Readings for this sermon were Galatians 5: 1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62
I have recently finished a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, a leading progressive Christian writer, called “Leaving Church”. Now before you get to excited I am not aiming to leave the church just at the moment. But the book is a great challenge for all of us, as people of faith. Taylor was an Episcopalian minister in charge of a large church for a number of years, until she realized she didn’t actually want to be the voice of God anymore, as she put it. Partly because of minister burnout and partly because much of what she was required to do and say she didn’t believe. It is a slightly disarming story for those of us still here.
The experience of Taylor reminded me of a friend who I have known from my school days, who I see all the time when I am in the UK. Many have heard me speak of Diane before. She, like Barbara Brown Taylor left the church, really, for much the same reason? Let me explain.
While over the years Diane and I have often shared our faith journeys we now seem to be on different paths. While I have embraced my faith and even work for the church, which my friend is slightly horrified by since when we shared a house many years ago I was anti Christianity and she was a very, very good Baptist, she has left. She is now contemptuous of anything religious and particularly anything related to the church, finding it without worth or meaning. Denise has travelled the world and discovered that what her strict fundamentalist upbringing told her about the world was not true; she found her God missing in the slums of India and Africa and the people she worked with and loved and her faith was diminished. Hers was a faith bound by rules and regulations, and left little room for the moving of the spirit. It could not explain what she had seen and experienced so she left it behind.
Sometimes that’s how I feel. Because I have noticed that more and more I say much the same things, but in a different way, when I am in the pulpit. More and more it is about the universal spirit. More and more it is about love of others as much as love of ourselves and those closest to us. Not as prescriptive, but pretty life giving. How do explain to others our beliefs and idea that the spirit is within all and everything and that Jesus shows us the way to live a better, more loving, more compassionate way. Especially when some Christians vocally expouse a more exclusive, hell based theology in the media. I feel like shouting from the rooftops, I don’t believe that either!!!. I can totally understand why people leave, ministers and laity alike.
Yet while I agreed with Denise and Barbara Brown Taylor on many things, particularly with the need to reassess our beliefs and understandings in the light of new findings and new experiences, and to grow in our faith I was not prepared to throw the baby out with the bath water. So I am still here, after all this time. Some things about our tradition will be discarded in the process, but that`s okay, somethings maybe we have never embraced, also okay. It`s the things we keep that end up being the most important.
So what are they?
Joan Chittister says the best beliefs are those that have been tried and found to be consistent with the instincts of the rest of the universe and down the long corridors of time have come back again and again to reveal the truths of life. They are not linked to time and place and laws but are universal. They help to explain who we are, who God is, and how we are to live together as people and communities.
Over the past few years there have been a number of books released that have talked about what makes a good well lived life. They are not Christian books but secular books asking questions about life’s meaning and purpose. What they all have in common is that they have discovered that a well lived life is a life lived for others. It is a life where peace, love, compassion, generosity and justice are central. Where possessions, money and power, both individual and systematic, do not rule and where the urge to do things because it helps the community rather than just the individual influence sour actions.
If we look at our tradition so much of it speaks to us in this way. We just have to find and understand it.
We hear it today in Paul`s letter to the Galatians, written almost 2000 years ago, long before social commentators and modern philosophers were writing. It fits well with Joan Chittister`s view about what is best in our faith tradition. Even if it was a bit tiresome to read.
Paul`s letter describes the life found in the way of the spirit. It culminates in the golden rule, `love your neighbour as yourself`. Paul wanted to release people from the strict adherence to biblical law and circumcision being preached in Galatia, which he felt did more harm than good. In Paul`s eyes there is no freedom and no transformed life when faith becomes a set of rules. Rather his faith was a faith of the heart, where those who walked in the spirit would be drawn to its fruit.
As Bill Loader suggests, Paul was not wanting people to keep rules of goodness, replacing like for like, rather he wanted people to change in themselves through their new relationship with God. As he says, goodness generates goodness, love generates love. This relationship with God and the freedom to live with love would lead to what we would term `a good life`. A life rich in mutually enriching human companionship, peace, happiness and joy, a life lived for others. This is an insight our modern writers are starting to discover.
But Paul was not naïve or unrealistic and neither are we. Many things get in the way of this `good well lived life`. Many things get in the way of God`s spirit working in the world. Paul realises that Christians are still subjected to the desires of the individual which say my needs are more important than yours. He lists some of the temptations that may lead people away from the life in the spirit. Clearly sexual immorality was high on his agenda. But he adds more, many that we could relate to today, things like jealousy, anger and self centredness. How many times have we yelled at each other or the shop assistant at the supermarket. I know I have had to ring someone back at the RAC and apologise for my rudeness when I got frustrated, which itself was a surprise to them as no one ever does that!
But the problem, we know, is much bigger than the individual. It involves the cultural messages a society gives as the norm for living well. I have had numerous conversations with my son Nathan, who is 26, a newly qualified lawyer, on how he should look forward, how to live this good life. And it does not come down to earning lots of money in an area of law that takes advantage of others.
This is what our young people are up against, a cultural message that is still very individualistic, competitive and consumer driven, which sets people apart, regardless of the amount of material written that says this is counter-productive to our wellbeing. Or if not that, where the family is the sole focus, and everyone outside of that has to fend for themselves, lest they take what is ours and diminish our entitlements. We see that so much in the refugee debate but even in the debate over public education, public housing, public health and welfare support. There is still much to do to promote the idea of the common good, a good that is wider than our nuclear family or even our church family.
