Thursday, 20 October 2016

On being human before God.

Luke 18:9-14

The story that Jesus tells about the prayer of the Pharisee and the prayer of the tax collector has an ironic pitfall within it.  The moment we say, “Of course, we are not like the Pharisee” we become the Pharisee.  It is almost unavoidable for us to do this and the complexity and irony of this situation leads us into confessing that as much as we might want to keep our faith simple, life and the relationships we have are incredibly complex.

The story that Jesus tells about the prayer of the Pharisee and the prayer of the tax collector has another ironic pitfall within it.  The moment we say, “Of course, we are like the tax collector” we enter into the possibility of devaluing ourselves so deeply it becomes self-destructive. Likewise, it is almost unavoidable for us to do this and the complexity and irony of this situation leads us into confessing that as much as we might want to keep our faith simple, life and the relationships we have are incredibly complex.

What this conundrum raises for us is an important issue as Christians as to how we understand what it means to be a created person.  Or to put it in the technical theological language there is a doctrinal question here of how we develop a theological anthropology – what does it mean to be a human being before God?

Traditionally, I would have said that the posture of the tax collector is the prime posture for the Christian – seeking God’s mercy.  Human beings are flawed.  And, this certainly appears to be Jesus’ emphasis in the story.  However, as I have already indicated there can be a danger in viewing ourselves as being like the tax collector.  The danger is this: we became so guilt ridden and so self-deprecating we can lose a sense of even the God given value in our selves.  This has been a criticism laid at the feet of Christianity, that we encourage a negative, depressing view of human beings.

Considering our Uniting Church heritage includes the teachings of Reformed theology this is very much an issue for us.  The Reformed theology that we have received speaks of the utter depravity of our human condition.  John Calvin says in his Institutes, “he [or she] who scrutinizes and examines himself [or herself] according to the standard of divine judgement finds nothing to lift his [or her] heart in confidence.” Calvin goes on to say, “the more deeply he [or she] examines himself [or herself] the more dejected he [or she] becomes, until, utterly deprived of all such assurance, he [or she] leaves nothing to himself [or herself] with which to direct his [or her] life aright.”

It was from such theological reflections on humanity as this that Calvin’s followers developed the notion of total depravity.  In a sense, here is the caricature of the tax collector par excellence.  The human person who sees no worth or value at all in himself or herself.

It could be argued that here is the echo of the first chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans which climax with the saying, found in chapter 2, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” And, even more pointedly in chapter 3, “What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:

‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.’

Such is the complexity of our brokenness as human beings that none of us are immune, and even if an individual might be tempted to say I am a good person, we are confronted by a sense of a communal connectedness in life that embeds us in sin.

The hopeful words of the prophet Joel indicate a time when the people will live without shame.  In an honour and shame culture the actions of one person tarred the whole group.  Shame and honour is a communal project.  Imagine those days sitting in a school classroom when the teacher got angry at the whole class over the behaviour of a few.  I can remember both as student and as a teacher embarking on such a communal act of shame and discipline over the behaviour of a few.  We are in this together.

Now shame is different to guilt in another way as well.  Apart from having the communal element, that I have already indicated, shame is defined as, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.”  In this I think shame is a more helpful concept than guilt. 

I admit this week as I heard the reports and arguments about the truth, or not, of the Four Corners’ story about children being held on Naaru I felt shame and sorrow that we as a country have treated people this way.  I also felt shame as I read reports coming out of the Royal Commission into youth detention in the Northern territory and I contemplated the history of our country when it comes to aboriginal people.  I also felt shame when I read that since 2003 the number children living in poverty in Australia has risen from 14%-17%.  This antipoverty week and across the globe it appears to me poverty is deepening and growing – the number of refugees and asylum seekers is a key factor here.

Within the limits of the knowledge that you or I have access to, acknowledging the bias we have developed, and the misinformation we might have been fed by media, government or industry we can still feel the shame of a situation that breaks our heart.  I may not feel the personal guilt, although this may be appropriate in some situations, but I can feel upset and have sense of that communal shame about the tragedy of peoples’ lives. I can even simply feel shame about my incapacity to know what is true and what is not, and how to respond with compassion.

