This morning we had a joint service with our Church of Christ neighbours. When it’s at our church I usually lead the service and the minister from the Church of Christ preaches. Normally thats okay, but today I had a real urge to preach!!! Funny I know. While I didn’t, and the minister did a fine job, the reading was one of those that smacks the listener between the eyes, even in the 21st century. Because it was about money and how we become so entranced by it we don’t see those without it, suffering. So I am going to put a sermon I wrote a few years ago on the blog, because we in the west, with our comfortable lives, will always find it a challenge to really see the other in our midst. I did use the poem referenced in the sermon, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost as an opening to the service.
Luke 16:19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus
A few weeks ago Matt and I went down to Dunsborough for an extended family weekend away. My cousin Robyn had acquired a beautiful house down there and wanted to catch up with the rest of the family. You can imagine how enjoyable it was, walking down to the shops, relaxing in a very comfortable setting, watching the footy on a mega huge television. It was luxury. So much so that when I went out walking with my brother and sister one morning I suggested, half as a joke, that if I was to return to this earth I wanted to come back as a rich person. As soon as I said it, I realised that I knew I didn’t believe it, but it just shows that we can all be blinded by the delights of possessions and money. My very sensible and socialist brother put me in my place, by reminding me that I was rich in so many other ways. But it is hard to resist the subliminal messages we all get every day. Messages that encourage and cajole us into believing that life would be better and more fulfilling if only we had a bigger house, a more expensive car, a bigger television or better more exotic holidays. Better for whom, that is the question.
We have been seduced by the idea that greed is good. Good for us and good for others. That somehow it will trickle down and help all those in society without us having to do anything. As Walter Wink, in an article for Sojournersmagazine, suggests we have been systematically trained in greed from birth. Consumerism is our middle name. Just look what we get put into our letter boxes every day: piles of magazines wanting us to buy more things. He suggests our economic system is greedy on our behalf, a giant machine of production. We have made economic growth the primary social god passing off the problem of poverty as an outstanding debt to be paid off by further economic growth. Even though by now we should have learned the increased productivity does not in fact resolve inequalities of the distribution of wealth. We in fact know that money ends up the hands of a few, who will then do anything to keep it.
We may think money is neutral, a commodity without any meaning other than being used in transactions. How wrong can we be. As individuals and as a society money rules all. Our economic and political system allows money to play favourites. The more money you have the more powerful you are. I discovered this the other day listening to an account of the Koch brothers in America, who are part of the right wing Tea Party by a social researcher called Lee Fang. I had not heard of the Tea Party until a week ago, and now suddenly everywhere I look there are articles on them.
Fang reported that the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are the wealthiest and perhaps most effective, opponents of President Obama’s progressive agenda. They have been looming in the background of every major domestic policy dispute this year in the states. Ranked as the ninth richest men in America, the Koch brothers sit at the helm of Koch industries, a massive privately owned conglomerate of manufacturing, oil, gas and timber interests. They are best known for their wealth as well as for their generous contributions to the arts, cancer research and the Smithsonian institute. But David and Charles are also responsible for a vicious attack campaign aimed directly at obstructing and killing progressive reform. Over the years millions of dollars of Koch money has flowed to various right wing think tanks, front groups and publications. They formed a group called Americans for Prosperity in 1984 which in turn helped form the Tea Party protests, based on the Boston Tea Party and driven by extreme right wing groups. They have bankrolled campaigns against health care reform, pollution controls and for climate change denial to name a few.
Money is not neutral, it provides luxury, security and power and the people who have it have the greatest power to manipulate those in society to keep it. The trickle down effect is a myth; the more we have the less others have and the more we have the more we want. It makes us, our society and our world divided, fearful and less compassionate and as we have seen politicians play on it all.
But all this talk raises a very salient point, one that is central to the expression of our faith in the world. Money has become another god and economics a type of religion. So how we respond to it shows whose side we are on. For if we are really on the side of Jesus then we all have changes to make.
For Jesus wasted no time in the New Testament declaring himself on the side of the poor. There are numerous places where it is very clear, what is at stake. Siding with the poor was the mark of being one of his disciples in a time when the Roman Empire ruled and when the poor suffered at the hands of landowners, bankers, creditors and even priests.
