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!
Today I have a sermon from a friend of mine, Richard Smith, an incredible scientist, activist, and person of faith, who works diligently for those marginalised in our society. So you could call him my guest blogger.
In this sermon he reveals some home truths, about justice, or the lack of it, and about science and how evidence is manipulated or hidden from us. It is food for thought!
Scripture Readings Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
Exactly 6 years ago I preached here at WDUC on these same two Lectionary readings. Does anyone remember that sermon?
Much has happened in the last 6 years, therefore I decided I should explore these readings in the context of Paul’s Gospel for creating a better world. A process summarized at the Reformation from his letter to the Galatians and Romans as Justification through Grace by Faith. A collective understanding rather than the later emphasis on individual salvation.
In ordinary language:
Justification – Is the process of creating a Just World, a world that works for all people. Through Grace– is accepting that the world and life we inherit is a free and generous gift. And by Faith, that is trusting in the essential goodness of humankind and the truth revealed in the Bible and Science.
One of Paul’s most profound statements of faith from our Galatians reading today was:“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”(Gal 3:28). This vision threatened the ethnic and Torah based religious identity of the Jews. It also challenged the economic foundations of the Roman Empire, with laws largely constructed so the elite 5% could extract wealth from the rest of the population. Some 40% of the population were slaves and women were second class citizens.
Does that not sound like much of the world today?
Currently we suffer from a major misunderstanding about Justice. We have a State Dept of Justice in a magnificent 31 story building in the City, concerned with managing retribution against those who fail to follow the law. Not with the primary biblical meaning of Justice as distributive, that is whatever is to be shared is to be shared equitably – or in the vernacular “A Fair Go for All”.
The biblical warrant for this meaning of Justice is that all humankind are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Retributive Justice is a subsidiary part of Distributive Justice, in that punishment should be fairly distributed.
The term Social Justice has an ambiguity which can mean either distributive or retributive Justice depending on the context. This is the ambiguity of our State Government Department of Justice’s concern with courts and prisons and not the distributive injustices filling our prisons to overflowing. For example, while only 3% of West Australia’s population are indigenous they form 30% our prison population because of distributive injustice issues.
In our Gospel reading today we read a parable told by Luke about Jesus and an impoverished man possessed by demons named“Legion”. Legion was the name of the 2600 strong cohort of the Roman Military that enforced the imperial domination system through retributive violence, torture and crucifixion which had had the demonic effect on the man’s mind and behaviour. We see the impact of the modern equivalents of such institutionalised violence and torture on soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, inter-generation impact on Aboriginal children in remote communities and on asylum seekers who are detained indefinitely.
On being healed, the demons left the man, going into a large herd of swine, which rushed into the lake and drowned. Although the man was healed his fellow Gerasenes did not understand how Jesus’ Gospel of non-violence and compassion could have such a dramatic healing effect. In fear they asked Jesus to leave and he returned across the sea of Galilee .
The man who was set free of his demons did not rest: “he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him”using his new found freedom to create a better world among his people.
Today, many like the Gerasene’s are fearful of confronting the domination systems of our world, becoming complicit in the destruction of indigenous cultures, the earth and its climate, before our very eyes.
How do we recognise today’s demons in our domination system?
- Our Aboriginal people were first demonised and put in chains (Slide 1), now we use the chains of financial and physical poverty to drive them from their communitarian life style and belief that the land owns them and not we the land. We seek to drive them into our individualistic and materialistic lifestyle.
- Another example are the demons of fake news and anti-science that get implanted in minds; keeping people in the chains of ignorance about indigenous people, climate change and their contribution to solving it.
- These subtle anti-science demons are best illustrated by our nightly ABC weather reports.
- An important context for our weather is the climate – but we are only presented with the weather without the context of Michael Mann’s Hockey Stick (Slide 2)or Keeling’s Curve of rising CO2which is causing long term changes in weather (Slide 3).Such Text without context becomes the pretext for climate denial and inaction.
- In contrast as we move to the Financial News, we are given the historical context through extensive graphs over many years of exchange rates, share market indexes and levels of debt, unemployment rates etc. (Slide 4).
- We are numbed to the fact that the continued increase in Jobs and Growth is a suicide economy that in a finite world is destroying the very basis of human life itself.
Do not lose hope for Pope Francis in his “Care for our Common Home” encyclical said:
“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. No systems can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”
I sincerely believe that God – to me the force of Goodness and Truth that permeates our world will help us bring about new sustainable ways of life for future generations. Surely this is the mission for which the Church was born. Amen
I have included the slides he refers to here. They can be downloaded.
Someone I deeply respect suggested I put my sermon from today, for Pentecost on my blog unedited. So I have. If you are interested these are the readings we used.
Readings – Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-4, John 14:8-17, 25-27
Here we are at Pentecost 2019. I must admit, while happy to not participate in the joint service at the Anglican church, I then realised I would be doing the whole thing.
And the problem is, I have a really big problem with Pentecost. Not with the spirit, just with the festival.
Let me see if I can explain.
I have been reading a book lately, called “How I found God in everyone and everything”. I foolishly picked it for a bookclub book, and while I have found it fascinating, it is by no means an easy read.