Now the tax collector may have been clear in his mind about the sins he had committed.  He may in fact know he is a bad person.  Yet, in the big picture of sin the point I am making is this, as human beings we have limits in our access to our understanding and responding to issues that unfold around us.  As human beings despite our best efforts we still seem to find ourselves facing deep and divisive issues that are caused by our behaviours.  There is within the posture of the tax collector a humility which invites us to share in his confession – Lord have mercy on us. We need help.

The problem identified in the parable for both the Pharisee and also for us is that none of us like admitting that we might be wrong or need to ask for help.  We lack humility, and possibly even honesty, in this.  We think we are good people.  We live in a culture focussed on self-actualisation and making a name for ourselves.  It is a culture that over corrects that negativity of the Reformation with the positive view that we as human beings are essentially good people. 

It was interesting the other day when I was discussing these issues with another group of people the group began to defend themselves very quickly against any notion that they might participate in exacerbating the problems I have named, and in some cases began to say that people have problems because they are not Christians like us.  The irony was clear to me but I did not pursue it.  We do not like to think that we are sinners, even though we go through the motion of admitting it collectively each week at church.

The negative view of the human person has been a solid theme, especially within our tradition.  There is a strong biblical and experiential evidence for our fallibility.  Yet, this negative view of humanity should also be balanced by God’s love for us in the midst of our confusion – the Word became flesh, God shares in our created existence.  Our human relatedness is affirmed.  John Calvin went on to say in his Institutes, “Yet God would not have us forget our original nobility which he had bestowed on our father Adam, and which ought truly to arouse in us a zeal for righteousness and goodness.”

Despite our fallibility and tendency to make mistakes there is still something present within us of the good that God saw and named at the time of creation.  We are not all bad!  This was an issue that was highlighted in the years I spent on the national dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church.  The Catholics tended to emphasise that we are created in God’s image and do have a capacity to do food things.  I think ultimately the two views need to moderate each other, like two sides of the same coin.  We human beings are complex people.  

So, whilst asking in humility for mercy and help in the midst of our complex lives is appropriate, just as the tax collector did, it is also appropriate to give thanks to God for the goodness within us and for God’s love for us. Although, not in a way which judges or condemns others.  Even the simple saying, “there but for the grace of God go I”, has an unintentional tinge of the Pharisee about it.

Being a human being is a complex thing.  When Jesus tells the story about the two men praying he is opening up a whole realm of discussion about how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see God.  What does it mean to be a human before God and each other?  It would seem to me that humility and shame are more than appropriate before the complexity of life and the problems we face.  Yes, maybe even guilt, but the point is this our guilt and shame are shared and held in common and that God listens to our humble prayer.

We know this because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It always gives me hope when I hear Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “forgive them father for they know not what they are doing.”  It is a prayer that cuts through the individualism and invites us to express corporately the prayer of the tax collector, “God have mercy on me a sinner”.  “God have mercy on us and them as well”.  

As Christians we pray this prayer with humility believing and even knowing that this prayer has already been answered.  God has had mercy on us and as we await the fulfilment of that answer within the world we live in as imperfect human beings, forgiven sinners, who are made perfect in God’s love for us shown in Jesus and shared with us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

King's College Valedictory Sermon

Luke 16:19-31

This simple piece of purple cloth may not mean much to any of you.  But 2000 years ago when Jesus was telling his story this purple cloth was hard to come by.  It was an extravagance.  It was a display of wealth.  It was a symbol of power.

We have different kinds of purple cloth in these days.  Our wealth might be symbolised by the kind of car we drive, the size of our portfolio, or the size of our house.  Our wealth might be demonstrated by our position on the corporate rung or the number of letters before, or after our name.  The purple cloth symbolises the privilege of education, power, authority and money. 

And on this night when we celebrate the Valedictorians this purple cloth may symbolise the opportunities that lie before you.  As young men you may not quite appreciate the access to wealth that you have already had – the wealth of experiences and education that you have been exposed to, and the wealth that might lie ahead for you.  But on this night as we gather and listen for what our futures might hold it is clear to me that we in this room, all of us, have purple cloth.

