Saturday, 13 May 2017

Do not let you hearts be troubled

John 14:1-14

The disciples were still in the upper room.  Jesus had washed their feet.  They had shared a meal.  Judas had gone out to betray Jesus.  And Jesus had just told Peter that Peter was going to deny him.  The room was filled with apprehension, unease, distress!  It is a liminal space, a space in which life seems to be on a knife’s edge. Things were out of control as the disciples leaned in and listened to Jesus.  It is into this moment of uncertainty and fear that Jesus speaks.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Facing his own demise.  Aware of the disciple’s confusion, their fear and the impending desertion Jesus offers to them hope.  Jesus always offers to them and to us hope.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

In the face of uncertainty, confusion, doubt and fear: “Believe in God, believe also in me.”

I must admit that when I went away to the Centering Prayer retreat last year I was confronted by the tumultuous nature of my life, its business, and the concerns I was carrying.  It was there in the silence, not seeking to control God, but emptying myself before God that I was reminded deeply and truly that seeking God’s presence and way in my life needed to be rekindled. 

As I prayed at the retreat a strong sense of the words pf Psalm 121 came to me:

I lift up my eyes to the mountain from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

I have shared this story with you a number of times since because of its importance not only to me but to each one of you.  As many of you are aware this retreat set me on a personal journey to refocus my own spiritual development and to invite others to share that with me in the Sunday evening prayer group.

To believe in God and believe in Jesus has me letting go.  Letting go a sense that I can control things.  Letting go of things that are not mine to worry about.  Letting go some of the responsibilities I carry.  I have had a great sense of peace and direction developing in my journey and no doubt this all fed into my decision to accept my new role as a Chaplain.

I realise though that my decision has for some of the congregation taken you back to the upper room with the disciples encountering some unexpected emotions uncertainty, confusion, doubt and fear.  What happens next for St Lucia?  What happen next for me?  We are in that liminal space as a congregation; a space of change and uncertainty.

But when you think about it so much of our lives is lived in this way personally, day by day, and as communities.  The community of this congregation, the community of Brisbane, the community of Australia and the broader community of humanity.

Week by week as we come here, we come as people who live in liminal spaces, with all of the thoughts and emotions that brings I would echo Jesus words to you: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Believing in God and in Jesus means turning to God as a community.  It means devoting our gaze and attention to Jesus who helps us to know what to believe. 

Jesus, who, as he reassures the disciples declares those famous words: “I am the way, the truth and the life”.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

He does not tell the disciples that they have to do anything apart from trust in this - it is Jesus himself who is the way, the truth and the life.  It is Jesus who faces the rejection of the cross, who also rises from the grave and lives to pray for us forever.  It is Jesus in his earthly fleshly body, as the eternal Word made flesh, who bridges our journey from the liminal space of uncertainty and fear into the hope of God.

I was reminded of this good news this week as I participated in the space for grace conversation run by the National Assembly of the Uniting Church.  In that space we were invited to share with around 30 other people our deeply personal life stories and in the process to come to know one another.

As an outcomes focussed person this process of listening and sharing was not that easy for me.  I like to know at the end of our time we have something to show for it.  But in this time I was reminded that surrendering control to deepen relationships with the people with whom I gathered was just as important.  Or to return to the notion of devoting myself to God in prayer I was given the opportunity to devote myself to listen for God’s presence in the lives of others.

The conversation was grounded in four principles: openness, responsibility, awareness and confidentiality.  The confidentiality means I cannot share the stories but I can share a glimpse of the experience. 

After 2 days the insight I felt that I was given, or maybe reminded of, was that in our lives lived in liminal spaces in which all of us miss the mark and others around us do too.  To be a bit more specific about this I mean we all sin.  In the sense that in the Greek the word sin has its origin in the word ἁμαρτία (hamartia).  It connotes the notion of an archer missing the target.

Although we may seek to live a good life, a life of discipleship, a life responding to God the reality is that we miss the mark, we err.  When we listen to each other’s life stories we discover that this truth that all of his miss the mark and fall short of the glory of God and this has consequence for us and for those whom we travel with in community.  Sometimes we realise that we have missed the mark and sometimes it takes another person to reveal this to us.