It follows the spiritual journey of some major players in modern theology and philosophy, including Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr, Keith Ward, Rupert Sheldrake and Phillip Clayton. How many of them have gone from a belief in a God out there somewhere, removed from creation and intervening now and then, called theism, to perhaps a belief in nothing at all, atheism, back to a belief in a divine presence but in a different form altogether, called panentheism. Panentheism means God in all and all in God. A divine presence within all things but greater than all things. This version of God leaves behind the external deity who occasionally zaps things for a God in which we all live and move and have our being, including the universe. It’s actually like returning home as we know the great mystics in all religious traditions have expounded this reality. It just seems we lost it for a long time.
Now I don’t want to get into all these theisms, but I do want to explore what it means to come back to God after having gone away because the traditional understanding is too hard to accept.
It involves looking at the world we live in, and the changes that are taking place in it.
I as you all know have been a scientist, not a very good one all my life, and yet I have never felt I was a materialist. A materialist is someone for whom science will explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry and biology. That science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, minds are nothing but brain activity and nature is purposeless.
This is not what many believe, even scientists. Modern physics, focussing on quantum mechanics and cosmology, philosophy and evolutionary biology is taking us to a different more expanded place. More and more the subjective world, the world of consciousness explodes this idea that we are just a bunch of cells, that respond to externally driven cues. There is the presence of a subjective world, that is more than just the mechanics. We experience colour, rather than just seeing it, we experience our surroundings, rather than just responding to it as a machine, and we are conscious of ourselves as human being and of others who travel with us.
Equally many try to suggest consciousness or the mind is just a product of our brain cells, but more and more philosophers and scientists are again saying something different. That maybe all levels of creation are conscious, down to the smallest particles, or that there is a cosmic consciousness that we are all part of, that we are enveloped by. Hard to imagine, but on the other hand, when you look at each of us, and all the created order, how can it be any less. We are a marvel of creation and there are mysteries going on that are deeper than we can understand.
This sort of work, and I have had many a mind blowing conversation with Nathan who is doing an honours degree in philosophy of the mind, makes things so much more open ended, and exciting. As science moves beyond materialism Rupert Sheldrake would suggest we are recovering a sense of the life inherent in nature as a whole and in self organising systems at all levels of complexity. And producing new ways of connecting to our Christian roots.
Maybe the sense of awe we feel at the created order, or the beautiful music we listen to and are moved by, the sense of peace we experience at times when we are silent, the sense of connectedness to all things that rises up and greets us when we are working alongside others, loving others, the knowing we get at odd times, that there is something extra within and between us, doesn’t seem so radical anymore.
I have become increasingly convinced that the spirit of God is the presence within and around and through all that exists, from the smallest particular to the largest planet, a living breathing reality that we can know. And which gives life. And I am now open to the promise that we will never become separated from it. Because how can I become separated from my body. Or the ocean in which I swim.
So instead of seeing the death of God, we are seeing the death of a form of God, and the resurrection of a different, more universal God. And we have a responsibility to help that along.
So part of me doesn’t want to celebrate Pentecost in the 21stcentury. The story doesn’t seem to quite cut it today, with our expanded ideas about life and the universe. That the spirit comes down from somewhere while Jesus goes somewhere else, like they exchange places on a vertical ladder upwards. It doesn’t work when we know that if the spirit of God is in all things, and has been in all things since the beginning of time.
But perhaps I am being too negative.
As Cynthia Bourgeault suggests, “when we look at scripture, we shouldn’t see it as the unchanging revelation of the one true god, but instead an extraordinary sacred archive of the evolution of human consciousness”. I love that, because it fits with our own lives in which we move and grow. In Jesus we see him throw off some of the past constraints, past rules and ways of seeing, to encompass the idea of a collective humanity.
If we look at the readings today in that sense we see an evolution of thought…
While Luke in Acts tells the story dramatically, like a movie director, the spirit coming as a rushing wind and descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame 50 days after Easter, that told by John is more personal. The risen Christ bestows the Holy Spirit on his followers on the night of Easter and his spirit is a brooding presence in their hearts and minds. Both represent a watershed moment in the life of the early church. Both represent something about Jesus and his life and his call that his followers realised. Something dramatic. And they wanted to record it. It doesn’t mean that God’s spirit was missing somehow prior to this event.
To understand the story then we need to explore its past. Pentecost’s roots are in Judaism, for it was very much a Jewish festival before it was a Christian festival. Occurring 50 days after Passover it links Israel’s much older agricultural cycle to her religious history. It celebrates both the completion of the harvest as well as the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai. As Marcus Borg says it was about the creation of a new kind of community, the way of living together radically different from life in Egypt.
The readings from both Luke and John reflect this history, building on what has gone before, while announcing something altogether new. It was about the creation of a new community in Christ. A community anointed by God’s spirit and in continuity with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A community that calls forth peace and justice and reconciliation in the world, here and now…
This reconciliation is seen in Acts. At the Tower of Babel in Genesis, in the reading we also heard today, God scattered the pretentious human race across the earth confusing them by having them speak many languages rather than one. At Pentecost God reunites the scattered people into a new beloved community, one that is able to bridge differences and value diversity, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female.