The story that Jesus tells, a story known as a parable, is a primarily not a story about whether a person is going up to heaven or down to hell.  Whilst Jesus uses this as his context Jesus’ primary concern is about how to live in this world and he is challenging assumptions and making a corrective.

The symbol of power and wealth, the purple cloth, had become a blindfold for him to the needs of others.  The access he had to be able to live a life of leisure meant that as he came and went from his home he was blind to the suffering man at his door.

Part of the irony of this story for Jesus listeners, and so now also us, is that this poor man has a name, Lazarus.  In both the ancient world and in our contemporary one it might be assumed that those with the purple cloth are known – that they have made a name for themselves.  Yet, in this story, it is the rich man who remains anonymous whilst the beggar is known and named.

It may be an interesting aside for those of you who read the scriptures that Lazarus is in fact the only character in any of Jesus’ parables that is given a name and in being given a name Lazarus is given value. He is known by God.

The message here is pretty clear for those of us who hold the purple cloth there is a responsibility to remove the blindfold and see the suffering and need in the world and to respond.  To show compassion and generosity.

For those of you who are about to finish your time at Kings you may discover that there is a much bigger world out there where people suffer and where our struggles as human beings appear to be intensifying.

There is a sense in which college life is a bit like life in a humidicrib.  It is controlled and contained environment and if you want to, you can traverse your years in college concerned only for grades and your sporting and social life within the college.  In some senses protected from some of the big issues we face.

Yet whilst you have been in the protected world of Kings the rest of the world continues on:

The Syrian Crisis has deepened and concerns about terrorism have grown.  Malaysian Airflight 17 was shot from the sky over the Ukraine.  There are more refugees and asylum seekers across the globe than at any other point in history.  There have been typhoons and cyclones, earthquakes, floods and fires.  In West Papua the indigenous people continue to be persecuted by the Ind.  Whilst in Australia the incarceration rates, abuse, and suicide of young aboriginal people remains at shocking levels.  And just today I read that across Australia the number of children living below the poverty line has increased from 13% to 17%.  That’s nearly 1 in 5 kids living in poverty in this country.  We do not have to go far to find Lazarus at our gate.

Our obsession with consumerism and the need for economic growth in a finite world have left us coming far later in our response to climate change than I am comfortable with.  Just this month we have passed 400 part per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  One article I read about this suggested we may face sea level rises of a number of metres in the next 50-150 years.  If this is the case we will see climate refugees coming to us from our neighbouring Pacific Islands.  Such is the deep impact human beings are having on the environment some scientists have labelled this age in which we live the Anthropocene.  The potential is that that more people are going to be impacted and endure great suffering in the decades to come, there will be even more people like Lazarus.

As people who hold the purple cloth, for those of you young men embarking into the age of the Anthropocene, the question is will the cloth become a blindfold for you or will you see Lazarus? Will you see those who suffer? Will you make the connections between our own lifestyle and the condition of others? Will you see and will you respond?  Do you have the capacity to shift not only your own mindset but the mindset and the overarching narrative of our culture which is very much about personal success and happiness?

I cannot answer this question for you but I can identify how difficult it is to make the leaps that I am speaking about.  The great Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor talks about the blindfolds we wear to not only block out those who suffer around us but also to keep out God.  He describes us as having become buffered from God and each other.  Rather than the porous life of our predecessors which allows God in we seek to hold God and each other at bay.  The constant response that I have had from many of you “that we don’t do spiritual stuff at Kings” is a reflection of that very buffering. 

So with you on the cusp of leaving Kings and with this story of the purple cloth of the rich man and the suffering of Lazarus I can offer you two ways of listening to what I am saying.

The first is to say to you that this story is a political, philosophical, moral and ethical imperative which challenges those of us who have the purple cloth, who are wealthy, to think of more than ourselves.  In an age of rampant individualism and isolationism the challenge of this story is to live for the community of humanity more than simply for yourself.  For me that is the basic meaning, the secular meaning, the simplistic meaning of the story. 

