Thursday, 15 December 2016

Paul's first words to Rome

If you can drag yourself back 2000 years and imagine that you are in Rome listening, for the very first time, to Paul’s letter to the community there, I imagine you might have wondered something along the lines, “Who the heck does this guy think he is?”

The opening line of his letter betrays an audacity that we can easily miss:

“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”

These words are no simple salutation; no common greeting.  Paul’s claim to be a slave to Christ Jesus and called to be an apostle contain echoes of the claims of the Old Testament prophets and their call to be God’s servants and slaves.  Paul is claiming a heritage and authority that reflects these ancient claims and may very well have astounded his first audience in Rome.

Yet, if those early Christians found Paul’s words surprising, it may have been just as surprising to Paul that nearly 400 years later one of the greatest preachers of the early church John Chrysostom, also known as golden mouth, said of this very letter that he read it twice a week, and sometimes even 3 or 4 times a week.

Further, it may have surprised Paul to know that in the early 1500's Martin Luther would be dwelling on Paul’s letter to the Romans so deeply, as he struggled with his faith and discovered in Paul’s words God’s grace.

And, again, at the beginning of the 20th century, Paul might have been amazed as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth launched his stellar career with his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
Even beyond the walls of the Church Paul’s impact is recognized.  The historian Larry Siedentop argues that the origins of Western liberalism lie in Paul’s concept of the individual. 

And, here now in this small gathering of God’s people at St Lucia we are still reading and contemplating Paul’s words. 

Why?  Well maybe it is as Barth says, at the beginning of his commentary, that “he veritably speaks to all men [and women] of every age”. 

Paul may have never foreseen the impact of his letter to the Christians in Rome and how the influence of his words would spill over into 2000 years of history but maybe it is precisely because he is as he claims, a slave of Christ Jesus, that his words do this.  He recognizes something fundamental about his existence – it is not his own.

The revelation of Christ to Paul on the Damascus road led him to the deep discovery that life was less about who he was as it was about whose he was.  He was God’s and he was God’s in a special way: called to be an apostle.

Now it is my conviction that each one of you is called into a relationship of service with God. In fact I have a sense that all people are called into such a relationship.  Yet, for each one of us the calling to follow and serve Jesus is particular and specific. We are not all meant to be the apostle Paul.  He has a special role at a particular time in history. Paul’s words transcend his time and place in history because they carry an authority that invite us to reflect not about Paul but about the one in whom Paul has grounded his life: Christ Jesus.

It Christ Jesus who is ground zero for the Christian faith because as Barth says in his commentary on Romans:

Jesus Christ our Lord.  This is the Gospel and the meaning of history.  In this name two worlds meet and go apart, two planes intersect, the one known and the other unknown.

In Christ Jesus there is a convergence between our known finite earthly existence and the mystery of God’s eternal existence.  Our earthly existence in all its ambiguity and messiness: life and death; joy and sorrow; good and evil; pleasure and pain; beauty and horror intersects with God’s existence: source of life, origin of being, eternal mystery, love, grace, hope, transcendence and immanence.

Christ Jesus enters history and the life of the world intersects with the life of God in his very person.  This is whom Paul speaks of and like a stone thrown into a pond the ripples of Jesus existence extend out through space and time to touch of all of the creation for all of time, including your life and mine.  And in this God says to us your lives are relevant to me; you are not alone; you are loved.

We heard this amazing good news in the reading from Matthew this morning as Jesus’ birth was described by the gospel writer. 
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’

God is with us, present with us in history, in the flesh, in Christ Jesus, but more than that through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is eternally present.  God is with us and so we can say that we are not without God.

This is the good news as we wrestle with conundrums of our lives.  As we confront loneliness and loss, evil and ego, temptation and terror, pain and poverty, suffering and sorrow God is with us, God walks beside in Jesus and has shared the fullness of our human experience.  God is with us and even when we might count ourselves forsaken by God we are not without God.  The intersection of created history with God’s life in Jesus is our source of hope.  

In this discovery of God’s love for us Paul knew whose he was and we can come to know whose we are as well.  Servants of Christ Jesus called into life and called into the love and life of God.

As Paul penned his letter to the Christians in Rome the words of admonishment, of hope, of faith and of grace flowed out into history to teach us about Jesus and who we are as God’s people.  He writes:

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Paul names the people as God’s beloved, beloved just as Jesus himself was beloved.  Not alone or bereft but accompanied through life by God in Christ Jesus and in this made saints, holy people, not by our own action but by God’s presence with us.  We are drawn beyond the division between the created and Creator into the unity of life with God – all of the prior boundaries are being obliterated.

This is why Paul then goes on to say:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Once again we drag ourselves back through history to understand the importance of Paul’s greeting.  “Grace”, charis, was a common greeting among the Greek speaking world, whilst “Peace”, shalom, was and remains a common greeting among the Jewish people.  Grace and peace represent once again the intersection of different worlds and of different communities. 