The followers of Jesus thus became a community of reconciliation and renewal through the presence of the spirit. A spirit they saw fully realized in the life of Jesus. They began to share everything they had, former enemies became friends and people laid down their swords and picked up a cross. As the book of Acts goes on to say, there was no needy persons among them. The movement had started. A movement which would become the church.
So it has been recorded as a pivotal moment.
Out of the constraints of power, and tribes and issues about who’s in and who’s out, comes a story about what the spirit brings out of chaos. Unity. Life. What Jesus brings.
Maybe this is the story of Pentecost for today!
You may wonder why we are not joining in at St Pauls this morning? While I understand worshipping with our fellow Christians is a good idea, the unity that Jesus speaks of is much wider than that. It’s time to greet the Jesus who himself was a great mystic, who calls us to a change in consciousness, a metanoia so that we see God is in all, and through all and empowers life at every level. Not just in Christianity.
We now live in the 21stcentury, in some ways the age of the spirit. The time has come, when we open ourselves to new ways of understanding what it is to be human, to be community, to be part of a creation that we can see, not only here in the tiniest of ways, but in the planets and stars of the universe. When evolution show us how connected we all really are.We in the West sometimes forget, with our focus on God as father and Jesus as son, that the spirit, God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit if you like, is the oldest expression of the creator at work in creation. It is the spirit which enlivens and empowers life at every level
So, as Diarmuid O’Murchu suggests, let’s start with the spirit. Let’s elevate the spirit, rejoice in the spirit’s presence in and among us, leading us towards fullness of life for all of creation, including humans.
God, the spirit of God, the breath of God, the divine presence, the energy that unities all things, whatever way you want to say it, whatever you want to call it.
And a God who is everywhere is every bodies. A truly democratic God. As Walt Whitman has said. For Whitman religion is democratic, its democracy extends to each listener, whatever ones race, ethnicity, rank, nationality, social class, sexual orientation or gender. A truly democratic spirit. Available to the least as well as the greatest. Available to those who know about Jesus and those that don’t.
As many in my book suggest, the Spirit which is in all of us, makes all of us mystics. We all are capable of reading and sensing the divine within the world. And equally seeing what we are capable of doing.
Maybe today we celebrate more than just an event in the past but a starting point to a future for us all..
I want to finish with a statement from Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, also a contributor to the book I started the sermon with.
“I have known mystical experiences in my life both as a child and in my adult years. They have entailed an intense experience of the presence and encompassing love of God, a love not of my own making; it is sheer gift, sheer presence. And it has seemed to me that this intensity of love fills all things, albeit usually incognito. It does not particularly matter whether or not it is recognised. It is love and presence that is simply always there, never absent, just at the other side of consciousness experience; sometimes, occasionally, graciously invading conscious experience. We are called not necessarily to seek awareness of that presence but just to assume god’s presence, and get on with our lives in ways that are more or less congruent with that presence. ‘Congruence” requires commitment to al all-inclusive common good, to a society that ‘seeks justice, loves kindness” and walks humbly with its various notions of God.”
We are people who have in us the spirit of the universe, we are a marvel of life.
We are to live with a belief and with a sense we are spirit people, sons and daughters of God each one of us. We are to embrace this spirit, this rushing wind, or whisper, this constant nudging from within and bear fruit in our own world, our own country. Here and now.
Note: “How I found God in everyone and everywhere”. Editors Andrew M. Davis and Phillip Clayton, 2018.
As our website is being redeveloped I am going to put some of my sermons here, and this one which I gave on Mothers Day, is particularly close to me. I focus on the Gospel of Mary, something I have wanted to talk about for a long time….
I have been pondering this sermon for a little while. I want us to journey away from Easter, even though we are still technically in the Easter season.
Journey into our own lives and time and place. But carrying the message of Jesus with us.
How do we do this. Well, I want to focus on one of the major players in the Easter story. Jesus story and our story. A player who has been forgotten or demonised or pushed aside. Who was there, and who tells us much if we are to listen.
I want to talk about Mary Magdalene. All 4 of the gospels say Mary witnessed the resurrection. Three of them name her as also present at the crucifixion, and in both Matt and Mark she is named first among the women who stayed and watched.
To understand more fully her role, I downloaded the movie Mary Magdalene that was released last year and watched it. It is powerful and controversial in some eyes, because it not only depicts a beautiful woman who was one of the disciples, but a Jesus, who is raw, and earthy and believable. And other male disciples who just don’t get it. Poor Jesus. Jesus was of God, but not god. He was pointing to a new way, but not a way of violence but peace. A way of love and forgiveness rather than exclusion. Everyone was to be included in this new order, this new kingdom. And still the disciples wanted some sort of powerful response. Maybe like us.
Let me show you a clip in case you didn’t see it, this is actually the promo for the movie …
Today I want to read a section from the Gospel of Mary, written around 80 to 180 CE whose main figure is a woman, most likely Mary Magdalene. The movie clearly takes its inspiration from this gospel. It is part of the extracanonical writings, writings that existed at the time of the gospels found in the bible, but not included in the final cannon, because they were branded as heresies or died out before the cannon was put together. It is believed that over 85% of the Christian literature from the first 2 centuries has been lost. But some have re-emerged in recent times, in Egypt, the markets of Cairo and the libraries of ancient monasteries. They give us an insight about the diversity that existed at the time of the early Jesus movement and expand our thinking.
