The imitation of Christ

This is the text of a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 and Matthew 22:15-33.

A little boy was visiting his grandma. He asked thoughtfully, “Grandma, do you know how you and God are alike?”
She mentally polished her halo while she asked, “No, how are we alike?
“You’re both old.”

Well. In our epistle reading today, Paul praised the Thessalonions for having been imitators of the Lord. And it’s a neat concept, a useful one for our own reflections, this idea of imitating the Lord. But just like the little boy with his grandma, it’s an idea which is prone to getting tangled up in our misconceptions, or our pious fantasies about what the Lord is like, and what imitating the Lord might mean. It’s also – let’s face it – a very big umbrella; how do you define what it is to imitate the Lord? It’s not easily reducible to neat formulae, or a simple list of rules. It’s more complicated than that.

So I take on the topic acknowledging up front that I can only pick up one little bit this morning and reflect on that with you; and that I cannot possibly do justice to the whole topic here. It will take each of us a lifetime to unpack the full implications for us of what it means to imitate the Lord.

So let me start here. In that absolute classic 15th-century work, Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, he says – in passing, almost as a throw-away line – “Do not seek too much freedom.” It made me pause, when I came across it; because freedom is so very much a virtue of our times. Is it even possible, contemporary culture might well ask, to have too much freedom? Should we not all be as free as possible? Isn’t that a measure of our worth and dignity as human beings, that we recognize personal and political autonomy as basic human rights? So what was Thomas on about, and did he have anything valuable to say to that sort of thinking?

I came to the conclusion, in thinking about this, that there are perhaps two kinds of freedom with which we ought to be concerned. One is the freedom to be who we are; to be able to be open, honest, transparent and participate in our communities with absolute integrity. This is the kind of freedom which Jesus showed us so well; he knew who he was, and he didn’t change the way he presented it to please the scribes, the Pharisees, the crowds or even his own disciples. Of this sort of freedom, I don’t think we can have too much.

Taking up this freedom means recognizing that each of us is precisely whom God has created us to be; that we have each been given gifts for the building up of this community, and that each of us are called to make a contribution to the life of the church and the world. None of that – who we are, what gifts we have, what contribution we each make – is anything that we ever need to apologise for. It’s why, when I was asked recently by someone outside the church about how I deal with people who have a problem with women in ministry, my response was to say, well, I understand their position, but they just have to suck it up, because I’m here, and this is who I am. And I’m not going to apologise for that.

But there is another kind of freedom. The freedom to do just whatever we please. We see that taken to an extreme, perhaps, in the cliché about generation Y that they don’t RSVP to invitations or make concrete plans in case something better comes up in the interim. Not wanting to be tied down, but always open to the best offer in the moment. And so you get youth-oriented churches, for example, who send out SMS reminders of church services hours beforehand in an attempt to boost attendance.

I’m happy to say that I don’t think we need to resort to that just yet. But this sort of freedom is very different to the freedom to be who you are. Its opposite is not oppression; it is commitment. And when we think about it, it becomes obvious that a balanced human life needs some of this sort of freedom, but also can indeed have too much of it; the person who does not commit at all is likely to be a dilettante student, an unreliable employee, an unsatisfactory romantic partner, and… I wonder, what sort of Christian?

Jesus, from the moment of his baptism right through to his death by crucifixion, set us an example of unwavering commitment. And we heard it, in a way, in his teaching in today’s gospel reading as well; “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” It’s a question worth pausing and taking seriously; what do we think we rightly owe God?

Let me be clear; this isn’t me trying to guilt trip people into doing more, being here more, or otherwise trying to offer some sort of proof of personal piety. But I’m suggesting that Christian commitment ought to make a difference. It ought to impact on our priorities. It ought to open us up to the question, “What would God have me do?” or, if that’s too abstract, to consider how the mission of God, and the values we can identify as consistent messages through Scripture, relate to the choices we have to make.

