I was going to write a blog today on the statement “God loves us just the way we are, as long as we believe certain things, are the right colour or without blemish, physical or psychological or anything else. Otherwise we may be separated from this love for all eternity.”
I was going to write it after reading Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins”, a great title, a great book, and one that sparked a whole new journey for him.
Then I had second thoughts, not about the fact that most of the statement can be tossed out, except for the first part, because I truly believe God is ever present, has been and always will be, a divine mystery at the heart of life, whatever, where ever and no matter the stage of life we are at. Divine love is unconditional, full stop. But because there is more to it.
The more important question is what do we do with this information?
So I have put on my sermon from last week. Sorry its long, and maybe some parts are not relevant, but I hope it points the way….
Lent, we started this journey a few weeks ago when we shared in an Ash Wednesday service at the Church of Christ. It was a beautiful service led by Dennis Ryle, and perhaps not as dire as many of you might think. Because both Dennis and myself, along with countless others see the Easter story differently from what the mainstream community imagine.
As Dennis said in his service, he wanted to take us from atonement to Theosis. Huh! I hear you saying. What the heck is Theosis? Well, it’s to become more like God, more like Jesus. More whole, more loving and giving in this world, with each other and with ourselves. It is union or at least participation in the divine project of life.
So what was Dennis getting at, when he spoke about going from atonement to Theosis. It was the idea that we have to revisit and reject many of the notions and ideologies put forward about Jesus, to capture the essence of him, and the essence of God in our lives and in the lives of our fellow travellers. It is to understand that Christianity is a path, a way of transforming ourselves and the world for the sake of all. Not a set of beliefs to which you attach yourself for a ride to heaven, or dismiss for a ticket to hell and fiery damnation.
So many people that I have listened to recently have been on this path of renewing and revitalizing our faith story. If you were at Bill Loader’s talk on Sunday night you would have heard him speak about fundamentalism, and the dangers of it. I have recently watched a documentary on Rob Bell, an evangelical Christian pastor, the golden boy of American evangelical Christians who left his mega church, Mars Hill, after writing a book called “Love Wins”, which dismissed the idea of hell altogether. He has gone from the golden boy to a heretic, the name of the film, because he speaks of Jesus life, and teachings and way, rather than a set of rules. He speaks of Jesus, not as a blood sacrifice, but as a pointer to God, a God of each and every one of us, black, white, male female, rich and poor, slave and free, gay and straight. Wait, that sounds very familiar doesn’t it? Unfortunately the very conservative Christians just can’t seem to get rid of the idea that rejecting Jesus won’t send you to hell forever.
And of course Nev Watson, minister and peace activist, has opened our eyes for years about the distortions to the Christian faith which makes it unbelievable and dangerous for so many people. No text without context. No dogmas and doctrines without exploration, particularly in the 21st century.
So what am I saying here? Well, you know. I know you know. Jesus is not dead on the cross in some sort of payment plan for humanity’s sin. That somehow by believing in him, saying a prayer, or joining a church, will save you for a trip to somewhere else, while the millions and millions of people, many who live a very Jesus like life are doomed for all eternity.
We have to look and explore and discover the truth about Jesus ourselves, and ask some very deep questions, about what does he bring to us and our world, if we leave some of this other stuff behind? I for one, believe that his life and teachings bring so much. And his death teaches us so much, about love, and nonviolence, and the hatred that can corrupt and blind people. And in all of this the God of the universe, the God of you and me is still there, before and after.
So if we are going to do some exploring we have been gifted some of the most famous verses today with which to do it.
The John reading comes after the Nicodemus story, but somehow just taking this part of John without the previous bit seems wrong.
So let me remind you of Nicodemus the strict Jew who wants to speak to Jesus about faith and life.
Nicodemus just can’t get it into his head that faith is not just about rules, think of Jim’s sermon from last week, or doing things in a right way, or the miraculous. Rather it’s about the spirit within us guiding us, leading us to light and life in the here and now, with one another. Jesus is keen to counter this form of literalism for love and action in the world.
So what does Jesus say? He talks about what it is to be born again, that to be born of the spirit is to see the world totally different. It is to embrace the divine presence in this life rather than another. It is to undergo a radical change that is like a new birth. Pretty amazing stuff! And remember Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, he asks, can a person be born twice? Jesus must be thinking, crikey, are you so stupid (well I might be), but he’s too nice, too forgiving for that. Instead he talks about being born of water and spirit. We are both human and divine, all of us. To be born of water is to be born into the life of the world and to be born of spirit is to step into a new dimension of what it means to be human. We are all both water and spirit. Jesus then identifies the spirit with the mystery of the wind, blowing where it will. The God who loves the world is the God who gives new life to those in it.
So this has gone on before. Then we hear the reading today which includes the famous passage about God who so loves the world he gives his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. How do we hear this statement? Actually many people now translate “so” as “in this way”. The reading then sounds like this, “For God loved the world in this way”… or “For in this way, God so loved the world”. Changes it a bit doesn’t it?
Coming after Nicodemus, it seems it is an overturning of the narrow vision of tribalism, the widening of our human limitations and awareness of what is possible in the world, light not darkness, love not hate, with Jesus (Alexander Shaia). Jesus represents a different way.
Yet both the born again statement to Nicodemus and these following statements have been taken by conservatives as doctrines to believe, about Jesus dying for our sins so that we may go to heaven. These passages and this interpretation has led to so much violence and discrimination and destruction over the centuries it is one of the reasons people have dismissed Christianity. It is exclusive and damning.
Was that what John was thinking, I certainly believe it wasn’t what Jesus was thinking. He would be horrified.