The Gospel of Mary disappeared for over 1500 years until a single fragmentary copy in a Coptic translation came to light in the late 19thcentury. Two additional fragments have been found in the 20thcentury. It is one of the writings that was found in material from the Nag Hammadi village in Egypt, but it was also in a 5C papyrus codex sold in Berlin in 1896. Although it was originally composed in Greek, most of it survives only in the Coptic translation. While written by someone else, it records the relationship between Jesus and Mary and the disciples.
A modern translation by Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor some 10 years ago has revived this ancient manuscript.
While only fewer than 8 pages survive, with the first 3 pages of chapter 1 missing and 3 pages of chapter 8, it gives an amazing glimpse into a kind of Christianity that existed at the time, and Mary Magdalene’s role.
As Rosemary Radford Reuther explains, “for the first 5 centuries no writer misinterpreted Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Rather she was seen as a leading disciple and image of the church. It is only at the end of the 6thcentury when Pope Gregory the 1st in a sermon confuses the sinful woman of Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 and identifies her as a repentant prostitute whose former sinfulness is contrasted with that of the virgin Mary, that things change”.
In fact, the anointing given by a women to Jesus while he was alive were not actually assigned in the gospels to Mary Magdalene at all. In Luke the woman who was a sinner has no name while In the other 3 gospels, the anointing takes place in Bethany directly before Jesus passion. In John, the participants are named, Mary of Bethany is the one who brings the ointment and Judas is the critic who accuses her of wasting money.
So many Marys. Perhaps Marys strong witness and presence became a threat to leadership in the earlier church. Like many female voices hers was removed. The Vatican corrected this view at the time of Vatican II, but the damage was done. Women have been marginalized for centuries both inside and outside the church, and it continues to this day.
Yet the Gospel of Mary offers a female recounting of a scene in which the resurrected Jesus comes to say goodbye and tells the disciples to preach, just as he does in the first 3 gospels, Matt , Mark and Luke, then leaves them.
With this ancient document, we have another voice, a woman’s voice, coming through.
Let me read two sections , which sets the scene.
Reading chapter 2, 3 (part), 4
“… Will matter then be destroyed or not?”
The Savior said, “All natures, all forms, all creatures exists in and with on another and they will be resolved again into their own roots. For the nature of matter is released into the roots of its nature. Those who have ears to hear let them hear.”
Peter said to him, “Since you have explained everything to us, tell us one other thing. What is the sin of the world?”
The Savior said, “There is no sin; but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called “sin”. That is why the Good came into your midst, coming to the good which belongs to every nature, in order to restore it to its root”……..
When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all, saying “Peace be with you! Bear my peace within yourselves! Beware that no one leads you astray saying, ‘Look over here!’ or ‘Look over there!’ For the Child of Humanity is within you. Follow it! Those who seek it will find it. Go then, and proclaim the good news of the realm. Do not lay down any rules beyond what I determined for you, nor give a law like the lawgiver, lest you be confined by it.”
When he had said this, he departed.
In this gospel Jesus teaches them that all things are interwoven with each other, whether material or spiritual. He teaches them how to welcome true humanity into themselves. That salvation is recognising their true humanity and warns them from following some heroic hero or a set of rules and laws. Rather they are to seek to find their inner peace, their wholeness in this world, understanding that Jesus, the child of humanity is within them. Sin is the product of choosing a path away from all that he has taught, rather than some inherited state. We sin when we lose sight of the path he offers.
After Jesus departs the disciples are emotional and tearful, until Mary Magdalene takes charge and bucks them up. Do not weep and be distressed she tells them and sure enough they pull themselves together.
Again, let me read chapter 5
But they were pained. They wept greatly, saying, “How shall we go to the nations and proclaim the good news of the Child of Humanity? If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?”
Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, and said to her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be pained, nor doubt, for his grace will be with you all and shelter you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us Humans.”
When Mary said this, she turned their heart to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior.
Mary Magdalene recounts that Jesus’ primary purpose is to make us human beings, fully human. Emphasising the goodness of humanity! She turns their heart to the good.
This is actually quite similar to the other gospels, and reveals that much of our doctrine and dogmas about sin, and condemned humanity comes from later theologians. The gospels of Matt, Mark, and Luke talk about the realm or kingdom of God which is at hand or among you. And they talk about living in God, living in Christ, and having a new radically new quality of life in Christ.
In Chapter 6 Mary begins to relate some private teachings from Jesus that only she knows, to the disciples.
Let me read the beginning of Chapter 6
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember, which you know and we do not, nor have we heard them.”
Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I will tell you.” And she began to say to them these word…..
Unfortunately, we then have 3 missing pages, but it appears that the teaching is on similar lines, both celebrating the goodness of humanity while seeing the things that drag us from this path.
But the last bits of the dialogue we hear in Chapter 9 reveals something about God. For Mary related God with the good. She defines God as the good. We hear it earlier when the text said, “she turned their heart to the good”. That the rise of the soul is about the journey towards goodness in ones’ inner consciousness, one’s behaviour and one’s relationships. This gospel charts a personal process of struggles for goodness. And things get in the way. But as Jesus says at the beginning of the gospel, “the good which belongs to every nature, comes to restore it to its root”. When we become a true human being.