Be imitators of the Lord, and one day, what you have in common with God won’t be just that you’re both old – though that might happen too – but also that you are known as people able and ready to teach and nurture others; to recognize and respond to the needs of those around you; to identify and stand against injustice. You’ll be identifiable as people whose moral imagination has been shaped by the example of Christ, and who has learned the wisdom of giving to God, what is God’s; and like the Thessalonians, your reputation as people of faith will be a credit to you.

The Lord be with you.

…in a tongue not understanded of the people.

It is one of the great principles of the Reformation (and even the Catholics caught on by Vatican II) that worship should be offered in the vernacular, that is, in the common everyday language of the people.  Long gone are the days when a Western Christian in Australia (I recognise here the adherence to more ancient tradition of churches such as the Orthodox and the Copts) would expect to worship in Latin or Greek or indeed even sixteenth-century English.  We expect to be able to understand, respond to and participate in what happens when we gather as a body for worship.

This principle has given me a great deal of pause for thought of late, as I have struggled with what it might mean to offer worship that is accessible to people for whom spoken or written language is not intuitive.

A bit of background.  I was approached by someone else asking me for help in providing an opportunity for prayer and worship for children on the autism spectrum, and with related challenges.  “Of course!” was my immediate response.  Followed very quickly by, “…but I have no idea how to do that.”  As I read and sought advice from others, some ideas took shape.  Avoid being abstract.  Avoid metaphor.  Keep it clear and concrete, and as much as possible rely on visual and other sensory information, rather than on words (written or spoken).

I spent time with books on different kinds of prayer.  Here were some suggestions; prayers that were done with movement, or with creative expression; kids could paint pictures of their prayers instead of forming words, that sort of thing.  Ok.  We could do that.

Also, we really needed something from the Bible.  Preferably a gospel story, I felt, if we wanted to claim this as Christian worship rather than just something spiritually undefined and wishy-washy.  Problem: a lot of the Bible is abstract or metaphorical.  And all of it is words.  I looked around for books of stories with lots of pictures, but didn’t find something I felt would work.  My boss had a bright idea – Bible cartoons.  We found some here, and I sorted through looking for one I thought could work.

Other details took shape too; the use of music, the layout of the space, the flow and pace of events so kids weren’t expected to sit still for very long but there was a focus on moving around.

We hope to trial this in coming weeks.  I don’t know how successful it will be; although I hope that God will be able to use it to do something good.

But one thing I’ve discovered is that some people – parents of kids on the spectrum, or otherwise concerned people – are upset at this being an attempt to offer something distinct, instead of integrating these children into our main worship service.

Integration is important; these kids as much as anyone else belong at the Lord’s table and amongst his people, and exclusion of them is absolutely not ok.  But I found myself answering a mother who wanted to know why we would do this, “Well, I wouldn’t expect you to worship in Latin; so why would I expect someone whose way of connecting with the world and making meaning is not verbal and abstract, to worship in that way?”

I don’t intend this to be a replacement for “normal” church attendance and participation.  But most churches don’t have the ability (or let’s face it, the willingness) to totally overhaul their worship into what would be a more natural idiom for a person with autism.  I hope, that by offering something which can supplement other opportunities, and which is constructed with the particular strengths and gifts of these kids as the starting point, we can create a liturgical experience which speaks of the gospel in different ways, and perhaps helps people to make connections which otherwise would go unmade.

Because everyone deserves to be able to talk about, and to, God in their own language.

 

Apostolic spirituality

This is the text of a sermon for St. Matthew’s day, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Psalm 119:65-72.

I wonder how many of you have heard someone describe him or herself as “spiritual but not religious”? It’s a growing phenomenon, this way of thinking about life, so much so that that source of all profound knowledge – I refer of course to Wikipedia – tells me that perhaps one third of Americans today fall into this category. Wikipedia didn’t have similar statistics for Australia, but I suspect that as a similar society, it’s likely to be a serious phenomenon here as well.

But what does it mean? What does it mean to be spiritual? And if we are religious, what does that imply about spirituality for us? Perhaps spirituality is a smorgasbord of ideas and behaviours and practices from which we can pick and choose to fashionably accessorise our faith? Or indeed is it a matter of fuzzy thinking best ignored by the wise?

