in my view, a step backwards in time and will not serve the Anglican Church in moving forward with courage. Nor will it offer individuals the long lasting tools of personal growth. It will not address the great social questions of our day, and finally it will not even get close to providing meaning to life.