But as a follower of Jesus there is also a deeper meaning that I would highlight, a spiritual meaning.  All lives matter, and even the lowest anonymous beggar like Lazarus is known to God.  Our lives are intricately entwined and joined to one another’s lives and to God’s own life.  The spiritual invitation is that Jesus’ presence in the world is an invitation to you to share more deeply in life by living a divine life; to live as God created you to live caring for one another and sharing all that you have for the sake of the common good.

This kind of challenge can bring phenomenal changes in a person’s life and it brings to mind the hymn write John Newton who live about 150 years ago.  He was a slave trader who had an encounter with God and so gave up his purple cloth – he turned away from trading in people’s lives and began to help people.  Many of you will know the words of his famous hymn:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see

He had been blinded by the world and by the purple cloth of wealth and ambition.  The change in his life was monumental.  He began to live on earth as it is in heaven. 

This simple piece of purple cloth may not mean much to any of you.  But 2000 years ago when Jesus was telling his story this purple cloth was hard to come by.  It was an extravagance.  It was a display of wealth.  It was a symbol of power.

What will you do with the purple cloth you hold? Will it become a blindfold to the needs of others?  Will it become a gift that allows you to help others?  Will it become the inspiration for you to seek more deeply into God’s love for you and all people? What will do with the wealth of knowledge and opportunity that you have?

As always my invitation to you is to be open to the spiritual meaning of what I have shared and if something has challenged or moved you to speak to me or another person of faith that might help you understand the God of love who comes seeking us.

Regardless, of how you might answer the questions I have put before you it is my prayer that God will bless you and guide you in the years ahead and I would say to you that it has been a privilege to get to know you.  May God bless you all!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Remedy for our Malady in a Secular Age

Jeremiah 31:27-34, 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5, Luke 18:1-8

In our modern Western world we have drunk deeply from the well of the Enlightenment and our capacity to understand things, to build things, to solve problems, to heal one another has lead us to worship at the idol of ourselves.  We have a deep and abiding sense that we are in control; that we can do whatever we set our minds to.  This illusion of control is particularly so in Australia which has perpetrated this myth through its isolation from much of the rest of the world because we are an island continent, and because our great wealth has provided most of us with opportunities that the majority of the world’s people simply do not have access to.

Whilst having goals and visions may not be a bad thing, in and of themselves, we have a predilection to promote self-belief, time management and goal setting as the rituals and liturgies for our individualistic culture.  As a culture we have moved from the revelation of God “I am who I am,” to the Cartesian dictum “I think therefore I am,” to the solitary life of “I am”, “I”, “me”.  As we have moved in this direction we have bought into the lie that we are in control.  At the same time as this we have become buffered, shielded, and protected from the divine.  The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor traces this journey of demythologising of the self in his tome “A Secular Age”.  We have traversed the way from the porous receptive self to the buffered self.

In the world of management and leadership we have reduced our teaching to infographics and memes, like the poster I have made for you today.  It reads how to be in control of your life: manage your time, believe in yourself (deliberately the central idea), and set goals and plan to achieve them.  We hear the catch phrases and though they may sound logical and good we have little understanding of the history of how they came to be.  All that matters for many of us in the culture is here and now, and my happiness.

Yet the reality is that we are not happy.  Darrin McMahon in his book “The Pursuit of Happiness”, which is an echo of a line in the American Declaration of Independence, begins with these fate filled words, “Happiness is what happens to us, and over that we have no control.”  In a culture obsessed with individuals carving out their own life the idea of not being in control is anathema.  And this infiltrates our faith and theology in so many ways.  The idea that God is in control, that God is in charge, that God is powerful, that God is sovereign, alongside the idea that we are contingent, is not simply uncomfortable for us it is downright offensive.  Trends in Christian liturgy and practice often wrest the sovereign control away from God in favour of us being in control of our spiritual experience.  Worship so often is about our self-expression or about answering “what’s in it for me?” as if it is another product to consume.

Yet, when we listen, when we deeply listen for the word of God speaking through the scriptures we hear that even our faith comes to us as a gift.  Consider for a moment the language of the prophet Jeremiah that we hear this day.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow.” God sows!
“Just as I have watched over them.”  God watches!
“I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” God promises!
“I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt!” God leads!
“I will put my law within them.” God implants!
“I will write it on their hearts” God writes!
“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God is!
“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” God forgives! And, God forgets!