Of course, the disciples aren’t thrilled with being lectured by a woman, and Peter scolds her in the last chapter, chapter 10. Levi interceded, “Peter, he says, you have always been a wrathful person, assuredly the saviour’s knowledge of her is completely reliable, that is why he loved her more than us”.
He loved her more than us. It is an image of a human Jesus and a beautiful faithful disciple.
I have totally fallen in love with this writing.
The Child of Humanity is within you. Jesus is within you. God is within you. The good is within you. We are Jesus and God’s beloved, we are loved for who we are, human beings, a marvel of life. And we are called not to some other place, not really even to this church, but to the world.
So, what do we do with this ancient message from a woman who stood beside the human Jesus through it all. Those who seek it will find it, go and follow it.
We think bigger and wider and more expansive. We have the resources within ourselves to change things, to give life rather than death and destruction. It’s what we choose that is important.
Resources that we sometimes forget are there. We can be kind, we can be creative, we can be loving, and we can be inclusive.
But sometimes our own hurts and sorrows and grief and distractions can hide our resources, can hide the spirit from us. So that we think we are alone. Yet we know, we are never alone!
Mary reminds us and the disciples that the Child of Humanity is within us and as such can make a difference. God is for and in all things, making things new.
If we choose.
Today I think of the grief of the whale (a children’s talk focussing on mothers in other parts of creation and the story of a Orca whale who pushed her dead calf around in Canada for 17 days in grief, supported by her pod), as an example of what is happening to our beautiful earth and the many people and creatures on and in it. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how we got to this place in time. Violence, shootings at synagogues, in churches and at mosques. An earth that is groaning. We and many are grieving. We are human, and we grieve.
How does the future look?
Jean Vanier, who as Dennis mentioned last week started the L’Arche community says, “We are very fragile in front of the future”.
So, as a writer for Sojourners, Kaitlin Curtice, asks, “what are we going to be as we head into the rest of 2019 and 2002. Who will we going to be politically, religiously, as humans who walk this sacred earth? Will we fight for our churches to be places that welcome the outcast, the woman, the gay and transgender person, and fight against injustice. Will we be a nation that faces its past in the genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples and continual violence against people who are seeking out protection?”
We know in our hearts the truth of our faith. The spirit, the energy, the presence of God never leaves us. We search for that truth every Sunday, with the courage of Mary Magdalene, and in all the days in between.
Today, as Curtice suggests, “we must take each other’s hands, take a hard look in the mirror and ask what our humanity requires of us…
How should the earth be loved?
How should our children be loved?
How should people with disabilities be loved
How should women of any colour be loved
How should our LGBTQI friends be loved
How should our Muslim, Sikh and Jewish kin be loved
How should anyone be loved.
That is the only way forward.”
Maybe these are things we should hold on to when things get rough and we have doubts.
Perhaps we can hear Teresa of Avila words, a mystic from the 1500s who wrote a great summary in her book ‘The way to perfection”. Another great woman of faith.
Listening to words from the cross she believes Jesus is saying..
All must be friends
All must be loved
All must be held dear
All must be helped
Let us say Amen to that.
Here we are at Easter Sunday 2019. A time and place which seems out of kilter with the rest of the secular world. Yet is it really! Maybe there is a deeper truth that would resonate even with the most ardent atheist.
Recently I have been listening to a number of podcasts by Rob Bell, one of my favourite progressive preachers and writers. He has done a series of 11 podcasts on Jesus H Christ, the man, the myth, the middle initial. I love that title and I have loved the series. He has taken his listener on a journey through the life and teachings of Jesus and what they meant to those listening and participating in the 1stcentury, and what they mean to those listening and following today. Placing them in context, socially, politically and historically, but bringing them alive for the 21stcentury.
It is not until we get to the final episode that we find out what the H stands for, but by then most listeners would have worked it out. It stands for human. Jesus above all else was a human being, a man, who in his time and place revealed the God of the universe that resides in all of us. And how God’s spirit plays out in the world and in each one of us, now and always.
This was the message of the 11 episodes.
This is the message today.
Resurrection is not just a one-off event, a miraculous resuscitated body heading to the heavens. Resurrection is deeply human, and revelatory of how the universe and how the God of this universe works. Resurrection happens everyday if we look around us. It happened in the disciples, after Jesus had died and they were left to carry on, It happens within communities and countries, it can happen even within ourselves.
So let’s go on a little journey of our own this Easter.
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, 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 what it is that makes us tick, blood vessels, muscles, nerves, organs with some first year students, I realised that the teaching brings me back to the essence of my faith.
Over the years, we have seen Christianity in many forms, much of it focussed on some other life, some other existence, without realising the existence here on earth is amazing, breathtaking, a gift to be cherished, with all its flaws and challenges. I have never ceased to be astounded, even after all these years of teaching!
It is within this gift 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 the life of all of creation and the life 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.
Some time ago I 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. If you were here on Good Friday who would have heard Marion’s.
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, particularly when I am grilled by atheist friends who think that I am crazy, to variously describe what I mean by God, I came across one attempt I would like to share, 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. And particularly Easter day. A time of joy and commitment but also of questions.