Well, I think it is possible to be religious without being spiritual. But I also think it is dangerous; that way lie dogmatism, fundamentalism, legalism, and institutionalism. We’ve all seen the damage that these approaches to a life of faith can do, and I’m sure I don’t need to encourage you to avoid them.

At the same time, though, it is definitely possible to have a spirituality which isn’t firmly anchored in a relationship with God, and that’s just as dangerous in its own way. That way lie the occult practices which the Bible explicitly forbids, as well as pursuit of whatever makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, perhaps at the expense of our emotional maturity and indeed our common sense. That way, too, lies the risk of projecting our own psyche onto the universe and then wondering why the universe seems so muddled!

The reason that I’ve started by raising questions about spirituality is that this morning I want to consider the Psalm we just sang, but I want to talk particularly about its spirituality and what that might have to offer us. And I want to think with you – on this feast day of St. Matthew – about what that might add to our understanding of what it is to be an apostolic church. More on that later.

The psalmist wrote, “I have trusted in your commandments…I keep your word…teach me your statutes…I will keep your commandments…my delight is in your law…I may learn your statutes…the law of your mouth is dearer.” On the face of it, this psalm can look like an obsessive-compulsive’s hymn to legalism. Over and over the psalmist focuses on God’s law.

And yet we do well, to notice amongst the mentions of the “law,” words about grace and life and delight. And we might also do well to ask, how it is that the psalmist found these things in the law?

Well, the first thing we should note is that the word we translate as “law” – Torah – is not about a legal system. It has at its root the Jewish verb for “to teach” or “to instruct.” For the psalmist, then, delight comes from accepting God’s teaching, rather than living within a set of “rules.” That teaching is not just a set of moral or behavioural precepts; it refers above all to God’s revelation of Godself to Israel. But notice that the psalmist does not treat God’s teaching as fixed or finished; he asks that God continues to teach him. This is a faith which expresses itself in a relationship which is open, trusting and dynamic.

The psalmist’s spirituality has what has been described as a “warm doctrine of God.” The God of this psalm is not withdrawn or neutral; he is present and available to the person who reaches out to Him.

The psalmist had a faith very firmly grounded in what he knew of God. His spirituality wasn’t something he made up as he went along, but at every point he turned back to let his life be formed and re-formed according to the word of the Lord. For us, coming after the time of Christ, our knowledge of God has expanded to include the apostolic witness to Christ; the gospels, the creeds of the early church, and the foundation of the tradition in which we have been nurtured. In order to be truly apostolic, we need to take that as seriously as the psalmist took the teaching he had received.

A further thing to note about this psalm is that it is not an expression of purely individual faith. Whatever the circumstances in which it was written, it was incorporated into the sung worship of the Jerusalem temple, and has continued to be part of the corporate prayer life of both Jews and Christians to this day. Even our use of it this morning is intended to be as much an exercise of prayer and worship as of intellectual processing. It points us to the fact that we connect with God at times in each other’s company and even through each other, through mutual service and the sharing of our gifts and wisdom. And it points us to the fact that God’s self-revelation impacts the decisions and priorities not just of individuals but of communities.

But let me come back to the questions I started with this morning. Is spirituality a bit of a smorgasbord, something from which we can pick and choose as we wish to enhance our faith? I suggest that the psalm we’ve read this morning offers us a qualified answer which says, “yes and no.” Yes, spirituality, even for Christians, offers us a huge variety of ways to connect with God and discern His will. Even the diversity of Scripture shows us that; we can pray and praise our way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and encounter a huge variety of genres of writing, of moods, of characters and stories.

At the same time, the psalm also says, no, Christian spirituality – apostolic spirituality – isn’t entirely undetermined. It is a response to God’s love and self-revelation in Christ. Christian spirituality includes the imperative to obedience, to trust and faith, to coming back again and again to the touchstones we have in Scripture and in tradition, to ensure that we are firmly anchored in the life of faith. It highlights the necessity of facing up to the things in life of which we are afraid, and points us to the resources we have to do so.