Just a couple of things about the reading to place it in context. So we can hear John’s theology. John’s story. And I thank. Reverend Dr. Carl Gregg for this background. The sentences at the beginning of the reading, about the serpent, refers to a passage from Numbers 21, in the Old Testament. It’s a great story. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and were growing impatient. God responds to their complaints by sending poisonous snakes, which began biting them and stopped them whinging. They instead started praying that God would remove the snakes. God tells Moses to erect a serpent on a pole and that everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. Moses does what he is told, and makes a bronze serpent, puts it on a pole and people who are bitten live. Naturally!
How does the story fit? John knew the story, and in his gospel has God lifting up Jesus in the same manner that Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. So that people can also have life, eternal life.
The funny thing is, in 2 Kings 18, King Hezekiah of Judah, has the bronze serpent destroyed because people were making offerings to it. In his time it had become an idol itself and Judeans were worshipping the snake instead of the God to whom the statue pointed. That sounds very familiar!
When we hear these references we are hearing the writer of John’s gospel.
This is John talking, the most mystical of all the gospels, and the writing is reflecting his own community’s understandings of Jesus, while at the same time also being marginalised and isolated as a group. For he was a Jew, a Jesus following Jew. They were wanting to hold on to the truth about Jesus that led them to their place and time. They saw in Jesus a new way, but they described it in 1st century terms.
What about us…
If we focus on the death of Jesus we miss his life and his teachings. When we interpret eternal life as being somewhere else we miss the light and love that is needed here and now. If we turn him into an idol we will become hard as stone ourselves.
John 3:16-18 are still special verses within the reading. The first sentence and the last remain the most vital. For God in this way loved the world, that he gave his son, and son was used by these Jesus followers to express a deep connection, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. And for John eternal life started now, with the living. So Jesus comes to save the world, to give hope and love and light and justice and peace to the world and to everyone in it. Now!
And how does Jesus do that. By living and loving and teaching and eating with those others dismissed. By talking about water and spirit, and forgiveness, and inclusion and justice and peace. To realise we are all God’s children. Jesus showed what it means to have faith and believe in him. In his actions.
I could go on, but it seems clear to me.. It is not to rescue humanity from a weird story about a serpent and tree, and an apple, but to rescue humanity from ourselves, before it is too late. It is not atonement that we seek but Theosis, wholeness and oneness with the God of Jesus, to be on the way, in our humanness with the one who gives light and life.
As Frederick Buechner so aptly says….
“For those who believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead early on a Sunday morning, and for those also who believe that he provided food for worms just as the rest of us will, the conclusion is inescapable that he came out somehow the winner. What emerged from his death was a kind of way, of truth, of life, without which the last two thousand years of human history would have been even more tragic than they were.”
Our challenge is to stay on the path!
Thanks to Rob Bell, Dennis Ryle, Emeritus Prof. Rev. Bill Loader, Alexander Shaia and a sermon from Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg.
I had an interesting day yesterday, or a day when I had to examine some things about myself, sometimes not a good thing!
As many would know, apart from all the other things I do I am a part time pastor at a local Uniting Church. Part time is a bit of a euphemism as church work never seems to end.
Anyway I was taking the service and I was planning to look at how we as people can transform our lives, to better be in touch with God’s spirit and the life of Jesus, using the path set out by Alexander Shaia’s work called Quadratus (more of that later). It is a path that acknowledges us as humans and that life will have its ups and downs.
Anyway I decided to hold that idea until the end of lent, when I am also taking the service.
Crap, I then had to organise a different service in about 3 days! So I looked at things I had done before, which can be a useful guide and direction to take. The reading was about taking up our cross and following Jesus into the world. A pretty substantial reading!
While I do think that the cross and Easter message is essentially about nonviolence, and love, a message that the world and ourselves need to hear, the sermon I was basing yesterdays on was quite old, and in some ways not how I would write now. It was too long for a start (I know you find that hard to believe, based on my blogs) and the message was delivered too harshly, without fanfare.
I was left feeling as though I had betrayed myself. I have changed from when I wrote it, to someone who wants to encourage people to see God working in their own lives, in the lives of those who wouldn’t step one foot in the church, in the world and even the universe, rather than badgering them. Therefore, my sermons are more about our life together, and about the world’s life together. Yes, I use the scripture passage, but I also use other writings, some from other traditions, poetry, music and silence. And my aim in a service now is to provide a space where we can sense this spiritual presence, and transform ourselves and our community for the better. More kindness, more compassion and more justice. That may mean people heading out from the church and participating with others from all walks of life, to speak up for refugees, the environment, the poor, and the marginalised, particularly indigenous Australia. To do something, no matter how small, to make change.
I totally get that the church and its voice has also to be a prophetic voice, calling the world to account for the things it is doing to its citizens in so many places. But I also realise that’s not me! It has been Nev Watson, who was a peace activist for many years, a huge supporter of aboriginal Australia, and a clear and inspiring preacher. And who has been a huge mentor for me in the role of the church and people of faith in social justice. We both preach at church and it is a good double act, with me as the junior partner I might add! Sadly, Nev does not preach as much now, but his words are readily available.
It makes me ponder the age old question, that particularly affects church goings, but everyone. What are our strengths, what are our skills, what gives us life and makes us happy and whole? What is our passion! Then when we have worked all that out, not easy, we are to take them and make a difference where we can.
We cannot be all things to all people, and generally we cannot be the sole driver of change. It takes a lot of people to make change, to encourage people to see the way differently, and to transform the norms of society into something new, something more inclusive.