Just as in Christ Jesus God overcomes the division between the divine and the created, so to in Christ Jesus God is calling us into our common humanity: transcending cultural and ethnic and socio-economic disparities God calls us into community with one another. 

One of the key reasons for Paul’s letter to the Romans was to deal with the tension that had emerged between followers of Christ with different background.  Through history, we as Christians, and we as humanity, have continued to struggle to find our common identity.  We have not understood the greeting of Paul ‘grace and peace’ is meant to draw us beyond the safe boundaries of our communities into loving one another just as we have been loved.

This is no less a challenge for us as God’s beloved in our time, to recognize whose we are together, and to know that we are companions with all other people through this life.

This is why today, at the table of grace, we are called to remember that God in Christ is our companion on the journey of life.  Companion from its origins literally means ‘with bread’ and reminds us that in the breaking of the bread together with Christ as our host we are indeed God’s companions, God is with us, we are loved, and we are not alone.  The loving companion that we meet here binds us all together as God’s creatures as God overcomes our divisions: grace and peace.

When Paul wrote that letter to that first group of Christians in Rome, he made the claim that his importance was secondary to one to whom he witness:

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.

Paul’s letter endures for us as a witness to God’s love for and reminds us that though we may not be an apostle like Paul, or a saint like Francis, or a teacher like Martin Luther, or a healer like Mother Theresa, we, each one of you, is beloved and is called into the service of the God who is with you and within you.  God is with us.  God is with you.  Christ Jesus: this is whose we are and defines who we are and this is indeed the good news.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Wake up!

A Sermon on Romans 13:11-14

Wake up.
Wake up from your slumber.

Wake up from your dreaming.
Wake up to yourself.
Wake up to reality.
Just, wake up.

Paul’s injunction to the Christians in Rome is grounded in the notion of a disconnection between their experience of existence and the reality of God’s love for them and life for them.  He tells them that they are asleep.

Wake up.

The notion that somehow people are asleep or disconnected from reality is a constant theme for novelists and film makers.

As a teenager one of my favourite series of books was by the author Stephen Donaldson and was called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

The main character in these books very name and title indicate a contradiction Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.  In him covenant, promise and faith, are contrasted with unbelief and doubt.  The character is transported to another world, a fantastical place, which he assumes is a dream.  Being a dream his behaviour involves a libertine disregard for the world in which he finds himself and its people.  Everything is there for his benefit – but it is not reality, it is a dream.

Wake up.

Is this us too? Living as though we are in a dream, in an altered reality.  Taking advantage of each other and the creation as we seek to gratify our desires?

Wake up, cries Paul. You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep

Do we understand the reality of this world?  Do we understand our relationship with God in Christ? Do we understand our responsibility to each other and to God’s creation?

The selfishness of the character Thomas Covenant in the novels, the desire for self-gratification, may very well be a reflection of our hedonistic culture in which the most important question we seem to ask one another is, “Are you happy?”

Wake up, cries Paul.

Put on Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

It’s not just about you.  Life doesn’t revolves just around you and what you want.

As we begin our journey through Advent, our preparation for the return of Christ our King, the challenge for us is to enter more deeply into our faith.  To wake up and put on Christ.

Yet how difficult is this?  Most of us have come to see that Advent is about preparing ourselves for the Christmas onslaught: gift buying, menu making, event attending, and list achieving preparation.

This week on the morning ABC radio program a reporter was asking people whether they were ready for Christmas.  But his question was driven by one motive: “have you saved money for Christmas?”.  Are you ready to go on the spending binge?

This week I have been reading a book about the Anthropocene, the new definition of the geological era in which we live.  We are living in a time that humans are so impacting the shape of life on the planet that scientists have named this geological era in which we live the Anthropocene.

In one of the essays Michael Northcott says, “In the post-Christian culture of capitalist consumerism Christmas has morphed from the festival of the Incarnation of light in cosmic darkness into a fossil-fuelled festival of consumption where neon lights and LCD screens displace candles and incense.”

No longer does our culture celebrate the Incarnation of the light we worship at the altar of mammon – money, growth, progress, consumption and wealth. 

To return to Paul’s letter to the Romans the question might very well be asked of us, “Have we as modern Christians turned Christmas into a time when we satisfy the desires of the flesh, as opposed to celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world?”

What are we preparing for?  What must we wake up from?

Advent is about preparing for Christ’s coming again. Christ’s return not simply the birth of Jesus.  The birth of Jesus that we celebrate is on the Roman holiday of Sol Invictus, the sun god.  The date was chosen by the Romans to preserve their ancient festival of the turning of the season. Even the date of our celebration of Jesus’ birth is an act of syncretism.  Encultured into Roman festivals, encultured into Christendom, enculturated into consumerism Christmas struggles to have meaning in terms of God’s love made flesh in Christ Jesus.