I am also reminded of this truth on days like today which is mother’s day.  My mum was not perfect and I was not the perfect son.  Each of us missed the mark in our relationship.  I am thankful that we were able to work through this and to continue to love one another.  Not all mothers and children are able to achieve this so mothers days comes with a mix of emotions for a range of reasons.

All of us miss the mark, all of us err.  But as the saying goes, "to err is human but to forgive is divine."

Just as we all miss the mark, ἁμαρτία (hamartia), so too the promise of Jesus to his disciples is that thought we miss the mark God remains alongside us.  God shows mercy and grace.  God forgives.  There is the opportunity for many of us to encounter and experience this divine grace in our daily journey of faith.  In the midst of the liminal spaces of life when we are missing the mark, or we are filled with fear and uncertainty, we are reminded that Jesus is the way the truth and the life for us.  We hear the comfort of the words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled”.  Peace breaks into our existence and the coming kingdom of God comes close to us.

All of us, personally and communally, are people who miss the mark.  All of us, personally and communally, are therefore people to whom Jesus words of grace apply.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God believe also in me.

As we sit on the precipice of change I am reminded that most of us have been here before.  As we enter liminal spaces in life, spaces of uncertainty, and even fear I am constantly reminded that in my own life I miss the mark, but I am also constantly reminded that despite this Jesus is the way the truth and the life and it is he who guides us home.

As you consider this moment in your own existence, personally and as a community, hear the good news and be strong in faith for on the night those disciples gathered full of fear and apprehension Jesus words came to them as good news of hope for them and for all people:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Abundant Life!

John 10:1-10

What does it mean to have abundant life? 
What does it mean to have fullness in life? 
What does it mean to live?

These are fundamental questions that confront every one of us. 

What does it mean to have a full life?  What is that we should be pursuing?  What should we seek after?

These are the kinds of questions raised for us from today’s gospel reading.

When Jesus declares that he came that we might have abundant or full lives what does he mean?

In 1776, at the time of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wrote these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These words have shaped liberal democracy in the Western World and have played more than a small part in the rise of individualism.  For better or for worse, we now live in a society where each individual assumes that they have the right to pursue whatever makes them happy.

Ironically it would appear that this concept of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is not playing out as well as we may have thought.  In our Australian culture depression and anxiety is rife and our disconnection from one another as we seek our individual rights and freedoms seems to leave us feeling isolated and lonely in an overpopulated, overly-connected world. 

As Clive Hamilton points out in his book Affluenza the abundance of our possessions and ease of our lifestyles has not necessarily made us happier.  Or to echo John Carroll’s words in Humanism the Wreck of Western Culture, “We are destitute in our plenty”.

What does mean to live an abundant life?  It would seem to me that neither the abundance of possessions nor individual independence from others would reflect what fullness of life is.  What is life’s purpose?

This search for life’s meaning and living truly and deeply was captured for me in my late teens when I discovered this quote from Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.

These words were written 2 generations after the Declaration of Independence.  For me they reflect a search for meaning in life which moves beyond the material and into the spiritual and intellectual.  At the same time, even though Thoreau often welcomed guests and visitors to his cabin in the woods, they now reflect an individualism and even isolation from others that could be seen as a little self-indulgent.

To return to our passage from John Jesus describes himself as both the Shepherd and the Gate of the sheep, of the flock.  A short lesson in first century agricultural practices is helpful at this point.  Often a shepherd would find a natural enclosure or make an enclosure for his sheep with a gap on one side.  A natural ravine maybe.  The shepherd would then literally become the gate as he sat or slept in the gap.  He physically became the gate to protect the whole flock.

As the shepherd and the gate Jesus guides and leads and provides and protects the flock and each sheep within it.  It is the flock of the lost sheep, we are all the one who has gone astray, but we have all been found and drawn back together.