There have been many leaders who have started movements that have led to great change for the better in our world. I mentioned them yesterday, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Oscar Romero. But also Gandhi. And there are many more, in places we would never know.
Amazing, incredible voices for change.
But when you look at what really invokes change it is the millions and millions of people who in their daily lives, choose love over hate, peace over violence, and community over individualism, sharing much both in terms of time and money.
Or those who in their workplaces and in their homes, in schools, and hospitals, and shops and offices, hold close the ideas of Jesus, and work every single day, bringing light where they are. Who through acts of compassion, and caring bring the kingdom of God a little closer.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it takes sacrifices of a far greater magnitude to make the changes that are seismic, the civil rights movement is a perfect example. Things have to be given up for others to have the freedom we do. I feel this is the case for refugees, and I will continue to protest and add my voice to the calls for a change of heart. And I will continue to work for the Boab Network, who walks with the Mowanjum aboriginal community and its kids to help give them a future in a country that for so long ignored them.
But on the whole we live and work and raise our children most of the time, and we who have gifts in so many fields and so many places, are to exercise our call there, in these places, every single day.
So for me, I have changed in the past years, growing in my faith in depth and understanding, but also seeing where best I can effect change and be faithful.
And I see now it is sharing my life with others, the often rocky but at other times amazing life, offer as much care and compassion, love and kindness as I can, encourage those around me to look deeper and see that there is something hidden underneath what we can measure and hold. That connects us to our fellow human beings and with all of creation, and with the universe. And I will continue to speak about it in ways people can draw strength from, that maybe inspires them to journey out into the world to make a difference wherever they are. And I will continue to write (sorry!).
So in all of that I would say find your gifts and your passion, and work from there. Be the change there, be God’s hands and feet there. This is not a cop out. For if we can’t make change there, we won’t make change anywhere.
Again I want to finish with a poem, no, not from Mary Oliver but from another beautiful poet. I was going to use this yesterday but ran out of time. Yet I think this would have the better than all the other stuff.
It’s called “Famous”.
I was talking the other day to some friends, and they were curious about how long I had been in my “new house”. Actually we moved from our old house about 3 years ago! They were shocked, how could that be, they said, it only seems like yesterday! Time goes fast.
It made been think about the role of a house in our lives, apart from the obvious, and when does a house become a home? We had lived 22 years in our old house, one we had loved from the day we saw it, even though it had purple walls (always a great colour for hearty discussions), weird exposed beams and a very low roof line at the back. What it also had was these beautiful big trees, and lots of space, not that we had any kids at that time.
But as we lived there and time went on, had our two boys and grew as a family, our shared experiences in that house also grew. We had all the ups and downs that go with raising a family and working, but also the many times we celebrated milestones, whether they be birthdays, christenings, Christmas gatherings, anniversaries or just days when we went outside to play the endless games of cricket, or football or soccer, or laid on the trampoline to watch the stars. Many people came to that house, to share life with us, dinners, meetings, afternoons with the kids. In fact I think that sometimes we would have 20 kids running around the back yard, screaming and yelling and having a great time.
The house became a home, our home, and even though it took us almost 10 years to paint the purple walls, and do anything with the exposed beams and the exposed plumbing, we loved it.
So when does that happen, when does a house become a home! When we share the experiences of life within it. When we come together as friends, family and neighbours and give one another time, and love, and food and drink (yes of course the odd class of wine). When we share the sorrow and loss and the joy and hope that comes with journeying together. When we practise hospitality.
It can be the smallest house, the ugliest house, the messiest house (that’s us) but when it is open and welcoming it becomes a place of community.
So it takes time. I think our new house has finally become a home to us!
But the whole house/ home transformation led me to think about friendships in the same way. They also need time.
I love looking at the art of friendship because it is so essential to our lives. We are not meant to be islands, alone in the world, but connected at our core to one another. And that can be just 1 or 2 people, or it can be a whole lot more, depending on our personality and circumstances.
We have friends we have known a long time and friends who have travelled with us a short distance. Friends who were part of our journey in past years but who now have gone in a different direction. And friends who we lost contact with but are now again part of our day to day existence. This reflects the diversity of our lives and the people we meet along the way who enrich it, even for a little while.
But of course we cannot be friends with every single person that we meet, we would go crazy, but those who we are connected to, are to be nurtured as a gift to our lives.
So at any time and stage, friendship takes time. And takes shared experiences. And takes love and care and commitment for them to grow and be sustained. And sometimes it takes sacrifice, for life at times can be very hard and difficult and the only comfort people have is a familiar hand reaching out and holding them. Deep friendships, the friendships that will last a life time, the friendships that will see us sharing a park bench when we are 70 are those that survive the pain and sorrow of life as well as the joys.
I have seen this recently, when an older couple, friends and life partners were at church. Both stepped up to take communion, and the man, who has dementia, lost his way. He took the bread and the wine, which is in a small glass container, and suddenly did not know where he was, or which way he should go to find his seat. He started heading in the wrong direction, when a comforting arm was placed around him, a soothing voice suggested he turn around, a voice that spoke lovingly and one he could trust.
He looked to see where the voice was coming from, and was reassured. He let himself be guided by his best friend, back to his seat.
In that moment, all the life experience they had shared, all the joy and sorrow, all the light and dark, was summed up in that care and love. I could not help but shed tears, for the sadness and the beauty of it.
But I have seen it in the love my old boss at university had for a colleague who was suffering from motor neurone disease. Every week for a long time he would take him swimming in the University pool, initially just helping him a little with balance, but by the end he was carrying him into the water and holding him up, so that for a little while he could feel free. What a gift.