For every year I have been involved in preaching I have found this period of the year a deeply challenging time.  My very first Christmas sermon began with the words ‘bah humbug’, although I may just as well have used Pauls’ words, “wake up”.

What might we do to shake ourselves from this slumber?  What might we do to turn again to God as we prepare for the coming of Christ?

Let me suggest four things that come to us from today’s readings.

Firstly, worship God!  In Psalm 122 the Psalmist says “I was glad when the said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”  I was glad to go to worship.  Here there is an attitude of heart to bring to God in our worship.

In a conversation last week a friend who rarely attends church anymore spoke of how boring church can be.  And, I must admit I agreed.

As a Christian I have worshipped in traditional, contemporary, evangelical and Charismatic services.  I have worshipped in high liturgy and café church and contemplative and worship that felt like a rock concert.  In all of these settings I could find myself saying, as my friend said to me this week, it’s boring.

Even the liveliest of services can feel boring but the gladness of heart in the opportunity to worship God transcends the style of worship and our personal experience as we bring our hearts in gladness to God.

It is not about gratifying my particular preferences in worship style it is about engaging in the life of worship: be glad to gather with the community.  Recognise it for the privilege and opportunity it is to worship God.

Wake up and be glad!

Second, seek contentment and moderation in your lifestyle.  In an era of instant gratification when we can buy the next item at the press of button without even leaving our house we need to learn again to be patient, to train ourselves to the art of restraint.  Do not seek for more than you need.

Our whole culture is built on teaching you and training you and tempting you to covet.  We are sold the line that our consumption is good for the economy.

David Bentley Hart in his book titled God says, “Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify… Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice.” 

At Christmas time the gluttony of consumption of goods and foods is exposed.  How does this really prepare us for the coming of Jesus?

Wake up and exercise some restraint.

Third, be conscious of others, make your life about others.

In Psalm 122 the psalmist implores the listeners:

For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

Life is give an outward focus.  Rather than asking what is in it for me we are called to think about what it is we might be offering others.

This should not become another expression of simply gratifying of the flesh of our loved ones by giving them what they do not needs but a deeper reflection of the giving that seeks the good of God.

For the sake of your relatives and friends, for the house of the Lord, and for your neighbour who could be either friend or foe.

Wake up and think of others.

And fourthly, seek peace.

The Psalm declares, “Peace be within you.”  Whilst Isaiah would have us beat our swords into ploughshares – weapons of destruction into sustainers of life.

Peace is both the inner eternal peace with ourselves and God as well as peace between human beings as well, an absence of war.

The concept of shalom, peace, has deep layers of meaning one of which we celebrate when we share in communion: God’s forgiveness, God’s offering of forgiveness to us.  When we share the peace in our worship we are acknowledging to one another that we are all reconciled to God and to each other and that this peace that we are sharing is God’s desire for the whole world: the reconciliation of all things in Christ.

From the peace we encounter in our relationship with God should flow an outpouring of our peace with others in the world.

Wake up for blessed are the peacemakers.

The advent of our God is nigh, Jesus is coming.  No one can know the time.  So we are called to prepare ourselves, to be ready, to be attentive.  Transformed by God’s unconditional love and forgiveness let us hear God’s word of hope to us in Christ and let us prepare through Advent:

For you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Wake up.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Christ the King: Too Political?!

I have been accused of being too political in my preaching at times and it has been said to me that preaching has no place engaging with politics.

Yet that accusation in itself is a political statement and on this day which is traditionally known as Christ the King our readings make it very clear that our faith has a political edge.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians Paul makes the grand claim that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of the cross.”

This claim of God over all things is one that is hard to wrap our heads around but I have little doubt for the ancient community who were under the rule of the Roman Empire they heard this statement as one of hope. 

The Emperor and his claims to divinity, and the power and might of his Empire, were trumped by the maker and sustainer of all things who walked among us in Jesus.  God was bigger than the ruling power of Rome.

In these words, which add a cosmic dimension to Jesus’ presence in the world, we hear a clear echo of John 1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in beginning with God, all things have come into being through him and without him not one thing has come into being.  What has come into being in him was light.  And that light was the light of the world.”

This cosmic claim concerning Jesus Christ had clear political implications.  The citizenship and the first loyalty of the early Christian community was determined by their baptism not by the Emperor.

Paul says to the Colossians that, God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” 

To be transferred into another kingdom, a coming kingdom, a rule and reign of God, not determined by place and time but by allegiance to God set the early Christian community over against the Roman Empire.

God is the God of all things and in Christ God was reconciling all things to himself.  There is no place in this universe, there is no time in history, there is no political system that does not sit under Christ’s reign.  This is clearly a political claim as much as it is a claim over our human existence.

Just as this set early Christians up to be in conflict with the Empire, and subsequently led to the persecution of Christians because they would not acknowledge the Emperor as a God, so too it sets up a conflict for each one of us with the society in which we live.