When we talk about this extra bit of life, this creative force, this divine presence, how do we describe it, how does it affect who we are as people? Well many, including me, would say we see this presence most clearly in Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was flesh and blood, who laughed and cried, prayed and suffered, who was human like us, regardless of what the church says. And who died a horrible painful death. A Jesus who confronted the powerful and paid the price. 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 21stcentury.
Can I really see God in this person? Is God and Jesus one? The gospel writers think so, they write so long after his death, but with such passion and purpose. While we have varying accounts of the resurrection, some physical, some spiritual, the reality is the disciples were transformed by the events.
Somehow, I believe, as they did, that in Jesus the God presence was and is revealed most fully. Somehow Jesus touches us and activates something mysterious within us. He turns on the light. His words, limited but powerful, and the response of his followers show us how to act in faith, pointing the way. If we can become aware of the divine presence within ourselves, letting go our ego or our 21stcentury manic activity driven lives, our response will reflect Jesus’s concerns. Concern for ourselves that we can be the best people we can be, concern for others that they may be loved and cared for, and concern for the planet and all of creation. Fullness of life for everyone, means in Jesus terms, inclusion and equity and peace and justice for all. God transformed Jesus and God transforms us.
So where does that leave Easter, Good Friday, and particularly Easter Sunday, the pinnacle of the church calendar. It is here I do not want to mince words. Jesus died for the sake of others, for he reveals that the God spark is a spark for life. That is how Jesus interpreted that inner drive in our world, in the human world. Love, compassion, justice, looking after the poor and the widows and including everyone at the table.
His message challenged those with power, who supported inequality, exclusion and hate. His message challenges us daily just as it did 2,000 years ago.
So he was killed.
Do I believe Jesus rose after 3 days and now sits at the right hand of God? Well no I don’t. Not physically anyway.
Why, because God is not sitting anywhere, certainly not in the sky where we see billions of galaxies and where we have just detected gravity waves. Where is God? God is the power within, the urge to connect and commune. To love.
So where is Jesus? A mystery that’s for sure. Maybe his spirit is, like our own, somehow bonded to that which gives all of us life. The universal divine presence. I like to think that, for we are all bound to the God presence now and forever. That’s why Jesus became Jesus Christ. That’s not his surname but a revelation that his teachings and actions, and God driven life lives on. Chrsit means anointed not magical.
Maybe the gift Jesus gives us on this Easter day is his human life, his awareness of what we all can be, what we all can do. Maybe his gift is one of life, not somewhere else, but here, in the fragrant muck and marvel and misery of human existence, as Frederick Buechner puts it. For God is part of the essence of who we are. It is in ordinary everyday lives that God is fully realised. A God that drives us to new beginnings, to change and transform, and makes life worthwhile. Ordinary everyday lives like ours. We find and experience God when we love, and forgive, show compassion and seek justice, share our wealth and lend a helping hand. When as a church we stand with and for refugees, our indigenous brothers and sisters, and all those marginalised and alone. When we care for one another.
For the resurrection story is not about Jesus, and about a divine resuscitation!
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.
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.
To finish I would like to read a quote that has been on my pinup board for some time. It’s been there so long I don’t know where I got it from. But it sums up Easter day beautifully for me and hopefully for you,
“In the end Easter is not something to talk about, it is something to do, it is an attitude towards life and other people, it is a lifestyle. Whether what we say and sing fully represents our rational comprehension of what Easter is about, is relatively unimportant. What is important is that we are Easter people, that is, people of transformation and renewal, people of hope, people of trust, people who not only believe but know deep down within their experience that love comes again and that love makes all the difference.”
This I believe is the good news brought by Jesus to the world, for as Nev says, if the good news is not for everyone, it is not good news.
And I think, a great reason to celebrate Easter.
I want to show you what I mean by playing a video. I attended a disaster chaplaincy course a couple of weeks ago and the video was showed there. It says everything that I have been saying today, in real life, about hope that emerges out of darkness. The video is about the black Saturday fires in Victoria 10 years ago.
I love Headspace. It’s a program and app by Andy Puddicombe, where he introduces you to meditation and mindfulness with a series of 10 min sessions (can be longer), varying from ones on technique to others on how to become a more rounded and more aware person. I love his voice and I love the guided nature of the sessions, which focus on the breath as a form of awareness training and are based on his 12 years as a Buddhist monk.
It always give me a lift and helps me become aware of my activities during the day.
The practise of sitting in silence brings a peace to me, a resting of my inner thoughts and anxiety , a recognition that to be alive and breathing is a joy and a gift. It leads me to contemplate not only my life but the lives of others. In a different way. How I can live with openness and love for one another and ourselves?
But it is not Christian meditation, which I also do once a week on a Tuesday, with a few others.
We base this type of meditation on the writings of John Main and Lawrence Freeman, who formed the World Community of Christian Meditation a number of years ago.
What do I think I am doing in Christian meditation that I am not doing using my Headspace app?
When I sit in silence in Christian meditation, I drop my own ego, my own needs and wants, and busyness, and listen. Not with ears but with heart, to the energy of the universe that enriches and drives us forward, to be better than we can be, more loving, caring and compassionate.