As Walter Wink says, Jesus identified the world’s great idol as mammon, by which he meant money or property in general. He saw it as a power no longer under human control and no longer in the service of human needs. The chief manifestation of the God mammon is accumulated wealth.
Today we heard one of the many parables he used to make it very plain what he thought about it and what he believed God required of us. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is like all the parables, on the one hand an exaggerated story and on the other quite subtle. Many scholars believe it originated as a folk story which Jesus himself adapted, although most would say verses 27-31 are additions by Luke. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day, as most of us do, while poor Lazarus was lucky to beat the dogs to the garbage. When Lazarus dies we discover him safe in the bosom of Abraham at a banquet table, while the rich man cries out in torment from hell. But there is more to the story. As David Buttrick, in his book on Parables points out, the rich man has no name, while Lazarus’s name means ‘God has helped’. Interestingly by the time of Jesus beggars were seen as sinners being punished for their sins. Lazarus lies outside the wall, but just near the gate to the rich man’s estate. He is too weak to beg but lies hoping for table scraps from the rich man. The contrast between the two is carefully drawn. Then the tables are reversed. Lazarus who hoped for scraps now feasts in the afterlife. The rich man dies, is buried, and ends up in Hades. Once he partied every day, now he cries out for a drop of water. Still the rich man is arrogant and refuses to address Lazarus directly. He sees Lazarus as a low class slave and asks Abraham to order Lazarus to moisten his lips.
This parable hits us between the eyes. Poor and rich are extremes and Luke uses it in a not too subtle attack on the rich. But money is not neutral. It has social meaning and to have an abundance while others are starving is, as Buttrick suggests, impossible to condone. So perhaps this is the message we need to hear.
Brandon Scott has used the poem I read earlier from Robert Frost, The Mending Wall when looking at this parable. The rich man could have walked through his gate and served the poor man but he chose not to and even in the afterlife he doesn’t acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being. As a result the wall that separated the two in life becomes a chasm.
We build fences to protect ourselves from hearing the cry of the poor, watching them from the comfort of our lounge rooms or dream that if we spend more then the benefits will trickle down to those less fortunate. But as we have heard walls become permanent chasms unable to be breached. Human carelessness hardens. A great statement comes from David Buttrick about what happens. Yet in the parable all the rich man had to do is to go out and connect to the poor, and seek a common destiny. All he had to do was recognise what lay before him. That he didn’t, condemned him forever. We are the rich man and the poor are at our gates now, and our common destiny and survival is in our hands.
So what do we do to go through the opening? Well, it is not enough for us to continue with a lifestyle of the west, justifying our position by being generous, although that helps. As Wink suggests, we cannot just treat people well, raise our families, live in nice homes and work hard, and give money away when we are part of the institutionalised greed that leads to injustice. For as we accumulate more and more, we build a wall back up between those of us that have and those that are the have nots. A wall once built, as we have heard is hard to tear it down. We have to change our lifestyle, to see that what we desire affects others just as much as what we do. Not easy but essential. In recognising this dilemma Walter Wink acknowledges that, ‘Our personal transformation will not change the system, but it is the indispensable prerequisite to systemic change. We can alter our own patterns of consumption, less fuel, less junk food, less litter, less detergent, less beef; more recycling, more conservation, longer use of clothes and products, rejection of style fads and the mania for newness. Our very values can change: we can slough off the spell of bigness, the love of luxury, the bogus security of owning things.’ The myth that consumerism will solve everything. And in the process help the environment.
But there is more. We can also find ways to hold politicians and global companies responsible to the general public, and defeat those who are working against the public interest. The power of the internet to find out this information and then engage with groups who are questioning the activities of some of these corporations is with us all. I know because it took me about 30 minutes to find out about the Koch brothers and about groups exposing their methods to the public and coordinating opposition to them.
Finally, it is time to overhaul our national theology of wealth which Wink identifies, and the heresy that we are rich because we are righteous and righteous because we are rich. We are rich because the system perpetuates it, the rich get richer and the poor poorer unless we do something about it. The church is called to waken those within it to the wall that is building between the have and the have nots and tear it down.