Where does our citizenship lie?  This is a politically charged question and to say otherwise is naïve and more than that it is to deny the sovereign rule of God over our lives. God has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.

I have spoken before to you of my personal sense of homelessness as an Australian.  Through my study of history and the transient nature of my upbringing I came to have a deep sense of unease.  This unease was grounded in the reality that as an Anglo-Australian I belonged to a history of a people who had disregard for the sovereignty of the first peoples of this land, and mind you of many other lands as well.

Yet this homelessness was not restricted to my Australian heritage but to that Anglo heritage that stretches back through the centuries of conflict between the Scots and the English, and between the Saxons and the Normans, and between the Normans and Celts, and so on and so forth.  With so much talk of nationalism in recent years and what it means to be Australian I am continually driven to find my identity, and my political identity in Christ.

Being Australian is a mixed blessing – we live in one of the best places and times amongst some of the most prosperous people ever, but we should never ignore that others have paid a deep and terrible price for our prosperity even if we are not personally aware of this.

Being transferred by baptism into the kingdom of the beloved Son sets a new political context for my life which must and can only transcend the relatively recent historical concept of the nation state.  It must and can only transcend our party political system – beyond Labor or Liberal or Green or Family First or One Nation.  None of these is truly reflective of the kingdom of the beloved Son.  Despite the fact we may wish it were so and that we might even identify glimpses of that kingdom in some of their policies.  The reality is that all governments fall short and we are citizens, as Jesus says, of a kingdom that is not of this world.

Our citizenship in this kingdom is shaped by the life of Christ and the Spirit of God at work within us.

It is a citizenship that connects us to the work of God in Christ which is to reconcile all things to himself.  All things on heaven and on earth.

The values of this kingdom are exemplified first and foremost in Jesus’ words from the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Forgiveness and mercy and love and grace.  The preacher and scholar Scott Hoezee says of this kingdom, “forgiveness is the coin of this realm.”

To be a citizen of the kingdom of the beloved Son is to know that God forgives, that you are forgiven, and that I am forgiven, and that God’s deepest desire is to share this forgiveness in order that all things might be reconciled to God in Christ.

This is a hard teaching to accept and it is even harder to live.  When we see those gathered around the cross the executioners, the onlookers, the dicers, the scoffers, the mourners, the thief who scoffed and the thief who appealed for mercy, and the Centurion who declared Jesus’ divinity we are left wondering what does Jesus prayer mean.  Who does not know what they are doing? Who is forgiven?

Apart from the one thief no future of reconciliation is made known – but for that one we know and share his hope: “today you will be with me in paradise.”

The judgement of this world and the political power that takes away life, cannot triumph in Jesus’ kingdom for he is Lord of both the living and the dead.

It is this hope that fills us baptised people, as people transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son and causes us to rethink how we live and to whom our loyalties lie.

God has made a sovereign claim over our lives and because of this all of the segregation and separation of nation from nation, tribe from tribe, language from language are dissipated as on the day of Pentecost.  This is the politics of God and we are called to be citizens first and foremost of that coming kingdom which is shaped by Jesus Christ, who is our Saviour, our Lord and our King!

15He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
16for in him all things in heaven
and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
17He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
18He is the head of the body, the church;
 he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,

by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Drinking with joy from the wells of salvation

In the past I might have suggested that the disciples looked upon the stones of the temple like a bunch of wide eyed country bumpkins.  I might have pointed out their naivety and incredulity but if I had done this it would have been inaccurate.

As first century Jews I have little doubt that the disciples would have travelled to Jerusalem and the temple on a regular basis to celebrate the great festivals of their faith: the Passover; Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement; maybe the festival of Weeks or First Fruits.  The temple was physically and symbolically the centre piece of their faith.  God dwelt in the Temple, behind a great curtain, in a place known as the Holy of Holies.

Whether this particular scene ever actually occurred has been questioned.  Most scholars suggest that Luke wrote his gospel somewhere between the years 75 and 85.  We know that the Emperor Nero despatched his General Vespian to Jerusalem in the year 70 and Vespian destroyed the Temple.

It could be that the disciple’s wide-eyed wonder is a reminder for Luke’s audience of the splendour of the Temple and that Jesus’ prophetic words are included as a further affirmation of his identity as the Messiah.  In much ancient writing whether something actually happened or not is secondary to the core message that the writer is trying to convey.

Regardless of what we can and cannot prove about the event, and how accurately it portrays an interaction Jesus may have had with his disciples, there is a message of hope in the face of adversity for early Christians. A message of hope that we can hear as pertinent to us as well.  Faith in God transcends, and possibly even supersedes, the physicality of the beautiful stones of the Temple and endurance in the face of suffering leads to life.

Whilst the Temple stood at heart of the Jewish religion, by the time Jesus and his disciples were wandering the dusty streets of Jerusalem there was that great and foreboding occupying power: the Roman Empire and its Emperors who styled themselves as gods.