In the silence I believe I am becoming attentive to God, or as Rupert Sheldrake says, the consciousness of God. Not a God who speaks clear words from some faraway place, but the ground of being, the Spirit of life, that speaks to us about what is life giving. In those times we may sense an inner feeling of peace and belonging. And purpose. Or in the words of Paul Tillich, what is our ultimate concern, not only for me but for all people everywhere. When I listen I become more fully alive and connected.
Does it work? I sound like I might do it pretty successfully, but that is far from the truth, often I am distracted or fall asleep!
It takes practise and not everyone is interested in following it. Others may find going for a walk or sitting by the seaside gives them a similar sense of the sacred. But it seems to help me.
But back to the question, Christian meditation or mindfulness. I think Christian meditation is more than mindfulness, or an awareness of life. It is an awareness that there is something more to this life, that can be felt, or sensed or discovered in the silence. Its opening ourselves to the spirit of God that can lead us in a new direction. It is adding an extra dimension to all the benefits gained from mindfulness activities. A deep and divine dimension
Where does that leave the beautiful Andy and the headspace app?
Well, where it was.
I still love my Headspace App and Andy, with his beautiful voice and encouragement to be in the moment and will continue to practise this as well.
I think a bit of meditation and a bit silence is good, whatever its form. I suspect God is not all that fussy!
Someone asked me to post this sermon I gave this morning as a blog. So here it is…
The reading was from the Gospel of Luke.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
What would I like to hear in a sermon? Particularly today.
Well after the last few weeks, the things that have happened around the world, the tragedy of New Zealand, but also the floods in Papua, the shooting in the Netherlands and the ongoing suffering in places we now don’t hear about, in Syria, in Iraq, in the Congo, I would want to hear something positive and meaningful about faith and our role in the wider world. That’s what I would like to hear.
So this sermon is as much for me as for you all.
But to do that I think firstly we have to understand where we are in the 21stcentury.
What is it to be human today, for we have different versions of it. One version can kill others praying in a mosque, and plant bombs on planes and cars and buildings because of an ideology that insists you are either for or against them. A version that can destroy the nature world, deny freedom to people, and abuse an economic system for wealth and power. That leaves others in poverty for their own comfort.
Yet we also have a version of being human that displays caring and love amidst tragedy, that works for justice and peace, daily thinks of the other, and when needed responds with compassion to those suffering. A version that supports the weakest, the poor and the marginalised.
We see it every day, we have seen it this week, this contrast between the evil and the good in the world, yet both are driven by people, sometimes the same people. People with a history, with ideas and beliefs, and with relationships that can be either positive or negative. Sometimes it is driven by faith, depending on how the faith is interpreted. God can be the saviour or the destroyer.
How are we to find a way forward.
Let’s find our starting point. I believe wholeheartedly in a God who doesn’t come to judge, who doesn’t send vengeance because we have sinned or are bad people. Who does not sit outside of humanity, flaying those who have not done the right thing, whatever that is. Rather I believe in a God who is with us, shares our burdens and fills our souls with hope and light. A God who is life giving rather than life destroying. Who even in our darkest hour is ever present.
We live in the 21stcentury and bad things happen to good, peaceful and loving people. And to neglectful, crazy, mean and sometimes awful people as well.
And today this is what the scriptures says, what Jesus says.
It is poignant that in the reading from Luke Jesus is told some distressing news from Jerusalem. Soldiers are believed to have killed some Galileans within the temple area while they were in the very act of offering sacrifices. The horror of the scene is captured in the words, Pilate mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. Seems too close to home, doesn’t it?
What about the next incident, an accident at Siloam, a pool or water reservoir near the walls of Jerusalem. The tower probably overlooked the pool. Pilate ordered the construction of an aqueduct to upgrade the water supply, but people have died building it.
Two events, one murderous, one an accident, both shocking. But neither is God’s doing! Jesus asks, do you think they were any more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem, I tell you no! What about Pilates actions, they are not Gods!!! He is not acting under God’s authority.
Even in the Old Testament, while Proverbs contains the idea that the righteous are rewarded and the sinners punished, we have the book of Job, to counteract this. Job, a fine upstanding Jew still ends up on the ash heap. Because life can be hard and suffering plentiful regardless of what we do or not do.
We know this, but often people, in terrible situations revert back to the idea that they must have done something wrong, that God was punishing them for their wrongdoing, even though it is not clear what it is!
And I have plenty of chaplaincy moments that reflect this. People who believed they were not worthy of God, had made too much money, or somehow had let him down and that was why this terrible thing has happened to them or their loved one.
An awful idea to place on the loving, ever present spirit of life, who even in our darkest hour is ever present. Jesus completely rejects this interpretation here as he does elsewhere in the gospels.
But neither does that let us off the hook completely!
Because there is more to today’s reading than this.
Sometimes we are required to take responsibility for things that happen. Sometimes we are required to open our eyes, turn around and change our ways, least we make things worse. Sometimes we need to repent or at least think again about what we are doing.
For in the reading we also hear about a fig tree, the parable of a fig tree. Remember Jesus always used earthy images for his parables, because he was a human being. Living in a time of great suffering.
Jesus presents us an image of a fig tree, one that is not doing so well. But the gardener is persistent, let it keep growing he says, even after 3 years, lets tend it, let’s work on it. To see if it will bear fruit. Jesus calls the people listening to him to repent using the image of the fig tree as a guide. We can all turn things around if we try.