As Wink concludes no one really knows how to construct a perfect economic system in the West which greedy people will not subvert to their own gain. But we, as people of faith, are free to risk moving toward a way that is more equitable and just, knowing we are grounded in a God whose love is for all people. It is this love we find in Jesus and whose way we follow. So while we can be countercultural with our money and how we use it, it is with our lifestyle we can truly reflect the call of Jesus and the need of our fellow brothers and sister. Changing the system starts with us. Scary but true.
As a footnote, it is interesting the one of the Koch brothers, David, died recently, and so was in the news. No matter how much money we have, we all die in the end! It’s how we live the matters!
We had a Naming ceremony for Thea, a beautiful granddaughter of a couple from our congregation. This is the sermon I preached after the ceremony.
“What’s in a Name?”
As most of you know I spend some of my time teaching first year university students anatomy and human biology. I have 4 classes and 18 students in each class, so there are a lot of names to remember. And I am not very good at remembering names! I try hard, and have a few strategies, but usually it takes the whole semester to get most of them. It’s not that I don’t know the students belong to me and while I usually explain at the beginning of term that age wearies the memory a bit, I know that is not really enough.
Knowing someone’s name and being able to use it when talking to them is actually very important. When I call a student by name I can see it makes a difference. It tells them they are of worth, of value, that they have something to contribute and I respect them as an individual who is neither better nor worse than me. For people who are struggling with the course, the material, and if they are good enough to be there, it helps reassure them that they belong, they are included.
But a name is more than that. It gives us an identity. We are Karen or Jane or Tom or Melissa. We are a person in our own right, with a history, with passions and ideas and with commitments. We had a naming service today for Thea, to mark her as a person who will become an independent adult in the future, loved and cared for. But a person in her own right.
Christianity has had its share of dead ends, even today, but a constant from Jesus and from the original letters of Paul is that it is an inclusive religion. Everyone is of value, everyone is to be included in the great banquet of life, everyone is of worth. Everyone is a vessel holding the divine spark, the divine light and love, even my young, slightly crazy students. When we love others like ourselves we give a nod to that reality. When we fight for others rights and the just sharing of resources we give a nod to that reality. When we share our money and our time with others we give a nod to that reality.
Two of the readings we heard today, reflect this inclusive message. The first, from Psalm 139:7-12 is my favourite, a spoken reality from before Jesus was even thought of. The psalmist is expressing their deep understanding that there is nowhere we can go from God because God is a reality within us, always.
Where can I hide from thee, if I go to the ends of the earth you are there, if I sink into the biggest abyss you are there, closer than by own breath. God is found deep within each of us, a spark of life that is not restricted to those with the most wealth possessions, power or intellect. We are all God’s children and this God never leaves, goes on holiday or somehow decides we really aren’t worthy enough. Early Christians knew this and tried to act in the world in which they lived as though it was true.
But what if we lived at a time when we were a non-person. In Jesus time, there were many non-people, women and slaves in particular, who were seen as chattels to be bought and sold rather than a real people. In our past indigenous people were until the 1960s counted with the flora and fauna, with no voice and often no name. A terrible blight on Australia’s history.
The second reading we had today was from Paul’s letter to Philemon(1:1-20). I also love this short letter, an authentic Pauline letter, because it says so much about how we are to live today. Most of you might remember that Paul is in jail for upsetting the authorities, but sends a letter to his friend Philemon, a Christian convert about Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has escaped and run to Paul for protection. Paul is writing to Philemon asking him to let Onesimus go free, become a free man, and welcome him as a brother, for in the faith in which Paul stands, there is no difference been slave and free, between male and female, between Jew or Gentile because all are one in Christ Jesus. All are one in God’s spirit.
Paul is asking Philemon to do something very radical. In ancient times, it was okay to have slaves, and rarely were they acknowledged as anything but a useful commodity. They had no voice other than their master’s voice. Paul is asking Philemon to go against the norms and culture of the day, and risk a lot for his faith!