Surrounding the walls of the Temple the might of Rome crowded in and as the story goes eventual crashed down on the Jewish people and their Temple in the year 70.

Jesus’ words gave his disciples and no doubt the members of Luke’s community some comfort in the fact that God and God’s concern for them was not in any way limited to the physical presence of the Temple.  Destroying the central symbol of their faith did not and could to destroy God.  More than that, even though suffering might come and was part of their experience, Jesus promise was that on the other side of that suffering Jesus’ followers would find life!  Neither the culture that intruded on their Holy Space nor the destruction of the Temple, as heartbreaking as these things may have been, were of ultimate importance.

Just as this story gave hope to the early community of Christians that Luke write it for so too it is a story that has given the church hope and can continue to give us hope now.   The church exists, in a multitude of locations across the globe surrounded by and embedded within cultures that are often antagonistic towards it.

Sometimes those cultures are intruding in upon us and shaping our life as followers of Jesus more than any of us would like to admit.  Just as the Roman Empire loomed large around the Temple. Cultures through history and across the world loom large around us.

Almost 17 centuries ago when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian, rather than simply looming large around the Temple the Empire walked in the door of the church, and the relationship between the Church and the prevailing political culture changed significantly.  Only in recent decades has the Church, begun to really disentangle itself, ourselves, from the political systems and regimes of the European era of Christendom.

In some ways some of the beautiful stones of our faith are being knocked down as we rediscover what it means to follow Jesus through a time of great tumult and change.

It was interesting this week to reflect on this as the US election unfolded and as Donald Trump was elected.  I read a range of quite disturbing articles about the possibilities of what kind of ideology this man will bring to one of the most powerful positions in the world and the potential for great harm. 

A colleague quoted from the Luke reading on Facebook suggesting the fertile ground for preaching to be made from connections between the mid-to-late 1st century and the early 21st century:

"There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven"

We must always be wary of reading ourselves too closely into prophetic words within the scriptures but there can be no doubt there is a sense of destabilisation in world politics at the moment.

With this in mind I responded to his words that I was being drawn to preaching on Isaiah 12 - "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

There are significant and warranted global concerns around the Trump victory so as we look into the well of salvation how do we do what Jesus says in Luke, “Endure so that we will gain our lives,” at the same time as hearing the hopeful words of Isaiah, "With joy drawing water from the wells of salvation."

This paradoxical tension has always been an aspect of our faith enduring in the face of difficult times, whilst also finding joy and hope in our faith.

So, as I looked to the future this week, I was struck by a new thing that I learnt from my friend Father Anastasios from the Greek Orthodox Church.  Father Anastasios is always wearing long black robes and this week I asked him what they symbolised.  He said that the black robes are a sign that he is one of the living dead, he has died to this world.

He told me that the balance to this symbol of death in, his black robes, are the ornate and beautiful robes that he wears when he leads worship.  These robes symbolise his new relationship with God in Christ: new life sharing in the coming kingdom.

Maybe we as Christians we need to recover something of the dying to this life a bit more seriously, wearing the black robes, as we seek to find the joy and draw from the wells of salvation.

The endurance that Jesus’ speaks of suggests a discipline is required if we are to live our risen life now.  And the hope, for me, is that as we pursue living the risen life more earnestly we will discover joy as we draw the water from the wells of salvation.

I suspect many people who voted, for either Trump or Clinton, thought that they were voting for their salvation, by which I mean that they were voting for a better life for themselves. 

We live in a society that has elevated individual rights and an assumption about personal entitlement to an unhealthy level.  We are consummate consumers – this is our culture looming large into our faith and life.

But the prophecy of Isaiah and I believe the coming of Jesus whilst having a personal element ultimately aims at a corporate salvation.  Isaiah declares that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth.  In his letter to the Colossians Paul says of Jesus that he is reconciling all things to himself.

So, here are a five thoughts for you to ponder as we hear the sounds of the crumbling stones of our Temple of faith, ways that we might both endure to gain our lives and draw from the wells of salvation.  These five points are based in four sentences from our readings today:

The first trust: to have faith in God’s grace no matter what is happening.  Isaiah declares, “I will trust, and will not be afraid.”  Deepen your relationship with God through prayer, spiritual reading and spiritual direction.

Second, hope: “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”  Participate in the life of the worshipping community.  Not simply by coming on a Sunday but by building relationships with the people here.  Care for one another, encourage one another, uphold one another in prayer.

Third, gratefulness: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name.”  Contemplate with gratitude what you do have and considering carefully how to live more simply in an age of consumption.  Say grace when you share a meal, give thanks for what you do have rather than lament for what you do not have.