The question of what it means to be faithfully apostolic is real and urgent.  It has consequences for our identity and ethos. It is in being faithful to the teaching about God in Christ, which we have received from the apostles, that we can be faithful heirs to the legacy of St. Matthew.

A feather on the breath of God

Today, the church remembers in its calendar St. Hildegard, abbess, spiritual writer, and generally all-round very impressive person of the twelfth century.

Seeing that in the lectionary reminded me of a quote of hers which has been a personal favourite for a long time:

“Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne.
Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour.
Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly.
The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”

I love this image because of the sense of freedom and encouragement it offers.  Hildegard was a woman who worked hard; doctor of the church, theologian, scholar, composer, leader of her community and mystic, I have no doubt her days were full and busy.  And yet in what she did, she knew that ultimately the results rested not on her efforts, but on the grace and power of the one who upheld and carried her (and indeed her religious community and the whole church).

Here is an invitation to let go of anxiety, and to find oneself to be caught up in the image and on the breath of God, borne along as we work towards the accomplishment of the good works we are each given to do, confident that our own inadequacies are not the determinant of the final outcomes.

Thus may each of us be; a feather on the breath of God.

 

I have found my limit

I am – as I have written about before – someone who enjoys and celebrates the diversity of Christianity.  I actively seek out dialogue across difference, and when I get the chance to listen to and learn from Christians who hold different opinions than mine, I’m glad to have the chance to broaden my understanding by learning from them.

But today, I have found my limit.  I have found the point at which I’m not willing to engage any more.  I’m not willing to try to listen, or to figure out how what we hold in common has given rise to such different expressions.  Today, I found that the Rise Up Australia Party (motto: “Keep Australia Australian!”), whose leader is also the president of Catch the Fire Ministries,  has published on its Facebook page an image which is intended to represent the political climate in which the party is operating.  I have added the image below.

In the commentary on the Facebook page, they explain the image thus:

“For the fourth time, “The regional conference of the World Congress of Families” has had to be relocated because of the unhappy musings of the 21st Century mobile Munich beer Hall “tolerance” putsch.

Many high profile politicians have fled the nightmare scenario in their mind. The goosestepping stilettos of the “gaystapo” being too much for them. Alas, the Agenda 21 lackeys and unwitting, default “useful idiots 4 Islam” have met their “Alamo”/ “Stalingrad”.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-29/kevin-andrews-cancels-appearance-at-families-conference/5705364 .”

Now, let me be clear.  The World Congress of Families might not be my favourite group in the whole wide world and outer space, but I support their right to meet in peace and safety.  I also support the right of various venues to decline to host them.  I can understand that that refusal might be irritating, and that by the fourth refusal you might be intemperate.

But when that intemperate irritation is expressed in comparing one’s critics to the Nazi party, you’d better be standing on very solid ground.  And these guys are not.

The World Congress of Families has speakers who are known for spreading medical misinformation, for their unwillingness to support freedom of religion, for their promotion of rigid gender roles (with all of the social problems that go with that), and so on and so forth.  Their position is open to critique on rational and even theological grounds.  To lower themselves to dismissing and ridiculing that critique – and the genuine concerns underlying it – by comparing their critics to the Nazis (and implying that it’s driven by the gay lobby, when in fact that is only one voice among many) is beyond being a cheap shot.

It’s intellectually and morally bankrupt.

And it misrepresents the power dynamics that are really in play here; these are not frightened and disempowered people being silenced by threat of death.  They continue to occupy their positions of political and spiritual influence with the same protections afforded every other citizen.

Today, I feel I have more in common in outlook with the abortionists, the gay lobby, the “idiots 4 Islam” and all the rest of the people that this group vilifies, than I do with these brothers and sisters in Christ.  (And for me, by nature a rather conservative personality, that’s not a small thing to say!)  These are my brothers and sisters, and that’s not something I can or would want to change.  But until they can grow up a bit, reflect on their own stance, learn to engage with others with some compassion and openness to repentance, I consider them estranged.

Because I can’t hold meaningful dialogue before a Nazi swastika on a rainbow.