And I have seen it in the love and care shown to my beautiful friends whose gorgeous boys have died.
So when does a house become a home, when does an acquaintance become a friend, and when does a friend become a lifelong friend.
I think it is pretty simple. It is when what we see on the outside doesn’t matter, when what is in the heart, in the centre, that connects us to the house or to the person, is the only thing that matters!
And I think that takes time, takes commitment, and perhaps takes a few glasses of wine shared along the way!
A song to meditate on!
Lean on me – Seal
I have just finished rereading Val Webb’s new book, “Testing Tradition, Liberating Theology”, as part of a book club I organise. A great journey through the history of the church and our doctrines, and how people at every stage have questioned, explored, and developed new ways of seeing God through the lens of their time and place. But it’s not just a history book, it also focusses on doubt as a catalyst for this change, and spirituality, and even what we mean by God in the 21st century, a challenge in itself.
I have returned to teaching after the summer break, back in the lab with students and cadavers, and realise again what a privilege it is to be able to see the human body in all its complexity laid out in front of us. Thanks to the generosity of those who have donated their bodies to science, and those family who have let them go.
I was thinking of giving up the teaching, as it is hard to combine that with church work as a pastor, and family life etc. etc. But as I went through a general overview of the human body with some first year students, blood vessels, muscles, nerves and various organs , I realised that the teaching reenforces the essence of my faith. And I need both.
Over the years, we have seen Christianity expressed in many forms, much of it focussed on some other life, some other existence, without acknowledging that the existence here on earth is amazing, breathtaking, and a gift to be cherished, with all its flaws and challenges. I have never ceased to be astounded by who we are and how we got here, even after all these years of teaching!
It is within this gift of life that I find God.
God, a difficult word to analyse, express, or even relate to. Sometime I don’t even want to use the term.
Yet for all my doubts, and over the years I have had many, I have always had the sense of a something more that drives life itself. Not a presence that disappears then reappears because of a sacrificial death, but a presence that is found throughout the life of the universe and creation, including the lives of every human being. Which is closer to us than our own breath but urges us to connect with one another with love and care and compassion.
Recently I have asked a number of people to define what they mean by God, people who have been faithful ministers, and people who have just been faithful followers of Jesus and his way.
All of them steer away from a set definition, because it is pointless. In some ways God is to be felt and experienced, rather than defined. But they have had a go.
I have, over the years, also had a go, using this blog to variously describe what I mean by God. But there is always new ways of seeing. I came across one attempt that really spoke to me which I would like to share. It is by Barbara Brown Taylor.…
Firstly, a picture….
“Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is. At this point in my thinking, it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity—the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that makes it all go. “
Rather a beautiful description!
Of course I always get a bit reflective like this at Easter time.
Easter, a time to place Jesus within my faith framework. Within this God framework. A human, living breathing, talking, acting, praying, suffering Jesus. A Jesus who confronted the powerful and paid the price. Yet somehow his story lives on in those that follow. A story that resounds in our own lives and the lives of everything that lives and breathes on this earth. Even in the 21st century.
For the resurrection story is not about Jesus and a divine resuscitation! It is so much more than that, so much more universal!
It is how God works in the world, within each of us. Giving light where there is darkness, renewal where there is decay, hope where there is despair, and new life where there seems only death. Even if it takes a long time!
To fit Jesus into my God story means seeing Jesus as one of us. A gift of life. A gift of God. With a message and love that couldn’t be beaten.
I often ask myself. How do I do Easter, when I don’t believe the whole “sacrificial payment for sin” line. Or the “original sin” line, or the line about the “perfect Jesus who now sits at the right hand of God somewhere else”?
I do Easter because it reflects life in miniature.
And Jesus for me, is the ultimate guide.
Ps if you want to read just a little more about what I think, read the entry for Feb 21st, 2016, called “What I believe, really”.
I had a catch up with a friend the other day who reads my blog, and who complained they were getting far too long. So here a shorter one for you all…
I teach first year university students human biology, and, like so many universities, we ask the students to fill in a survey telling us how they felt about the labs and what constructive feedback could they give, either positive or negative. It is always a bit awkward, because they are really judging the tutor’s performance, whether they teach well, interact well with the students, along with the content and structure of the labs themselves, which are designed by the coordinators of the course.
I try to keep it low key, and suggest they stick to assessing my teaching, rather than commenting on my clothes or the colour of my shoes…
When I got them back, after the exam, I was pleased to see that no one had commented on my shoes, other than one who jokingly said they were great, and they were happy with my style and care and teaching ability. Phew!
But what really spoke to me, and maybe more than anything made me feel warm and toasty inside, is that a number of them said I was kind. I was quite taken aback, as they don’t have to write anything.
Yet what do they mean by kind? It is defined in the dictionary as a behaviour marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and a concern for others. I think maybe that means I respected them, listened to them, helped them as best I could, and maybe even had a joke with them, because it is a great subject and great unit to teach. Or at least I tried too!
Kindness, how I love to be called kind, because maybe I am doing something that makes a difference to someone else.
Yet kindness is something we have to work at, I have to work at, because too often life and all its troubles and tribulations get in the way. It is easy to let the little annoyances and big problems we are faced with affect our view of the world and of others. We can become more judgemental, dismissive, sarcastic and rude than we even realise, certainly not very kind. Ouch! The world suddenly becomes so black and white that we see people as being either with us or against us, rather than acknowledging that we are all on the same page, despite our differences. It is a paradox of ourselves which we must live with and deal with.
For it’s a paradox of being human.