This story is a homecoming similar to the prodigal son. As Paul saw it, Philemon had a legal right to slaves but not a moral or spiritual one. Onesimus is not just a slave but a young man, with a name and identity. He is worthy for who he is as a child of God, rather than someone’s workhorse. As a follower of Jesus, the inclusive Jesus, Paul is asking Philemon to relinquish his power over someone rather than continue to dominate and exploit them. To free Onesimus from subordination, to free him of the burden of debt, to free him from the burden of shame, to pardon him and welcome him with open arms as an equal, as a beloved brother was a pretty big move in the 1stcentury.
Yet it appears that Philemon in fact did just that. We presume, for the letter was preserved, that Onesimus was freed and welcomed as though he was Paul! And the whole community celebrated a renewed relationship of mutual love. What a homecoming!
It paints a picture, today. of how radical this call is for us. To think of this inclusive love, this inclusive society when we are the dominant culture of the first world and hold all the power is very challenging. How do we give voices and free those who we have enslaved to sustain our lifestyles. How might we free them, both here and elsewhere?
Again I say pretty radical stuff.
But I don’t want to finish here. I want to go back to the source for Paul, which was Jesus. The radical message of Jesus, has led to the radical message of Paul. Jesus came and shook up those who had forgotten that his call, God’s call was an inclusive call, an inclusive reality, particularly those from the Jewish tradition that he was immersed in. They, instead, were imposing rules and laws about who was in and who was out of Gods kingdom. Much like we do today.
Cherry will read a passage from Luke’s gospel (4:14-30) which demonstrates this. Although the whole of the New Testament is littered with Jesus’s radical message.
Jesus Rejected at Nazareth
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read,17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[a]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,”he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[b]in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
In this reading Jesus is preaching in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth, announcing to his community and to his family who he is. He stands up in the synagogue, reads from the scriptures, and suggests he is going to bring in a different way of being by what he says. Jesus was his name and he has come to change the world.
He does it as a young man who had grown up in this town, and the people thought that they knew him. Oh yes, he’s the son of Joseph and Mary, the carpenters son. Little did they realise what was coming! He is announcing something totally unexpected to those who thought they knew him.
Initially the listeners were well pleased as he had taken a reading from Isaiah. But as he continued, by using two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, ones they would have known, he infuriates them. The point of the two extra stories is that both the widow mentioned and Naaman the Syrian were NOT Jews. Not part of the “chosen people” who the prophets, Eliza and Elisha go and help. What!, they are outsiders, the listeners would have cried. Jesus was suggesting, very strongly, that God chooses to touch and bless those on the outside of the Jewish tradition as well as those inside. And the task of those who are called to serve God, is to follow God, and to go to those outside the boundaries, outside the fold.
Jesus is widening Gods spirit, Gods love to include everyone, not just Jews and is calling his community to stop being so exclusive. And they were not happy. He barely got out alive!
Jesus was a baby then a boy, with a tradition and parents who loved him. But there came a time for him to forge his own way, to reveal the passions and commitment and path he would follow. This is a turning point. Jesus was choosing his own way, a spirit driven way that included love and justice for all. An inclusive message picked up and lived by Paul and many who have followed Jesus. And suddenly he wasn’t welcome!
So we can hear in this small story how it takes commitment to see the world in this way. Its challenging, and a bit scary.
But as Thea starts her journey or for all of us whose journey has been going for some time, the message is the same. It’s about choosing life, for everyone. It is about loving and being loved, fully and completely. It’s about the message that all people including ourselves are of worth, God’s divine spark. It is about making a commitment to this way of seeing the world, and not being swayed by those who seek to divide us, to belittle us, who tell us we need more possessions, power or money to be loved, or that others have to suffer in order for us to be happy.
We have heard it today in each of our reading, from different times. Now we face our time.
I pray that each one of us sees in the Jesus message the message of inclusion and love and justice, and we head out to make a difference in the world. Whether we are 6 months or 86!
For this is the way to fullness of life.
This is a small post about something I rather not talk about, but maybe we all should!
The other day I was invited to join a group who meets after church, to discuss Progressive Christianity (this will be tackled in a future blog). The meeting went for about an hour, and there was about 15 people who attended. We were all sitting in a circle, and after initially introducing ourselves, I went on to share my journey from a person who was very critical of anything Christian to someone who combines being a scientist/researcher and a part time Pastor in the Uniting Church.