It is God who acts.  God who acts to create this world.  God who acts to give us life!  God who reveals “I am who I am” to us!  God who draws us into relationship and into community!  God who forgives! God who teaches! God who saves! God how loves!

Our modern instinct rails against this possibility of God’s gracious, loving and sovereign control. 

Like the prophet, the Psalmist understood where his knowledge of God and life came from.  He understood where he was to draw his hope from, he declares to God: “you have taught me.”

In this modern world, in this era obsessed with the individual’s right to self-determination, in this time when we have become buffered to the notion of the divine, to enter into the truth and life of God which is already within us involves an act of surrender.  We must give up the myth that we can control life, that we can control the world, which we can even control God and we are called to surrender to God’s presence.

The remedy to our malady offered in today’s readings is twofold:

To meditate on the law of God; and,
To pray, to pray, to pray with persistence, and to pray!

When Paul writes to Timothy encouraging him to accept the worth of the scriptures Paul is affirming the writings that we know as the Old Testament.  It is unclear, but he may even have been affirming the books of the Bible that we Protestants removed.  The so called deuterocanonical books found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.  As Christians we also understand the recognised books of the New Testament as part of this corpus of writings.

Paul writes: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Reading these ancient and unusual texts remains a doorway into the divine relationship, and so also into the revelation of God.  Lest we make the Bible itself an idol we should understand that the words of the Bible themselves are not God.  They are a witness to God.  The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church reminds us the scriptures are the unique, prophet and apostolic witness in which we hear the word of God and through which our faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.

On Thursday morning this week I was discussing the place of the Bible within our Christian faith with a young adult and the notion of the primacy of the Scriptures was raised.  This is a peculiarly Protestant notion that comes to us as a handed down doctrine from the Reformation when the Reformers were seeking a justification for their actions outside the Magisterium, which is the collection of accepted teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  One of the catch cries of the Reformation was sola scriptura, by scripture alone. 

To blindly make the Scriptures prime or first without an understanding of this history and context may cause greater harm than good.  I have often heard the words of scripture used like a blunt weapon flailing at the world.  Or we can be left with our heads buried in the sand like Ostriches, ignoring that the Spirit of God is at work in all things, and using the scriptures as a set of historical and scientific facts rather than an invitation to enter into the deeper task of listening for the eternal speaking through the scriptures.

The Reformers also cried out alongside by Scripture alone, sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christi, sola Deo Gloria.  By faith alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone and to the glory of God alone. 

Our approach to the scriptures is not for us to wrestle them into submission as if we can tame them, using the tools of this Secular age, but our approach should be to enter into them gently and reverentially and with the Psalmist to mediate on them, ruminating and listening for God speaking to us through them.

When I was in the midst of doing my training for ministry I can remember my spiritual director constantly challenging me to stop reading the scriptures for understanding and to start reading them to encounter God.  To mediate on them is to pray them.

Which leads me to the second remedy for our buffered lives which is to pray constantly.  Jesus tells a strange story about a persistent widow and an unjust judge.  A cursory reading of the tale might indicate we are to pester God until God gives in.  But the layers of separation between the power of the judge and the woman could be easily glossed over.  One of the inferences in the story is about exactly the issue that was raised at the beginning.  It is God who holds the capacity to change our human realities.

Last weekend most of you will be aware that I attended a retreat.  The whole focus of the retreat was around teaching about the discipline of centring prayer.  It is an approach to prayer which is focussed on simply being present to Christ who already prayers within us.  It involves silence and stillness and listening.  Among the group who gathered were Christians with more experience and life in the faith than me and together we learnt what was for many of us a new discipline of prayer.

As an outcome from this weekend a group of us who met, some as strangers, are coming together this evening to encourage one another in our persistence in prayer and in our seeking for God.

Persistence in prayer is not just about badgering God expecting immediate results but is about entering into the relationship we have with God that has already been offered to us as a gift.

Through these last few months I have encouraged you as a congregation to enter more deeply into your own prayer life and I continue to do the same.  To spend more time with God, whether the expected results come or not.