As Albert Sweitzer has said, “It’s not enough merely to exist. It’s not enough to say, “I’m earning enough to support my family. I do my work well. I’m a good father, husband, churchgoer”. That’s all very well. But you must do something more. Seek always to do some good, somewhere”.
But it can be difficult. Very difficult to go against society norms without a guide to follow. Paul urged his followers to keep focused on their relationship with God, so that the spirit flowing within them gives them the strength to follow a different path within their own society. But how. Maybe that’s where Jesus comes in.
While Paul`s words resonate with us, we see the tangible product of them in Jesus. Maybe that’s why I stay a Christian, rather than something else! Somehow, in some mysterious way Jesus speaks to me about how to live in the spirit. How to live a good and faitful, inclusive and compassionate life. Not for a trip to heaven, but for a better life for all of us down here on this tiny blue dot in the universe called earth.
We get a snippet of that message today in Luke`s account.
Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, to a certain death. Not because it was preordained but because he challenged the power of the Roman Empire and the conventional wisdom of the day which excluded people. In the story he calls his disciples to leave behind the security of a home, family obligations and even a regular meal to follow him, to a greater more universal freedom with him. He calls them to leave all that they have known, and follow him. The disciples are being pulled and challenged to a new way of living and seeing the world, and as we listen to the story so are we. Our loyalties are also being challenged. But they are being challenged by a human Jesus who faced what we all must face, a culture that we are inevitably going to be at odds with.
Jesus re-imagined a different world, a different way to a good life, which entailed embracing everyone, not just those in our family, our race, our country or our football team. He represents the universality of God`s presence in the world, and in all people. We have to raise our sights beyond those closest to us to actively include others to be his followers. And this can be costly.
Again as Albert Sweitzer writes, “The demands of Jesus are difficult because they require us to do something extraordinary. At the same time he asks us to regard these acts of goodness as something usual, ordinary”.
Yet “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.”
I think we would all agree that the cost is worth it. Because it leads to a life of engagement with one another, with love, to a life lived for others that everyone can share in. It leads to a life in the spirit.
This is what we heard from Paul today, this is what we heard from Jesus in the gospels, this is what we are even hearing from the secular world, but often it is missing from the church. Rules and dogmas have plagued the church for hundreds of years such that the idea of a transformed life is lost. But what I believe we are finding now in 2019 is a reawakening of the Spirit, regardless of what Israel Folau would like us to believe. This is what I seem to talk about endlessly and read about!
I believe the secular is joining the sacred to cry out for a new understanding of a good life. Not one based on rules and dogmas and doctrines but one based on the heart, and on love. When we live like this, we find ourselves engaging in the mystery of life where we find God. A mysterious reality that permeates the universe and holds everything together in connectedness and relationship. Whether you are religious or non religious, Christian or Buddhist or my friend Diane. This is what Barbara Brown Taylor found when she left the church. She left the church but kept her faith.
As she wrote at the end of her book…
“Add this, then, to the things on the kitchen table that I have decided I will keep: I will keep my faith – in God, in God’s faith in me, and in all the companions who God has given me to help see the world as God sees it – so that together we may find a way to realise the divine vision. If some of us do not yet know who we are going to be tomorrow, then it is enough for us to give thanks for today while we treat each other as well as we know how. “Be kind,” wrote Philo of Alexandria, “for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”. We may be in for a long wait before the Holy Spirit shows us a new way to be the church together, but in the meantime there is nothing to prevent us from enjoying the breeze of this bright wings.”
Maybe we shouldn`t worry so much about who is in and who is out of the church or the rules which do the separating. Maybe instead we should see the fruits of the spirit in all those who work for others, who see a better life for others, and who in the process touch something very deep and profound about life. And be part of it.
For whether you are protesting for the environment, or for a greater say in how your society operates, whether you are writing letters to amnesty or building a community garden, which we are still hoping to do, running a Rainbow Project, supporting those with mental illness, working with the Mowanjum aboriginal community or just saying no to the consumerism that is rife in our society, everything makes a difference and reveals a little of the spirit.
When I think back to my friend in London I realise this understanding of faith, this way of seeing God in the world, may connect with her, as it may connect with many others. Even if she never enters a church door again. We certainly have lots of discussions about it
But before I finish, there is an elephant in the room, isn’t there?
If the spirit moves where it will, in all people, why stay in church? A very good question! While it’s for each one of us to decide, why do I stay? Well, because, for me, it’s easy to lose focus, to lose our connection to the Spirit, in our western society. Yet I feel and sense that connection when I see and interact with the people I travel with at Wembley Downs, in both churches. Not that we are perfect, but instead because we aren’t. Rather we are just a bunch of people doing the best we can, but in this community I can identify the love and compassion and generosity shown to each other and in the wider world. These are the fruits of the spirit Paul talked about. It helps me to keep coming, helps me keep practicing what it is to be a follower of Jesus, week after week, when sometimes I just want to stay in bed on a Sunday.
For as Darwin suggested, “As soon as a virtue is honoured and practiced by some few of us it spreads through instruction and example to the young and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion”
Amen to that!