But this blog is not about any of that. There was someone who was videoing the discussion, and recently I had a look at the recordings. What! I’m not thin and beautiful! But that’s how I thought I looked.
It was a deep shock to examine the footage and see this slightly overweight, middle aged women, with a squeaky voice and hair all over the place in the seat that I should have been in. I have never been one to like photos of myself or even listen to myself after I have presented a paper or sermon, so the video was a reality check!
Clearly I would much rather have my made up vision of myself instead of what I saw on the screen.
Maybe that’s a problem for many of us. I want to be something that I’m not, and will probably never be (perhaps when I was 10 yrs old!). Accepting ourselves, with all our faults and imperfections is part of being human. When we deny who we really are, and pretend to be something else, we can get ourselves tied up in knots. We are swayed by everything the comes along, in the hope we will match up to this perfect person we have in our mind. And then we are disappointed over and over again, when it is not really us. Or worse still, we become self loathing of the wonder and marvel we are, because whatever characteristics we have are not the right ones.
Loving ourselves is as much the faith journey as loving others. For we cannot love others until we embrace the absolute marvel we all are! The universal spirit is just that, universally in all of creation including every one of us. I believe we are all windows to the divine.
There is nothing I can do about my voice (thanks mum) and I probably could lose a few pounds, but that look is my look! I am who I am, and you are who you are, and embracing ourselves is the start of a wholeness that brings healing and joy.
I was asked by a friend to publish this sermon/letter but the best I can do is to put it here. Just to let you know, I don’t have a brother called George or John and the letter is creative fiction, but with some truth to it! I have put the gospel reading in at the end so you know the context. K
To my dear George,
I hope this letter finds you well, and also your family. I am writing because I feel really upset and need to share my worries with you.
I caught up the other day with our beautiful older brother John, and it was not a great meeting. I know we love each other dearly, but that day, we were more like enemies, shouting and screaming at one another.
You may wonder why and over what, and I can tell you it was over important stuff. We were talking about the refugees that have come to live in our neighbourhood, after being in detention for over 6 years. I certainly feel so terrible that they have been locked up for so long, and urged John to join my little group providing welfare and support, and this is both food and money. We just try to be a friendly face as they settle in to such a strange place.
You would have thought that I had asked John to poke needles in his eye the way he responded. He kept going on about how they will take our jobs, how they will suck the economy dry and how they are probably terrorists anyway. Really, mostly they are women and children, families and young men who just want to start a new life.
It was really horrible, because I didn’t want him to think that I agreed with him. Rather I pointed out that they are people just like us, except they have been through terrible things, things that we could never imagine, and deserve to be supported and included. I also pointed out that we are so lucky, being white and middle class in a democratic country, surely we could be generous with our good fortune.
Anyway, John refused to budge, and so did I, and in the end we went our separate ways without really dealing with the issue.
I know we are supposed to be family but sometimes, he drives me crazy!!!
It made me think a little bit about what is peace actually is, and harmony, and what is real peace. I could have kept quiet and not rocked the boat, but, that didn’t seem quite right.
I have been listening to a podcast on the guy called Jesus who lived in the 1stcentury, Judea, or the Middle East if you like. I’ve never heard him described in this way before, but he seems to have some really radical views, which are pretty attractive. Like his ideas on peace. He seemed to think peace is not just where I keep what I have and you keep what you have, and the situation stays the same even if I have more than you. No, he seems to suggest that for real peace to occur we also need to have justice, and compassion and to share our wealth. That everyone belongs to God, and no one is excluded. Sort of what I was trying to point out to John.
It seems many see Jesus as a sort of prophet, but more than a prophet. Since his message still resonates with people today. You, more than anyone, know that I believe there is something hidden in all of us and all of life, a God thing, but it’s something I have trouble naming, or responding to. Well apparently people see in this guy the heart of God and by following his way, somehow feel connected to God. Rather than waiting for heaven, he says things need to happen here and now.
And the funny thing is, the things we are facing today, climate change and the environmental crisis, wars and violence, leaders who use their power by excluding those who are the poorest, and people like us who don’t want to share, are the things that he and his people were also facing back then.
Same shit, don’t mind my language.