We know that as humans we can love fully and hate terribly, we can forgive one another but are also capable of vengeance, and we can feel anger and strike out either with words or actions, then regret what we have done to others. We can seek justice for the poor, then live like kings or we can want to protect the planet then behave as though our resources are limitless. We can act in noble, selfless ways, then retreat to selfish and individual ways. All of us, each one of us is capable through circumstance or upbringing or from some unknown urge to do things we think we would never do.
This is who we are. But we have a choice. To live in freedom or fear. To tip the balance always towards goodness. To see ourselves together, as brothers and sisters.
To be kind. To look after the other, think of the other, and protect the other.
But how do we keep choosing the path of kindness. For it’s a challenge! Even in teaching.
Can religion help? Maybe, but certainly not in its judgemental, saved/unsaved version. Can the wise sages and prophets of our tradition help, who speak of a universal God, I think so. Can the life and teachings of Jesus help, definitely!
Rob Bell, one of my favourite contemporary writers says it better than I can,
“All down the centuries, religion has drawn out of men and women goodness and love and passion for caring and responding to others they didn’t know was within them. All down the centuries, religion has inspired the greatest and the best that is in people and despite all the misdeeds of religion, cumulatively I believe the world is a better place. Micah and his simple principles, and, even more, Jesus and his blessings and freedoms, have been central to the growth of goodness and transformation for those who are Christian.”
From the prophet Micah –
“He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”.
And from Jesus –
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
But if you don’t think too much of Christianity, it is also beautifully said by Mary Oliver, in her poem, “In the Storm”.
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
snowflakes on their backs,
in a row
behind the ducks—
whose backs were also
covered with snow—
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water,
which was still raging.
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
stoop there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—
as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
Oh well, I tried to make it shorter, perhaps next time!
I feel privileged to be giving the sermon on new year’s eve. Christmas is over, both the secular festival, with its pretty lights and presents and the celebration of Jesus birth, for us the dawning of a new day, a new way of living. A festival that combines so much about renewal and rebirth and hope even in its commercialism. Yet now, this time between Christmas and new year is a time when real reflection can occur. What is this new day, this new way of living Jesus is announcing? Now is a time to focus on the repercussions of Jesus birth and life, not just its joy, for us and our world.
Here I have called on some help.
One of my favourite Christmas movies is the Muppet Christmas carol, a version of Charles Dickens famous novel, which by the way, helped reinvigorate Christmas as a festival in the 18th century, after the puritans had banned it for many years. Quite ironic really, that I will use it today. It is helped in translation by Michael Caine, Kermit the frog, Miss piggy and a cast of very lovable muppet characters. Everyone know the story of scrooge, who is visited by three ghosts of Christmas, one of the past, one of the present and one of the future, and who turns a mean spirited, nasty person into a man of kindness and generosity. He learns about love and life over the course of one night, both within his own sphere and in the wider context of his society, where the poor were left to be destitute and the rich got richer. Dickens 18th century England.
When I reflecting on this service I realised that what Scrooge went through that night is what we could do at this time, that by focussing on the past, the present and the future, our faith and God’s call may become more real to us.
The first ghost to visit Scrooge was the ghost of Christmas past. The past for us, as for scrooge, holds many things that we regret, many things we feel we should and could have done differently, many things for which we need to seek and receive forgiveness but perhaps find hard to do. For scrooge, the ghost shows him how he lost the love of his life, by making decisions based on a quest for money and power instead of love. Decisions which had hardened his heart and lead to his current lonely and isolated existence.
The past holds many ghosts that can ultimately influence the rest of our lives if we are not careful. Regret for things done and not done, said and unsaid, and pride which prevents us accepting our faults, can break a spirit and destroy the love for ourselves and for others that makes us whole. This is why forgiveness is so central to the gospel and to Jesus ministry. Because without forgiveness the past keeps repeating itself until the flicker of renewal is diminished.
There is a novel called, “Love in the time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in which a marriage disintegrates over a bar of soup. It is the wife’s job to keep the house in order, including provision of towels, toilet paper and soap in the bathroom. One day she forgot to replace the soap, an oversight her husband mentions in an exaggerated way, and that she vigorously denies. Although it turned out that she had indeed forgotten, her pride was at stake and she would not back down. For the next seven months they sleep in separate rooms and eat in silence.
“Even when they were old and placid”, writes Marquez, “they were very careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted only yesterday”. How can a bar of soap ruin a marriage? Because neither partner would say, “Stop, this cannot go on. I’m sorry, forgive me”. Even the simplest things left unsaid can lead to a disintegration of relationships and community.
It has taken me a while to realise the link between the God we worship, who sometimes feel a bit distant and the forgiveness we feel as part of the human race. For me God is the creative spirit that drives all of life, is found within all of life, and in acts of forgiveness this spirit is truly reflected. Forgiveness for us, for others, and for communities is the essence of God. Forgiveness allows healing, it allows for a new start, it allows people to suddenly belong on the same team, to see each other as brothers and sisters instead of enemies. It allows relationships to develop and redevelop and the oppressive burden of guilt to flow away. We forgive not merely to fulfil some higher law of morality, we do it for ourselves. Quite often the only person to benefit from the forgiveness is the person doing the forgiving.
But in all its different forms, the result is the same, forgiveness will always provide a spark of life, for it is a renewing act that leads people and situations being seen in a different light. There is no greater sign of the creator God than the renewal that comes from forgiveness.