Just like happiness, spiritual experience and the revelation of God, are not products we can control.  In a utilitarian culture where vision, goals, and strategies dominate our inability to dictate when God will do what we want God to do is more than a little inconvenient.

The comfort and encouragement of Jeremiah, the Psalmist, Paul as he writes to Timothy, and in Jesus’ own words it to persist in our seeking after God.  To read the scriptures and to pray and most of all to trust.  To trust that even when we do not understand or hear or experience or encounter God that God is and that God acts.

God is and God acts whether we know it or not.  God is and God acts whether we experience it or not. And what God does is not simply about you or I as individuals, though it might have incredibly intimate and personal implications, but is about the reconciliation of all things in Christ. 

God who made all things, who sustains all things, who loves, who forgives, who invites is here.

So let us in silence give thanks for God’s presence and meditate on what he might be speaking to us this day.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

God makes the first move

God makes the first move. God always makes the first move.

A movement of creativity, a movement of love, a movement of grace, a movement of forgiveness, a movement of reconciliation.

God always makes the first move.

In the readings for the day, in the Psalm, in Jeremiah, in 2nd Timothy and in Luke we can trace evidence of God’s making that first move.

This morning rather than focus deeply on any one of the passages I am going to share 3 reflections from 3 of these readings.

The liberating news that “if we are faithless, he remains faithful”.

The invitation ‘to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile.”

And, the imperative to “Get up and go on your way.”

When Paul wrote to Timothy it was from a context of suffering but a suffering which Paul saw as worthwhile because sharing the good news of Jesus raised from the dead had come to define his life.  Paul understood that God had made the first move, the movement of grace to send Jesus into the world to transform the possibilities of his life and of ours.

He had written of this first move by God to the Romans saying “Christ died for us whilst we were yet sinners.”  God moves towards us in grace and it is only then that turning back to God occurs.  Far too often I believe we as Christian think it is our turning back which saves us but Paul clear God moves towards us first in Jesus.  It is Jesus own life of faithfulness that our lives are deemed as faithful.

We are liberated from the guilt of our imperfection and released by the words of encouragement “if we are faithless, he remains faithful”.

I have to admit these words stood out for me this week as I read an article by Andrew Bolt online which criticised the Uniting Church for being too green, too liberal, too socialist.  More than Bolt’s article it was the toxic comments below on the website cloaked with the gift of online anonymity that were more disturbing.  Some from Christians judging the Uniting Church others from agnostics and atheists ready to critique religion in general.

Being a part of the church in our day and age is not easy and the message we share can sometimes be confusing and our actions as individuals and corporately may exhibit as much unfaithfulness as faithfulness.

Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ in whom God makes the first move. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful”.  In the midst of our doubts and errors, and we all have them, God’s faithfulness reaches out to us.

This is no excuse for being complacent when we do recognise a failing.  In the newspaper yesterday Catherine Noonan spoke of a Catholic man saying that things would get better once this Royal commission thing has blown over.

Such lackadaisical responses are not good enough when we encounter our errant ways but the journey of faith is not one of perfection but one which involves correction and transformation.

God has made the first move in the act creation and in the commitment to recreation in and through Jesus Christ so we can take heart in the midst of our unfaithfulness that God remains faithful.

Which brings me to the second point I would want us to contemplate, the invitation “to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile.”

There is a significant back story to the reading from Jeremiah. 

Around 600 BC the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem and taken members of the royal family and the skilled labourers and artisans back to Babylon, essentially as slaves.

For most of us this is beyond our imaginings and certainly beyond our experience.  It was a terrible time for the Israelites who were trying to understand what it meant to be God’s people in this context.

Now in the previous chapter of Jeremiah we read that another of Israel’s prophets, the prophet Hananiah had given the people a message of hope:

2‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’

In other words don’t worry too much, we can put up with this for a couple of years and then everything will be OK again.

Jeremiah refuted Hananiah’s words and declared that within the year Hananiah’s false prophecy would be exposed and that Hananiah would die.  7 months later Hananiah died and Jeremiah was affirmed in his prophecy.