So it’s not that Jesus thinks that we are above having to repent, for the image we hear in Luke is used in Matthew after the temple moneychangers have been expelled by Jesus. In Matthew the fig tree, shrivels the next day. In Luke we are given more time to get our act together. But it is not that we are judged by an external deity, ready to reap vengeance. Rather, in Jesus eyes, we are judged by those around us, we are judged by what happens to the least of these, we are judged by the lack of care we take for human and non-human alike. And our judgement will be seen in the way our societies work and our world suffers.
In other words, what we do does matter.
So what should we do? Remember this is a sermon as much for me as for you.
I think we have to tend our garden of love, and compassion and inclusion, nurture and fertilize it. Find out what gives life to us and to others and follow it.
A sermon by Martin Luther King in this book of sermons I have (A Gift of Love), describes the complete life as having length and breadth and height. Let me summarise a bit of it. For it gives a great guide.
The length of life is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. With developing our own goals and ambitions. King suggests there is a thing as “rational and healthy self-interest”. He goes on to say that “before you can love others adequately, love your own self properly”. A lot of people do not love themselves. Or accept themselves. Often, we wear masks to hide our true selves from others, going through deep and haunting emotional conflicts.
By not accepting ourselves, not being our true selves, it becomes harder to connect with others because we don’t know who is doing the connecting. To love well one must also be open and vulnerable and willing to share. If we are always looking to cover our faults, hide our hurts or are not honest in our feelings and ideas the connection will be tenuous. Yet the message from the gospels is clear. God calls us to love others as God loves us, for God is always present, never absent. We are all worthy of God’s presence which doesn’t disappear when things get tough. When we accept ourselves, we become free to give and receive love.
So as Martin Luther King says, “the principle of self-acceptance is a basic principle of life”.
But he goes on to say that “after the acceptance comes the discovery of what we are called to do with our lives. And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all the strength and all the power that we have in our systems. This does not mean we are all going to be great scientists, doctors, writers or artists. Most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories and in the streets. But we must see the dignity of all labour.”
This is the length of life.
And many people just do that, they develop their “inner powers and do their job well”.
But in the end, there is something missing.
There is also a breadth to life. As King says, “The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. A person has not begun to live until they can rise above the narrow confines of their own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity”. Who will ask, “what will happen to humanity if I don’t help”. What will happen to refugees if I don’t participate in raising concerns. What will happen to the Muslim community if I don’t embrace our brothers and sisters of other faith and nationalities. What will happen to my city and country if I don’t raise my voice in protest against policies and decisions that are inhumane and lack compassion. “What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them.”
This is how Jesus expects us to act as his followers. How we are to respond to the urging of the divine spirit within. The questions, as King points out, are not about “how many friends we have, or how many PhDs we have or how many houses we own, but what did we do for others”. And when we do that our hearts and lives know that we are being fully human.
This is the breadth of life for King. “Somewhere along the way we must learn that there is nothing greater than to do something for others. Because we have what we have because of others”, it is a relationship at the core of life. We are co-dependent on each other for life. Jesus saw this, that relationships are the beginning, the middle and the end, and that love shared is the main game plan for living both as individuals and as a society.
But let’s not stop there. “A lot of people master the length of life, and the breadth of life but they stop there”. For Martin Luther King and me and all of you here, we must also embrace the God of the universe, this third dimension of life. The height of life.
Lots of people neglect this aspect, or only bring it out when it is to be blamed of the disasters that befall us, or worst used to justify terrible acts of terror and violence.
As King suggests, “some people say they follow a God with their lips and with their doctrines and creeds but deny the existence of God with their lives. Instead they concentrate on getting a bigger car, house or into a better neighbourhood”. They forget to look at the great cosmic light, the beauty of nature , and the inner peace brought by the spirit’s presence and pretend they are alone in this world.
But the spirit of God remains, every present in us and in all of creation.
In the incredible world and life we have all around us. For King, “God is the great I am”. Life giving and affirming. As he says, “if you believe in him and worship him, something will happen in your life. You will smile when others around you are crying. This is the power of God.”
And with this power and the words of Jesus to fight on and never give up King asks us to reach out and find the height of life.
Let me conclude by reading the final section of King’s sermon…
“Go out this morning. Love yourself, and that means rational and healthy self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That’s the length of life. Then follow that: Love your neighbour as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That’s the breadth of life. And I’m going to take my seat now by letting you know that there’s a first and even greater commandment: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, (Yeah) with all thy soul, with all thy strength.” I think the psychologist would just say with all thy personality. And when you do that, you’ve got the height of life.
And when you get all three of these together, you can walk and never get weary. You can look up and see the morning stars singing together, and the sons of God shouting for joy. When you get all of these working together in your very life, judgement will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
When you get all the three of these together, the lamb will lie down with the lion.
When you get all three of these together, you look up and every valley will be exalted, and every hill and mountain will be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh will see it together.”
This was Martin Luther King’s faith and it made him climb mountains.
Let it make us climb mountains. Even if occasionally we have to reflect on what we are doing, and make some adjustments along the way. For we are to change the world with God’s love, not vengeance.
“A Gift of Love – Sermons from Strength to Love and other Preachings”, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beacon Press, 2012