So as we approach the coming new year, it is essential for us all to allow Gods spirit to reach into our hearts, and through forgiveness, into our actions. Think of something we have held onto that we regret and yet keep revisiting, or something someone else had done which we find difficult to let go of. Let us close our eyes and see that event or action as a distinct entity, place it in a box and push it to one side. And when we leave church today, let us leave the box behind. Just one thing, because from small things, great things grow.
The second ghost to visit Scrooge was the ghost of Christmas’ present. Scrooge was shown what life was currently like for those around him, and how his actions were affecting people. We, as followers of Jesus also have to focus on what we can and must do now to affect the lives of others, to better the lives of others. For we know Jesus’ life focussed on seeking justice and equity and compassion for all. Love was and is the key.
The Christmas stories we have heard this past week confirm what we know of this Jesus, the man, the human one. He came for the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised. Those are the ones who could see the light. He was not greeted by kings or the religious elite for they held the power. In the reading today we hear it again. Jesus is the baby of Jewish parents, taken to be circumcised. People see him amongst them, knowing he will grow to reflect Gods way in the world. Yet those that greet him are much the same as those who greeted him on Christmas morning. Simeon and Anna are both elderly and poor, one was a prophet, a woman and a widow, they are not temple elders or high priests but part of the marginalised.
Even his parents bring presents that reflect their social status. Joseph and Mary’s offering, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”—was for those who could not afford a lamb, showing that Jesus was not only Jewish but also poor. “This of course placed him initially with the great mass of people on the earth” (as suggested by Howard Thurman).
So the story of Jesus as a light that shines the love of God into the world for everyone, but particularly the poor and marginalised, continues long after Christmas.
But it is sometimes hard to see that message in people who call themselves Christian, including us, today.
Hugh McKay has written extensively on this subject. He suggests that while Australia and Australians see themselves as a Christian country, the reality is that most Australians have little real understanding of the gospel message.
McKay asks, “How, in particular, should we reconcile such claims with our disgraceful behaviour towards refugees, both asylum seekers in other places, and the detainees already here. Our recent record has thrown out the strongest imaginable challenge to the idea that Australia might be built on Christian values.” Ouch.
He goes on to ask what are the values we broadly define as Christian.
“To find the answer”, he suggests, “we should go to the source”. “The reported teachings of Jesus are unambiguous when it comes to attitudes towards the poor, the disposed, the disadvantaged and various forms of “otherness”. “According to Jesus, loving your neighbour as yourself is one of the principle virtues, especially when your neighbour is as different for you as can be imagined.
And finally, “to judge from our attitude to refugees, we are comfortably insulated from religious impulses – Christian or otherwise, by our shameless self-interest”.
This was written some time ago, yet it still stings to read it. The world has changed but not the real Christian message, which is often confused with personal salvation and a trip to heaven when we die. And not our countries response, which is still without real compassion. And not just to refugees.
I believe we are therefore left with a great responsibility. Because if we can’t demonstrate by our actions and articulate with our words the creative love of God, Christianity will be diluted to a point where it will only be a footnote in history.
So we have to live, not as a secular group, but as a group who truly believe it is only through loving and welcoming and engaging with others that God’s kingdom will come on earth. That we are Jesus followers for a reason. And that is, to bring light and life to a dark and tired world. But how do we do that, for it is always going to be hard. In the reading today Simeon is careful to note that Jesus’ life and mission will not be without opposition, for “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” And recognizing this, and the devastating impact of prophetic living upon loved ones he points out to Mary,”a sword will pierce your soul too” (2:35).
Mm very challenging. Yet even in our time people have taken up the challenge.
Like Peter Stewart, a man whose funeral I went to on Friday, who worked for social justice and the rights of those poor and disposed and homeless in our society and who sacrificed much to do it. Like our man Nev, who has been a peace activist, and agitator his whole life and still is at 88. Like the countless others who dance or have danced to a different tune in our world.
Yet I can already hear you saying, I can’t be Peter, I can’t be Nev, I can’t be Jesus. Because I often say it to myself. But the reality is, you and I can make a difference. We can make choices about how we live in our time and place. And make a difference.
And we can start small, because from small things big things grow. Or if you like, a quote from Lord of the Rings, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future”. As it turns out, even a baby.
So I would like you to close your eyes again, think of something that you may be able to do or help with, or volunteer for in the new year, that will reflect your faith in God’s ever present love for all. It may be something you are already doing but that you will re commit to. Something that is attainable, that you will be able to sustain and maybe develop over time. Something that is done for others. But I also want you to see yourself explain why, for if we can’t explain why we respond to the gospel of love with love, then the message may not get through.
The final ghost that visits Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas’’ to come. The future. I wish Nev was here. For scrooge it’s a down-hill slide into oblivion and hatred. For us, without a connection to God, I believe it could be one of cynicism and despair.
Yet I think one of the great gifts of Christianity is that it gives hope. If we truly believe that God’s creative love is working in the world, everywhere, then we will live and act with hope. Particularly in a world as it exists today, where there are many places in which war has been going on for so long that no one seems to know what peace actually is. Where we have children carrying guns and using them, innocent civilians caught in the cross fire, and over 58 million people displaced either in their own country or in other countries, who only want peace and to go home.
From the beginning to the end, the bible is a book of hope, from which nothing and no one need be excluded. At key moments in the Jewish history Israel confesses its hope in God’s promise of deliverance, regardless of how bad or evil humanity has become.
For Christians this hope culminates in Jesus. For after being rejected by his own people, betrayed, abandoned and denied by his own disciples, tortured and condemned by the imperial authorities, and buried in a stranger’s tomb, one thinks hope is dead. A terrible defeat for the friend of the poor and marginalized.