Jeremiah’s words in chapter 29 are a letter sent to the people in exile to prepare for the long haul and to live with hope.  He says to them:

5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

As people living in exile, pretty much as slaves, the Israelites were not only to build their own future but to seek the welfare of the city in which the found themselves, the welfare of the enemies who had dragged them from their homes and into exile!

As Christians living in an increasingly hostile environment as we seek to prosper not only ourselves but those who oppose, who persecute, who even attack us I believe we reflect the notion that God make the first move.

God makes the first move to help us, to encourage us, to give us faith, to forgive us, to heal us and so in our encounters with others if we are to reflect God’s love we are to do the same.  Not because those around us have in some earned it but because it reflects the faith we have encountered.

As it says in 1 John we love because God first loved us.

Which brings me to my final comment which is on the healing recorded in Luke’s gospel.

10 lepers calling out are healed by Jesus.  Go and see the priests he says.  Why?  Because only the priests have the power to readmit the lepers into the community.  As they go all 10 are healed, in fact all are made clean – ready to be re-admitted to the community.

We know the story that one, a foreigner, a Samaritan at that, turns back and give thanks to Jesus. 

Within Jesus’ words we do hear a sense of disappointment that only one has turned back, but remember despite Jesus sense of remorse – all 10 have been made clean.  Each one has been visited with grace, dare I say salvation even.

And Jesus’ words to the Samaritan man are a little perplexing “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”

The man had already been clean so how has his faith contributed, has it really done so?  Did Jesus anticipate his action and so heal him?  We cannot assume this because 9 others have been healed also.

God made the first move; the man was already healed, if his faith contributes anything at this point it is about his witness for others, for us!  Maybe it is as simple as saying that when we realise God is at work we should turn back and give thanks to God like this man for what we have already received.

I also see Jesus’ word to the man as a last word, “Get up and go on your way.”  These words which encourage him to live again in community with others in thankfulness of what God has done.  For me this correlates to the notion that at the end of worship each week we are sent out to live our lives: get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.

God makes the first move, God always makes the first move.  It is not our ability to be faithful with evokes God’s decision for us but God’s own love for us.  This is good news and we can share it with others as we make the first move in love towards others and as we give thanks to God who in Jesus is not only the first word but also the last.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Is this the idea that will make you rethink faith in God?

This morning I decided to go with a click bait title for the sermon:

Is this the idea that will make you rethink faith in God?

Faith involves doubt.

To increase the gift of faith you have received, no matter how small or large it might be, requires doubt because it is doubt that drove the disciples to ask Jesus to increase their faith.  Jesus had turned the disciples’ world upside down.  His stories and sayings challenged everything they believed and shook them to the core.  They were confused.  Following Jesus and believing in the God that he witnessed to left them floundering.  They asked him again and again to explain things, to show them, to help them understand and from the reading today “to increase their faith.” 

Faith involves doubt.  It is OK to have doubts.

Now some of you may have a strong faith, a faith that you feel is formed and shaped and grounded.  And some of you may feel that you have only a little faith, a faith that feels weak and unstable and unsure.  Yet, strong or weak, to nurture and grow the seeds of faith that you have been given requires you to doubt.  For it is in doubting that we question?  It is in questioning that we search?  It is the journey of a dynamic doubtful and searching faith that we grow?

As a follower of Jesus, as a baptised person and now as minister, my faith is driven by the constant clash of what I think I know and comprehend and what lies beyond my reach and experience.  It is my doubt that leads me to constantly rethink my faith and drives me to discovery.  It is my doubt that leads me to attend prayer retreats and conferences.  It is my doubt that inspires me to persist in my studies, and to read, and reflect.  It is my doubt that causes me to listen to the stories of your lives and your faith and to seek to know and understand.  It is doubt that inspires me to seek the wisdom and teaching of mentors and friends.

Faith is not an end point it is a starting point and I believe that without doubt faith sits and stagnates and does not grow but remains the same.

Faith involves doubt.  It allows questions.

Maybe it is the unspoken doubts and questions that you have that keep you coming back and searching for a rekindling of your faith week by week.  Maybe it is your doubts about your experience of life and what you see occurring in the world around you that has you coming here to find hope and to take confidence in God’s love and power.

I believe that doubt is usually seen as a negative thing, an impediment, but is having doubt the idea that might change and transform you as you grow in your relationship with God.