Fourth, share the faith: Isaiah instructs that the people “make known God’s deeds.”  This is about a deep conviction that what we believe and experience in God’s love is for everyone.  Jesus sent the disciples to make disciples of all nations.  Share your faith

And finally, generosity and justice: “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” The scriptures are constantly expressing concern for the widow, and the orphan.  We might extrapolate and extend that to the disenfranchised, the refugee, the sick, the suffering, the poor, the persecuted, the mourning and the list could go on.  To do what is right is to see the problems of the world and of people’s lives and respond in love and generosity.

Drinking joyfully at the well of salvation gives us refreshment in our faith and as we enter into the spiritual disciples of prayer, worship, community, faith sharing and service we are prepared for our endurance and discover what it means to live, to really live.

At the centre of our faith is not a building, not an institution, but a person – the person of Jesus who is, as Paul says the pioneer and perfector of our faith.  We do not save ourselves but rather we drink at the wells of salvation.  In the challenging days of this age, as with every age that has gone before, whatever is happening, whatever we are encountering or experiencing trust in God and with joy and endurance follow Jesus who lead us into life.   

Friday, 4 November 2016

God is a God of the Living

My suspicion is that, like me, most of you want to know that after you die that there is more to life after death than your personal existence.  Your hope is that it is life after death with others, with the people you have loved in this life.  It is as much about reunion as it is about not wanting to think that you might come to an end.

The thing is that life after death was not a part of what the Sadducees believed.  When you died you died and you returned to the dust from which you were made.  As Jesus comes closer to the final confrontation with the Temple authorities I suspect the Sadducees ask Jesus this question to make a mockery of the notion of resurrection.  They also want find out whether Jesus agrees with them or with the scribes, who believed in resurrection.

Jesus’ response to the question, as is often the case, contains layers of meaning which uncover some bigger concepts. Firstly, Jesus points to an intimacy of relationship with one another that transcends any covenantal or biological relationships that we have with one another in this life.  More than that, Jesus answer indicates our relationship with God is not bound by life and death and, the implication is, nor are the relationships that we have.

To understand this a little better requires delving into the complex question that the Sadducees ask and highlighting a few pertinent issues.

The story that the Sadducees describe, with seven brothers successively dying and, as they do so, passing the wife of the first brother on.  This reflects a particular understanding of women, of marriage and of perpetuating one’s existence.

In the ancient world a woman, or a girl, was recognised as belonging to a man, either a father or a husband.  The law about marrying the wife of a deceased brother when no child had been produced is, in part, about the protection of a woman.  The brother almost inherits her as his responsibility.  Yet, the issue of childlessness in the question is important as well, and needs a bit of exploration.

For the Sadducees and for earlier Jews, who did not have a belief in resurrection, a man perpetuated his existence through his sons.  I suspect this is one of the reasons that the genealogies in the scriptures, as boring as they may sound to us, are so important.  They represent the ongoing life of the individuals, in the genealogy, through the next generation.

So, here are two important things to note.  Women are the property of men to be passed on to be protected like assets.  And, children produced through marriage create the opportunity for an ongoing existence beyond death, even when there is no resurrection.

The question that the Sadducees are asking is quite nuanced because the situation they are describing involve the transfer of a covenantal relationship as a way of creating the opportunity for an ongoing existence without resurrection.  That is to say the aim of the brothers continuing this process of marrying this woman is about giving the first brother a chance of ongoing existence by  producing an heir.

If, however, resurrection occurs, the question the Sadducees want to know is, ‘who owns the woman now?’

All of this sounds a bit strange to us because we do not view women or the covenant of marriage in this way anymore.  This form of Biblical marriage described in this passage is not one that we hold on to.

So, what does Jesus do with this complex question? How does he answer the question concerning women, marriage, death and resurrection?

There are two parts to Jesus answer and both confront the Sadducees and possibly even confound the Scribes as well.

In the first part his answer Jesus says, “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”  The covenant of marriage is located as an aspect of life in this world. After we die, if we live in the resurrection, marriage is no longer required.

I do not think Jesus is devaluing marriage in this life or the relationships that we forge in this way.  Rather, it is my feeling that Jesus is saying that, in the resurrection life there is no need to protect women through marriage nor to produce heirs to perpetuate your existence.  If this is the case then the covenant of marriage ceases to carry its original intent.  Marriage is obsolete.

Why?  The intimacy of relationships in the resurrected life, with God and with each other, somehow transcends both the biological and covenantal ties we make during our limited earthly span.

When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come on earth now as in heaven,” we express a desire to begin to enter into the realm of those relationships now.  Jesus himself, when he is told his mother and brothers are outside, indicates that those around him are his mother and brothers.  We also know that there is a long history in the church of baptised people calling each other brother and sister.  It has especially been a feature of monastic communities and of the Anabaptist communities.

This is not to say we are not going to see our loved ones but rather I think indicates a new and transformed intimacy with them.  Of course, none of us have been beyond the boundary of death to understand or encounter any of this.  This is all a matter of faith.  Yet Jesus words appear to indicate that the need for marriage disappears in resurrection life even though the relationship might continue in a richer and more divine way.