I was listening to one part of the podcast which focuses on a passage in the bible. In it Jesus basically tells people to get over themselves and I felt he could have been talking to us. That comfort and pleasure is not the way to go, because it means others are left out, excluded while we sit pretty. He also says that we choose to close our eyes to this disparity, like we notice the cloud rising and the wind blowing, but not the suffering of others. I loved this passage, even if its uncomfortable to hear. The picture he’s painting seems pretty clear. I feel like he’s saying were all idiots if we don’t get it. Maybe we don’t!
I wonder if John would be more open if he didn’t go to that really, really, crazy church, which while talking about peace and justice, condemns people who don’t believe in their way. What is that all about anyway? Somehow that doesn’t seem to be the message that I was getting.
Anyway, the podcast continued, suggesting that we will come into conflict with those we love if we follow the Jesus path to peace. For his peace involves a thing called Shalom, a wholeness, not just for and between some but for all and between all. I think it’s much more than an absence of war or a unity without substance. He seems to have been one of the true prophets, as I mentioned before, who believed you cannot have peace without compassion, kindness and justice. And maybe this requires challenging the status quo.
I suppose, if I think about it, it’s inevitable that this path is going to cause division. Just look at me and John. it’s going to cause division if we stand with the people our society deems unworthy, the marginalised, and this would definitely include the refugees, and the aboriginal family that lives down the road. To stand with the poor and the oppressed and stand against injustice, racism, sexism and classism is definitely challenging the status quo. Or even to suggest that everyone has the God factor in them, is a beacon of God, rather than just some.
The good thing is, and I wish I had all this when I spoke to John, that Jesus didn’t actually just say it, he did it. He apparently ate with the most marginalised, he spoke with women, some of his disciples were women, he chastised those who worried about rules rather than people, who worried about who was in or out, and he responded to violence with love and forgave those who wronged him. Jesus lived the shalom idea, bringing together opposites to make a whole, both within ourselves and in the world. And he showed us how to do it.
He was some sort of guy. Not the airy fairy Jesus I had heard of before, but a real person. And I like that he wasn’t a marshmallow. He was tough, and stuck to his ideals, his God calling, until the end. Maybe if this Jesus gets a bit more air time, things might change. As he said in the reading I told you about, “whoever is near me is near fire, whoever is distant from me is distant from the kingdom.”
In the meantime, I will sign off and go and hunt down John for a coffee. Perhaps we can talk quietly about our differences and work together to create our own shalom. Our own peace. We can at least try.
Thanks for listening.
Your loving sister
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
It is well known my love of Mary Oliver. She has written of life, and faith and what it is to be human in a way that deeply affects all who read her words.
But now I have found another poet who does the same thing. I was introduced to him at the recent Common Dreams Progressive Christian Conference, held in Sydney in July. His name is Joel McKerrow, and we were privileged to her him perform a couple of his poems. They were amazing, so much so that I have used a couple already.
The poems are available in book form, or if you want to hear him then also on DVD, and CD.
Here are 2 of my most recent favourites –
Something That We Might Call God
There is a restlessness,
A disquiet on the inside.
There is a fire. Or at least a flame.
The chase for God or something that we might call God.
There is a hoping. A knowing
and still it holds you.
Rekindle her: I beg of you.
Choose presence. Listen to the silent stories,
the ones hidden between
the lines you let them read.
This is not a problem to solve.
This is not a life that you have to have together.
it may be the best thing you could do right now.
A peace in a sea of confusion and calling.
And don’t they say that grace
makes beauty from the ugly.
So begin with the beauty and the beautiful.
Stare at it like you stare at the flame.
The day will come when you shall find yourself
once more burning.
Look deep into the world
and the world shall look deep into you
and somewhere in the stare between,
this is where she waits, God.
Or something that we might call God.
And so we chase the light,
find the light,
swim the light,
taste the light,
love the light,
become the light,
even in the dark,
When the sun is cast upon a heavy moon.
There are many others, and I will post a few in the next few months. But this is a taster.
Sometimes, words fail, metaphors fail, and we wonder whether we are deluded in believing in something more. A something more that connects us to the universe and to one another. A something more that lies deep within our hearts.
And then a poet comes along!
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.