It is the midst of a faith filled with doubts that I found a way to cope with the words of the last words of Psalm 137. 

The words of this Psalm are written as a reflection on the sorrow of God’s people after they have been defeated and carried off as slaves to Babylon.  For most of us these concepts are beyond our comprehension: defeat, death, and utter disempowerment.

The response of the Psalmist though is more than a little disturbing:

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Can this be right?  The people of God will be happy when they are killing babies in retribution and revenge for what has been done to them.  As much as it was known to be a practice in ancient warfare to decimate an enemy, even to the point of killing children, is this realty a reflection of divine retribution that we should blithely and blindly accept?

These are the words of our Bible.  Are these words which reflect God’s will in any way shape or form?  Are God’s people meant to be happy as baby killers?

I doubt it and I doubt it deeply.

Without doubt as part of the makeup of my faith these words of the Psalmist could be taken to suggest that God affirms the violence and the revenge killing reflected in the Psalm.  Passages such as this one often drive people away from Christianity who perceive God as of being callous and cruel.  More disturbingly I have heard passages such as this one used to justify Christians perpetrating violence.

These words of the Psalmist do not reflect the God I have encountered in the New Testament.  God, who rather than respond to violence with violence submits to the violence of the cross in the person of Jesus.  The cycle is interrupted.

So what do we make of these words of the Psalm? Do they carry any authority and weight for us still? What do they do to my reading of the Bible?

In my mind the authority of these words of the Psalm is in exposing the fallibility and confusion of human beings in response to the violence we perpetuate against one another. 

Throughout all of history we humans have found constant ways and means of hurting each other and killing each other.  We have been great at portraying other people as our enemy. We have not learned to love our neighbour or our enemy who is different to us.  We have been good at ignoring the impacts of our behaviours on others, especially those who are distant from us.

Just as I have doubts in my faith which drive me to question and grow so too I would say that I have deep doubts about having any faith in humanity.

As people who live after the age of enlightenment there was great hope in humanity to mature and respond to crises as they arose.  That we would shrug off the anachronism of religion and actual care for one another and the world in a much better way.  We thought our wisdom and advancement as human beings would bring us peace and security.

Beyond the obvious violent conflicts that continue to unfold across the globe, beyond the clear inequality and exploitation between the extremely wealthy and those in poverty, it was yet another climate milestone that pricked up my ears this week as I contemplated increasing my faith.  

This week I read that the atmosphere has passed a saturation point of carbon dioxide 400 parts per million and that it is not expected to drop below this bench mark again.  Whether or not you have doubts about climate science and the contribution of humanity to global warming, this figure is significant.  Human made or not we are on a trajectory that could see warming, accompanied by sea level rises, which may result in the collapse of society as we know it.

One of the most popular genre’s at the moment for young people are books and movies which look to societies in a not too distant post-apocalyptic dystopian future in which human beings have to cope in a world which has collapsed in on itself.  One of the constant themes in these novels is the violence of that future.  Movies and books like the Hunger Games and Divergent have echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as community breaks down.

If doubt drives my faith in God to go deeper ironically it is my doubts about human behaviour that leads me to lose my faith in humanity.

If the human response to bad stuff is more bad stuff – to kill the babies, then I am lead to look elsewhere.  I am lead to look again to God.

Is this the idea that will make you rethink faith in God?

That faith involves doubt.  Doubt can drive you deeper into your faith or it can cause us to lose your faith.  For me the faith that is deepening through doubt is my faith in God. 

Faith in God who rather than stay aloof and distant shares in our created existence.
Faith in God who rather than continue the cycles of violence submits to death on the cross in Jesus.
Faith in God who says to us in the resurrection that death is not the last word.
Faith in God who walks alongside us through our own questions, confusion and fears.

Faith is not about having all the answers.  Faith is not about what we can prove by our experience or argue through our knowledge.  Faith is a journey responding to doubt and gaining wisdom, strength and hope from the relationship.

When Paul writes to Timothy he encourages the community to rekindle their faith by the laying on of hands.  So on this day let us share in this moment, let us rekindle our faith and let us give strength to one another.