Which brings me to Jesus second point.  Jesus takes his audience back to the story of the burning bush and indicates that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”  

For to God all of them are alive!

Jesus’ assertion is that God relates to those who have died as if they are alive.  Death does not diminish the relationship that God has with them, anymore than our earthly existence could diminish God’s relationship with us.  There is no barrier between life and death for God.

Many people across the world celebrated the breaking down of the barriers between life and death this week.  Halloween, All Souls Day, All Saints Day, and the Day of the Dead all express the translucence of the barrier between the living and the dead.   This week Lucy took a picture to school of my mother who died nearly four years ago to share with her Spanish class as they learnt about the Day of Dead.

These celebrations, which are found all around the world, within and beyond the Christian religion, do more than simply remember the dead but recognise an ongoing presence and relationship with them.

Part of the Christian teaching about death is that if we die in Christ we will also rise with him.  Our life and are death are hidden in Christ, as we are joined with him through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The union that we have we Jesus extends into a unity we have with one another, living and dead.  Paul describes the cloud of witness, or communion of saints, that gather around us as we traverse our way through life, and as we celebrate our life in Christ together.

There is a sense whenever we gather and enter into this space of worship we surrounded by those whom we love and whose lives, like ours, were hidden in Christ.  The Orthodox symbolise this beautifully in the architecture of their buildings.  If you have the opportunity to go into somewhere like St Georges at West End I highly recommend it.

What you would see is this.  In the centre of the domed ceiling is an icon of Jesus, a painting. Jesus descending to be with his people.  Surrounding Jesus are his disciples, then as you move down the walls Saints.  The presence of Christ and the communion of saints is visually represented in the imagery of the church building.

Given this reflection on God being God of the living and relating to those who have gone before and their presence with, this us has come to feel strongest for me as we share in communion, Christ’s eternal feast, sharing bread and wine.  From the very earliest days the church has held to an understanding the Jesus is with us when we gather and that Jesus is present in the elements of bread and wine.  Though I may be physically presiding it is my conviction that Jesus is our host.

A few years back a woman in one of my congregations said she could still hear her husband singing and had a sense of his presence as she worshipped.  For me there was no questioning of this experience it was an expression and witness of precisely what I have been talking about.  The communion of saints gathered.

Whilst I have not had such a strong experience of what that person described I have contemplated on this idea that alongside me in worship, but especially at the Eucharistic feast, is my mother, my grandparents, loved members of congregations I have been part of, the Wesley brothers, Luther, Calvin, Augustine, John Chrysostom, the disciples and so on.  The cloud of witnesses gather with us.  For God is the God of the living.

Jesus answer to the Sadducees tricky conundrum leads us into a challenging place of mystery.  God’s relationship with us transcends any intimacy that we can know or express.  In the life to come as we become more like Jesus, that is to say more like God, the intimacy of our relationships with each other will also be expanded into new realms.  Yet, as we await the fullness of the intimacy, in this life our own relationships, including marriage and children, help us to understand God’s love better.  Finally, in our concern about those who have already died we can find comfort in the knowledge that God relates to all as if they are still alive.

Hope in resurrection life is not a private hope, for resurrection life without those whom we love might be viewed as somewhat pointless.  Jesus response indicates life goes on after death and that relationships are transformed in the nearer presence of God.  As we consider this possibility today take a moment to consider and give thanks for those whom you have loved and lost that are with us today in Christ: the communion of saints.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Tending Sycamore Trees

Where are the Sycamore trees?  Where are the opportunities for people to climb up and see Jesus?  Where in the world do you go to see Jesus now?  Will you see Jesus driving passed this church?  Will you see Jesus if you come into this church?  Will you see Jesus in the people that are here?

Maybe, but a church doesn’t seem like a Sycamore tree on the side of a road.  A Church doesn’t seem like the starting point for getting to know Jesus like Zacchaeus did.

Where are the Sycamore trees?  Where do people go to climb up and see Jesus?  Are there Sycamore trees in St Lucia?  Is there somewhere to climb up a tree at UQ? At Cromwell? At Kings? At Grace? At Raymont?  Is there a Sycamore tree in the shopping centre?  Or in AVEO?  Over the road at the school?  Or at Briki?  Where can a person climb up to see Jesus?  Where will a person climb up to see Jesus? 

God stirred in the heart of a short, less than popular, tax collector, to climb a tree so that he could see Jesus.  In the gospel of John Jesus says to his followers, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”  God is already at work in Zacchaeus.  God is drawing him in even though he does not yet understand it.

I think that it is highly doubtful that Zacchaeus really understood what was so special about Jesus.  We have no idea where he had heard the rumours.  All we know was that he did not want to miss out.  He wanted to see Jesus.  It is my thought that the stirrings in Zacchaeus’ heart are the stirrings of a man who is searching for meaning and purpose.  They are the stirrings of a man who has a sense there is more to life than he is experiencing and seeing.  I seriously don’t think that when he grabs hold of the branch of the Sycamore tree that he really knew what he would find.  But he knew he had to grab a hold of that branch and start his climb.  He was exploring.