When Jesus speaks of abundant life it is not life your or my life alone but the life of the whole flock.  I think that what Thoreau was searching for in seeking to live and to put to rout that which was not life missed the depth of this vital aspect – we are part of the flock.

I have come to see that the search for fullness in life is not a solitary one but is a gift that we receive in community in being placed back into the flock.  Abundance in life is not abundance in life for me alone but for us together.  As Jesus prays later in John 17 for his disciples that they may be one as we are one.  Fullness in life is life together with God and each other.

This understanding of life is reflected in the confronting words of the Acts passage which describes the commitment to a common life and purpose within the first Christian communities.

They had all things in common, they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. They spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

These are challenging words and the kind of discipline and self-sacrifice described here seem almost unreal to us in our culture. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Just as Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately we discover in the first centuries of the church men and women of faith went to the desert to live. Often they began their spiritual journeys as hermits like Thoreau but they were led also into ascetic monastic communities together – to live closer to God and one another.

In the Life of Pachomius we read a description of the monastic life:

“According to what we have learned from those who went before us… We always spend half the night and often from evening to morning, in vigils and recitation of the words of God, also doing manual work with thread, hairs, and palm-fibres, lest we be overcome by sleep.  We do this work for our bodily subsistence also; and whatever is above and beyond our needs we give to the poor, following the words of the Apostle, only let us remember the poor.  Eating oil, drinking wine, eating cooked meats are something unknown among us.  We always fast until the evening”… and so it goes on.

Is this what Jesus intended? Is this life in its fullness? A life of simplicity; self-denial; asceticism? 

I have seen some contemporary attempts at living in community and living with simplicity and there is much for us to learn here in such devotion and dedication in faith.  Yet I feel that such extreme asceticism was not Jesus intent either.  What the actions of men like Thoreau and monks like Pachomiuos should challenge us with is the notion that this search for fullness in life, to discover that divine gift already promised in Christ, takes energy and commitment us we uncover God’s gracious gift of life already within us and within our community.

Maybe Jesus words of John 13 gives us a helpful glimpse of the notion of fullness in life - “Just as I have loved you so love one another”.  Life lived intentionally seeking God and seeking to love others is the fullness in life, the abundant life we are meant to encounter as we hear our shepherd’s voice.

What does it mean to have abundant life? 
What does it mean to have fullness in life? 
What does it mean to really live?

These are fundamental questions that confront every one of us. 

Jesus says that he came that we might have abundant life, to have full lives.  To live encountering the coming kingdom now in and through our loving relationships with God and with each other who are lost sheep who have been carried home by the Shepherd.  Let us celebrate in the presence of the one who leads us, who provides and protects, and who sleeps as our gate.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Who's voice? Which Shepherd?

A Sermon for the Commemoration of King's College on John 10:3-4

When we come together and we read the scriptures we are confronted by existential questions.  Questions about what the meaning and purpose of life is?  Questions about your life and my life! Question about who we are, where we have come from and where we are going?

And tonight as we contemplate what we have heard I would like to hone in on is this.  “Which shepherd do you follow?”  “Who is your shepherd?”  “Who is it that is determining how you live?”  “Who are you allowing to shape your existence?” Have you actually taken the time to consciously make decisions as to who your shepherd is? What particular story, what grand narrative, is shaping your existence? Have you even thought about it?

For myself I have.  I have made a commitment in my life to following Jesus Christ.  And in this I believe I have made a commitment to listening to God.  Jesus is my shepherd.  In the reading it declares the sheep hear my voice and they respond and so my life is very much based around this notion of listening for Jesus voice, for God’s voice.  This voice of God influences who I am, how I live, and how I view the world.

But my question to you is “Have you done the hard work of thinking about who is your shepherd?”

I had a conversation with a student at Kings earlier in the semester.  He went to a private school run by a church, like many of you have done as well.  In the conversation he was critical of the approach of his school forcing the students to do religious education.  The student said he was not really critical of religion per se but he did not like the notion of indoctrination to a particular set of beliefs.