However, his resurrection lit the flame of hope forever. The disillusionment of the Friday was soon challenged by the strange events of the Sunday. What he was and what he represented was not defeated.
God is the one who alone can liberate us to live hopefully. God is the one seen, heard, and experienced in Jesus, who calls us to a higher, deeper level and a different reality. It is God who will have the last say, as we and our world are reconciled to the creative spirt found in all of life.
But Jesus rarely spoke of an end time when all things would magically turn around, when the evil would be punished and the good rewarded. He spoke often, however, of living God’s kingdom into being, of being challenged by his message and letting the kingdom break into our world and our society. For we are called to enter the process with God.
The question is, do we really believe this, for our actions will speak as to whether we live with hope or succumb to the widely held belief that nothing will change, so let’s do nothing. For to live with Christ is to live as though the ultimate victory of life and love has already been won. As Dorothy McRae McMahan writes, “This involves living “as if something is already in place. You live with justice, even if justice is not yet brought in. You claim the ground for it by the way you live, but you do not see yourself as a single agent for change, just one who demonstrates a change that will one day be visible and in place for all people. It gives us a sense that we are participating in a great and long term effort to make real something that was always meant to be and always will be”.
So as the new year approaches it is our call to live hopefully, trying to respond to the needs around us, while at the same time remembering that the divine presence is never limited by our human capacities for evil. God is present in the world, in each one of one, always has been and always will be. It is us who go missing.
So I would like you to close your eyes one final time and make a commitment to make time for God in the new year, for the inward journey, for without that hope will dry up amidst the miseries and frustrations of life. A place of quiet so that we may listen to the whisper of God, a place for silence so into that space the spirit may touch us. A place where Jesus worlds and teaching become real. What it may mean is dropping something that we would like to do but can’t, a challenge I know. But these are choices we make.
Scrooge was lucky, he saw what was to come and managed to change the future. He was allowed a second chance, to create a new society in which he was a major player, not with power or might, but with love and generosity.
When we look at the 3 ghosts, the past, the present and the future, and apply them to ourselves, we see and know a faith in which no one is beyond forgiveness, including ourselves, a faith that urges and cajoles us to act with love and compassion and to do so trusting that no matter how terrible and awful the situation seems, there is always hope that Gods spirit will have the final say, that the creative love of God will endure. That from a burnt out forest a flower will blossom. From the darkness a light will appear.
This is the message to take into 2018.
I wish you all a very happy new year.
I love Christmas and I hate Christmas. That may be somewhat extreme, but every year I am torn, so let me explain a bit further.
I love the lights, the festive spirit, the messages of hope and kindness and sharing that can happen during this time. Holidays for some, the sunshine and beach and of course the beautiful Jacaranda trees, blooming that amazing purple colour.
I hate the rushing people seem to do, from one activity to another, the money people spend when they don’t have any, the loneliness some feel when family are in conflict, or those who have lost loved ones at this time, or at any time. Those who seem to find the whole thing stressful and wish it would all be over.
It’s one of those times, which bring out the best and worst in us.
But festivals are important events, and can mark deep and profound human truths. Christmas is one of those festivals, which has a hidden meaning behind the carols and the glitter and the presents.
But I want to clear up one thing. Christmas is not something that the early Christians celebrated, in fact it wasn’t celebrated until the 4th century, and then was called the feast of the nativity of our Lord. Not Christmas. Christmas was not really celebrated as a huge event until the 18th century.
The decision to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th was actually made between 354 and 360 AD, so a long time after the writing of the gospels, when Constantine was the Roman Emperor. Constantine was grounded in the cult of Sol Invictus. The date was selected for Jesus’s birth in order to correspond with the Roman festival of Natalis Solis Invicti, or Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. A political and cultural move that worked for the Roman Empire and its church.
It marked the change when winter was defeated, the days would become longer and the light would increase. In other words, the winter solstice. Our ancestors would have known this transition of the sun well, and many of the places Christianity spread to would have celebrated this event. So today it seems rather fitting that this festival was chosen, as it represents the life of Jesus, who came when history was at its blackest for the Jewish people. He came in the least expected and least obvious place and shone the light of God into the darkness. So while many bishops ha ted the idea that Christianity tied itself to pagan festivals, it seems to be amazingly profound.
In the reading from John that was used today we hear what the early christens heard. Jesus has come into the world to bring life and light, Gods light and life. So the winter solstice came to represent this new day for them.
So what about the birth stories, remembering they are only found in 2 of the 4 gospels and written a long time after Jesus’ death.. The stories of the birth are not history, and never have been, they are myth, poetry, and truth all rolled into one, to bring a message of love and hope for the world and for each one of us. And to tell us about a man, Jesus of Nazareth. . Stories that are so true, they can only be told in metaphor, stories that take your breath away.
So let’s have a closer look at them. Keep in mind the winter solstice. Night and day, dark and light. Even in our sunshine.
Jesus entered the world in a dark time in human history. Into an ancient and ongoing struggle. On one side stood the kings and their elite company, which included the priests and the Pharisees while on the other were found the prophets, the oppressed poor and the excluded. He was born at a time when Rome was at its most powerful. Caesar Augustus, after bringing peace to Rome was hailed the Son of God and saviour. Law and order was sustained by ruthless suppression of people’s rights and many just disappeared.
Two so called religions guided how people would function in the world. One was a religion of empire, of wealth, rules and rituals, where the rich got richer and the poor poorer. Power ruled over everything. Then there was the religion of Jesus, a religion that united all God’s people together in bonds of love, compassion and deep joy irrespective of race, class, gender or age. As Wes Howard Brook suggests, a religion of creation. This religion was not a set of rules but a way of life, a new way of living together.