All around us I believe God is stirring in people’s hearts.  I believe God is causing people to ruminate, to think, to contemplate, to cogitate, to ponder the meaning of life and to search for answers.  Like Zacchaeus I suspect that many people who have these questions within them do not even know what they are looking for, maybe they haven’t even worked out where a Sycamore tree is so that they can climb up to get a better view.  But God is stirring within them and they are searching.  Where are the Sycamore trees for them to climb?  Can we help them find the tree?  Can we give them a hand to reach the lower branches?

Zacchaeus experience, the experience of this short, less than popular, tax collector is where he is because the crowd won’t let him in.  It is because the crowd is ignoring him.  They are too busy trying to make themselves closer to Jesus and turning their backs on Zacchaeus.  Are we also blind to the people in whom God is stirring?  Are we so focussed on Jesus ourselves and our place nearby the roadway that we have turned our backs to their questions and searching?  Can we not see them and give them space or at least help them into the tree?

In defiance of his rejection and his lot in life Zacchaeus grasps those branches, he uses hands more suited to bookwork to clamber and climb up until he can see over the heads of the crowd.  He really does not want to miss out. He wants to see Jesus.

And here is the amazing thing.  Here is the astounding thing.  Here is the astonishing thing. 

Zacchaeus climbed the tree to see Jesus, but it is Jesus who sees Zacchaeus and calls his name. It is Jesus who sees Zacchaeus and calls his name. Jesus sees Zacchaeus and calls his name.

Here is grace.  Here is love.  Here is mercy.  Jesus sees and names the short, less than popular, tax collector Zacchaeus – this rich man, this despised man, this fringe dweller.

Jesus sees him and names.  More than anything this is what all of us want in life to know that we are not alone, that we, that you and I, are seen and that we are known, that we are not anonymous, but that we have a name.

In Luke’s gospel this is such a powerful story.  A balance to the story of the rich man and Lazarus that I preached on a couple of weeks ago.  In that story it was the rich man who remained anonymous but now Zacchaeus is named, no longer is the rich man left anonymous.  This story is a counterpoint to the encounter that Jesus has with the rich young ruler whom Jesus tells to sell all he has and give it to the poor.  Zacchaeus is the camel going through the needles eye, because as Jesus declared, “With God, all things are possible.” 

“With God, all things are possible.” And in Zacchaeus the possibility becomes reality not because of Zacchaeus response, not because Zacchaeus climbed the tree, but because God stirred in his heart and because Jesus saw him and named him.  Here is grace. Here is love.  Here is mercy.  God at work.

I have often heard the response of Zacchaeus emphasised in sermons.  The encounter with Jesus has changed him and his response has direct consequences for the choices he makes in life.  There are financial consequences in his decision to respond to his encounter with Jesus. 

We only get a glimpse here of Zacchaeus response and I have seen it questioned whether he actually follows through, or is he just boasting about what he will do.  Either way there can be no doubt that in Jesus interaction with Zacchaeus there is new hope for relationships to begin to unfold in his life and the lives of those with whom he shared community.  Responding to an encounter with Jesu changes us.

For me there is a reversal in this story of the way we often approach the notion of sharing our faith.  It would seem that in helping people to climb the Sycamore trees to see Jesus our prayer is that reverse is happening that Jesus will see and name them just as you and I believe we are seen and are known by name.

Which brings me back to the question “Where are the Sycamore trees?” Where do people go to climb up and see Jesus?  And what is our role in all of this.

Today we will commission Hayley to the work of Chaplaincy and to the work of Pastoral Assistant in the congregation. As I contemplated the work that she is involved with at Cromwell I had a strong sense that she will be tending the Sycamore trees.  She will be helping people to climb up with their questions about life and its meaning and growing up and purpose.  All the questions of hope and of failure and of passion and of anticipation and of dread that young adults feel.  And maybe occasionally Jesus will be looking from within Hayley and through Hayley see and name people in their questions and so affirm that they are loved by God and that they too can have hope.

But more than that I have a sense that her work is our work wherever we go day by day and if we are too tired and too busy to be doing the labour of tending the Sycamore trees that we might rest in God’s love and pray for the work she does and that others do to help people explore their questions of meaning that have been stirred up in them by God.

Where are the Sycamore trees? Where do people go to climb up and see Jesus? Do they even know that that’s who or what they are trying to see?  I wonder what it would mean to understand ourselves to be people who tend the Sycamore trees.  Who nurture the possibilities of people climbing into the branches?  Of even helping them up so that they might be seen by Jesus.  That they might be named by Jesus.  And having encountered the grace, love and mercy of God be transformed by that encounter just as you and I are continually transformed by that relationship.

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!