Nor do I!  But here is a question that puzzles me.  Why, oh why, do we object to the notion of so called Christian indoctrination but blindly accept the indoctrination of secular humanism?  Why are students not prepared to do the hard work of critique the mainstream ideology that God is dead and that all we have is ourselves?

My suspicion is that many of you have given your assent to this way of thinking without even realising it.  One of the critiques of the majority of people leading into the reformation was they had an inherent faith which relied on the understanding of others.  Or another way of describing it is that they had a blind faith.  For my mind this blind faith of the masses has shifted from belief in God and trust in the church, to unbelief and trust only in ourselves.

I am continually struck by the experience that I have speaking with people, particularly young men, that they are not prepared to go deeper in their conversations to these critical existential questions.

Now tonight is the Commemoration of Kings College and it is entirely pertinent to ask ourselves the question what is at the centre of Kings, or more precisely who is at the centre of Kings.  Kings has its origins in the Methodist Church and now retains strong links with the Uniting Church.  Yet for those who were driven to establish Kings I suspect that what drove them was not centring people on the church but centring people on God.  The college motto “The truth shall set you free” is not an amorphous epistemological appeal to generic learning but is a direct quote from the Christian scriptures which points at the person of Jesus Christ who called himself the truth.  The truth that sets us free is Jesus.  The voice that I listen to as my Shepherd is Jesus.

This notion that Kings College has God at the centre can be reflected to you in two simple examples.  The first is this.  For those of you who have taken the time to read Men and Masters you will know that the chapters are titled with the names of the first books of the Bible.  Chapter 1 is aptly entitled Genesis.  The author Trevor Faragher clearly understood this connection between God, the Christian tradition and King’s College.

The second example is more recent.  Less than two weeks ago Jim Farmer recounted the story of Uncle at the ANZAC Day Ceremony here at Kings.  As Jim recounted the story of Uncle and his friends Grimey and Shirty we were told that they joined the ambulance corps.  Why?  Because like many young men at the time their faith in God had led them to believe that even in war killing others was wrong.  These brave young King’s men stood by both their faith and their mates when they went off to war.  What we heard in the story of these young men is that when you have God at the centre it changes your moral and ethical decisions.  Its shapes your life choices.  It drives you to respond to the voice of the shepherd: Jesus.

So I return to the question that is before us tonight.  Who is your shepherd?  Who is it that you are following?  Who is indoctrinating you?  Have you taken the time to think deeply and critique the voices that have shaped who you are?

If you believe as I do that God can still be found at the centre of King’s College if you look hard enough then like me you can continue to listen for the shepherd speaking in our midst but what happens when the centre does not hold.

In W.B. Yeats great poem “The Second Coming” he utters those fateful words “the centre does not hold things fall apart”.  Let me recite a little more of the poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

If we lose our centre, if we lose contact with God, will things fall apart? Are things falling apart?

One could arguably say that the answer to this question is yes.  It may not appear as if things are falling apart but the measure of our success and vitality in this matter are not always measured by our human yardsticks.

This is though is the challenge, a deep and abiding challenge for those of us who continue to believe God is at the centre not just of King’s but of all things.

On this night as the Spiritual Advisor to the College I am acutely aware of the spiritual malaise in the college for I know that for many gathered here this night have largely switched off from spiritual matters and any notion that there is a God.  There is a challenge here for you as young men as to how aware you are as to the blindness of your own faith in secular humanism and the idea of the death of God.  There is a challenge here for you to question the growth of this indoctrination over the last 500 years into a way of thinking about the world without God and whether or not this is actually a good thing.

Back in 1953, Alfred Weber, the younger brother of the highly influential thinker Max Weber, in his book “The third or fourth man”, describes four stages of the human genus.  Whilst we might want to spend time critiquing these stages the description of the fourth man struck me as deeply significant.  Remember this is 1953 that he said this.  “The fourth man is no longer conscious of history, but is only the product of the technicizing of human existence.” 