So for the Jewish people, Jesus was a new light, a dawning of what could be as opposed to what is. He gave hope and a new perspective to his followers. For some it was a dawning that they were of value, were loved, for others it gave hope that God had not abandoned them, and for others they were inspired and guided to act. For in Jesus and his teachings, the ongoing divine presence is seen, heard and felt. A presence that drives us to be better than we are, more loving more compassionate and more forgiving.
So the birth stories reflect Jesus message found in the gospel, Jesus life and teachings, in miniature.
Jesus is seen as a defenceless baby, the poor shepherds are the ones who hear the message of his birth, rather than kings or rulers, there are lots of animals, and there is a woman, Mary, and the Magi, who are foreigners of varying age, and who come bearing gifts. In fact Jesus and Mary themselves are refugees escaping persecution. And we have angels singing about peace on earth and goodwill hovering over the whole scene, representing the God of all creation, of Jesus, and the hope that this represents for all of us.
A beautiful, evocative and actually very subversive story when you think about it.
In fact it is ironic that the Jesus movement started as an anti-empire movement, yet it became absorbed by the empire itself, and led to Jesus’s death. Ouch!
So what am I saying about Jesus this morning that may affect us more than the tinsel and the presents and that takes us back to our roots, but forward into our own time?
Well, the best way to explain it is with a story, to show you that this is as much about now as 2,000 years ago.
A few years ago I was visiting a detention centre on the outskirts of Perth with others from the church, not to cause too much trouble, but to visit the refugees who were imprisoned there, and I use that term seriously. Many had been in detention for over 4 years, yet could not go back to their original country because of war or civil unrest. While there I met Hussain, an older Pakistani man, who had escaped northern Pakistan because he was a catholic who had converted and while he lived with his wife safely for a number of years, times changed and it was not safe for him to stay. The Christian minority in Pakistan is terribly marginalised, and very poor.
Anyway that’s not the story I want to tell. I visited him reasonably regularly for 18 months before he was transferred to Melbourne, and then finally released on a temporary visa. What a blessing. He linked up with a community in Melbourne where he has been well supported, and has been working as a gardener, to try to support this wife Robina in Pakistan, keeping in contact with her via skype and phone. They did not have children and her only support was from her equally poor extended family. I kept in contact with Hussain, whose English got better, and we helped support Robina as her health was deteriorating. However this past year her health really deteriorated to the point where medication was required from America to save her. Many people supported Hussein both financially and emotionally as he sought to get enough money together to send to her.
Finally he had enough for her to go on treatment, and for a few weeks it seemed to be working. However suddenly she took a turn for the worse, and it became clear that the medical treatment was just not good enough, and available enough to help her, and she died.
Hussein was devastated, he talked to her just before the end, and she asked him to thank me for our help, and the help of everyone else. She told him to make a new life here in Australia. Then she slipped away, after battling liver cancer brought on by hep C, a now curable disease in the West.
The darkness fell on Hussein, like someone had turned out the lights. He always had faith that he would eventually be able to bring Robina to Australia, and begin a new life together here, in safety. And now that dream was over.
I spoke to him soon after and it broke my heart, “what could I do”, Hussein kept saying, “what am I to do now”.
I honestly thought he may decide to end it, he was so crushed, under the weight of his grief and guilt about not being there for her…
The dark night, the winter of the soul, the night that never ends, fell on him.
The winter solstice for those ancient peoples who thought the sun may never return
But it does. Something stirs in the darkest of dark. A glimpse of the sun over the horizon. The first sign of light.
For Hussein it has been the love and compassion of people in Melbourne that have surrounded and supported him. Many from the Catholic community.
It was those in Pakistan who looked after Robina. Who tried to help her.
And then it was the children who kept looking for her in the past few weeks, as Christmas approached, who kept asking, where is Aunty Robina. Hussein has found out that while he had been gone, Robina has been supporting the children of her village, even though she herself had very little, was often lonely and afraid and ill.
I spoke to Hussein a couple of days ago. He is still very sad, and of course the darkness at times is still there. But a little bit of light has returned. He has decided that he needs to help his village as Robina did. He wants to set up a medicine dispensary clinic, using the house Robina and Hussein lived in, and call it Robina’s Dispensary, so that others can get medicine that previously has been unavailable. He has already sent packages of clothing with help from others, and there is a growing sense that he is doing what Robina would want. Living and helping others. What Jesus would want. What God wants.
Wow, I could not really believe it. The sun did indeed rise and the light got in. I think we could call it a miracle.
The spirit of God is at work in the world, regardless of how you name it.
So Christmas, at its deepest level, is not really about the tinsel and gifts, or even family, in fact, if the truth be known, it’s not even about the stories of a baby, a manger or a star or shepherds. It’s about new life, a new beginning, that out of the darkness, light will come. The Jews knew this, the early Christians knew this, and is the reason the winner solstice and the birth of Jesus actually come together profoundly. While Rome thought they were incorporating the Jesus story into their own, it was the other way around. Jesus story becomes the story of the earth and the story of us. Both as individuals and as a society.
If there nothing else you take away from this morning then take away the message that the Jesus story is about a new day, a new way of living, a light that shines the love of God into the world.
He becomes our guide of what the creative presence of God is doing, wants to do in this place and at this time. And we are called to join the band. Both for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of others.
I want to thank Alexander Shaia and his podcast with Rob Bell for inspiring this sermon, and Fred Plummer, of the Progressive Christianity Centre in the USA. And of course Hussain and Robina, If you want to help set up the dispensary let me know!