As young men, through no fault of your own but as a by-product of the enlightenment; as a result of the rise of the individual; as a consequence of the disconnection between human history and natural history; you have been set adrift on a sea of unreality, duped into believing that there is no centre other than yourselves.  The voice of the shepherd that you are being told to listen, that you have been indoctrinated to, is your own inner voice speaking into a buffered echo chamber of your own existence.  This centre is I believe unstable and cannot hold.

In the passage from John Jesus warns of thieves and robbers.  These thieves and robbers present themselves with ideas and approaches that clamour for attention over the voice of God in our lives. 

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his book “A Secular Age” describes modern people as being buffered as opposed to porous.  The says, “the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but becomes an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.” What does he mean?  We suffer from an illusion that each of us can live in our own separated hedonistic reality.  We make the world our own.  That our destiny is ours to make.

But is this really the case?

The suggestion that we listen to Jesus as the Shepherd’s voice suggests not – it suggests that there is a different story than one that places ourselves at the centre and in control of our own reality.  The idea of centring on ourselves is increasingly being recognised as something that is problematic.

Dan Ariely in his insightful book “Predictably Irrational” counters this illusions.  He writes, “We usually think of ourselves as sitting the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we made and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires-with how we want to view ourselves-than with reality.”  We are not in control of our destiny as individuals, nor may I say as humanity, and our disregard for the connection of all life is having dire consequences.  The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has recently recognised the problem of the disconnection between natural history and human history in his reflections on the Anthropocene.  Whilst Clive Hamilton’s foreboding book Requiem for a Species was another in a long line which has warned us of the consequences of the notion that we can just keep taking from the natural resources of the creation for ourselves.  The problem is that so many of these kinds of warnings are simply ignored.

For my mind it is though many of you are asleep, living in a dream, disconnected from life and its fullest meaning.  You are happy to carry on in the oblivious dream that the world revolves around you, that the worlds owes you something.  It can be far easier to stay asleep than to risk waking up. 

There is that great scene in the Matrix where Neo is given the choice to wake up or to stay asleep – but to wake up, to hear God’s voice speaking, takes you down the rabbit hole.  If you acknowledge that Jesus is your shepherd and that you’re going to listen to him the world becomes a different place.  Once you are awoken from your slumber the world and how you live it in becomes an altered reality.  Are you game enough?  Are you courageous enough to wake up?

For once you wake up you will realise that life is not all about you.  I am not at the centre.  You are not at the centre.  God is.

I deliberately chose the second reading as the one from the book of Acts because in it we begin to see the impact that listening to Jesus voice can have on people.  Deep decisions about living a shared existence spiritually, physically, financially, morally were made in the early church.  Now let me be clear and let us not be naïve those early Christian communities were not without issues – but what is clear is that they began to view the world and other people differently as the listened to Jesus voice.

To return to a moment to Jim’s recount on ANZAC Day one of the things which stood out to me was this.  At the end he asked the current cohort of King’s men what if anything did this have to do with them.  Jim answered his own question and spoke about some core values of life.  These are good values but let me clear values, especially the values Jim mentioned, do not emerge from a vacuum.  The values Jim spoke of are largely generated from a deep and abiding relationship with the divine.  The values arise out of conviction and of faith and this could be seen in the earliest Christian community.

I believe these kind of values arise when people hear the voice of the true shepherd.  Whilst we might wish to encourage these values without a centre on which to hold them it is very difficult for you or I or anyone to buy in.

So here we are at the Commemoration Service: an acting of bring to remembrance.  What are you meant to be remembering?  Let’s start with there was, is and will always be a centre at King’s which is the reality of God.  Your belief in that or otherwise does not and cannot diminish or reduce this truth.  That for many you the capacity to connect with this centre is severely stunted by the indoctrination you have had to this secular age.  And, most importantly, regardless of this challenge the shepherd’s voice is still calling to you, just as it has called to me.  It is a voice the calls you out of the safety of the constructed world view of our modern age and says to you there is more.

So the question remains.  “Whose voice are you listening to?” “Who is your shepherd?”  “Who has indoctrinated you?” 

For me the answer is simple as it is clear, an answer that we have already sung tonight.

“The Lord is my shepherd

I shall not want”