 

Rise up Australia image

Simplicity

This is the text of a sermon for St. Bartholomew’s day, in the parish where I am now licensed. The gospel reading it references is John 1:45-51.

This week, while I’ve been preparing to preach on St. Bartholomew, I’ve ended up thinking about the Holy Grail. I don’t mean the romantic cup of legend, but the most elusive Holy Grail of modern life; work-life balance. I certainly haven’t attained it; despite my best efforts to do a little of everything well, I somehow often end up feeling as if the bits of my life are disconnected fragments held in tension, rather than part of a balanced, unified whole. And as I look out at all of you, I know I’m far from alone.

I want to explore the nature of the quest for work-life balance a little bit, because I think it relates to the defining trait of St. Bartholomew quite closely. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus said of Nathanael (the other name for Batholomew), “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” With Bartholomew, what you see is what you get.

Even the most ancient Christian writers recognized this quality as a profound virtue in the Christian life, and a lot has been written about it as “simplicity.” In recent times it has gone somewhat out of fashion, but in some Christian traditions – the Quakers would be an example – simplicity has been a defining concern.

So what is “simplicity”? In classical terms, a virtue is seen as the balance point between two corresponding vices. Simplicity might be seen as the balance point between excessive ascetism and profligacy.   It cuts a straight path between these extremes because it is governed by a profound authenticity and sense of purpose.   What you see is what you get. Certainly Bartholomew didn’t beat about the bush in the conversation we heard today!

Let me be clear: this is not the same as simple-mindedness or being simplistic. Simplicity is an inward reality which can be seen outwardly. It’s not a system or a set of rules. If we were talking in terms of art, it would not be an exercise in painting by number, but more of a moral aesthetics; a fresh freedom to discover what it means to live as Christ’s disciples together.

Ultimately, this freedom comes from the profound trust of a deep relationship with God; it has roots sunk deep in prayer. And from that deep relationship with God comes a healthy sense of our own selves, not needing others around us to reinforce who we are, but knowing that who we are comes from the open hands of a gracious and generous God. Bonhoeffer put it this way: “To be simple is to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted, and turned upside down.”

I really can’t stress the importance of relationship with God enough; simplicity – or any virtue – is just another anxiety and burden until people have experienced God’s gracious power to provide for their deepest needs. Only then are we free to live in trust.

This place of trust, of deeply knowing God as the everlasting arms which hold us up, then allows a simplicity and authenticity of life to flow out into various aspects of our lives. It is seen in clarity of thought; in direct, honest speech; in acceptance of what is really going in, in all its difficulties; in a focus on a life of purpose. Simplicity is not concerned with the pangs of consumerism. This is why many books on spirituality explain the value of decluttering as a serious spiritual exercise. Or of eating simple meals and even growing your own food.   Simplicity is more interested in doing stuff than having stuff. In that way, simplicity is related to that other out-of-fashion virtue, modesty; by which I don’t mean obsessing about necklines and hemlines but investing more in doing good, than looking good.

And these aspects of simplicity and integrity are what brought me to thinking about work-life balance. The spirituality of simplicity has – as one English bishop put it – a “theology of enough.” Simplicity is an invitation to get off the treadmill-lists of “things to do,” and take time for silence, for reflection, for beauty, for knowing ourselves more deeply and learning to live together in unity.

Because virtues are not just for individuals; they are also about the quality of our life together. I’m aware, as I stand here in these vestments, against the backdrop of this sanctuary wall, of a certain irony in preaching on simplicity. It might sound as if I want to strip it all back to plain albs and white walls and all of that.   But these things are an authentic expression of who we are in this parish. In that sense, I don’t think that they indicate a lack of simplicity in the sense that I’ve been talking about it. Simplicity isn’t devoid of beauty or celebration, but allows those things to find their proper place in our lives.

Still, it is a good thing for us to hear a reminder that in our contemporary culture, models of a healthy simplicity are desperately needed. Our neighbours are crying out for leaders and exemplars who model authenticity, clarity, and purpose. If our community can be one in which we show the value of a deep spirit of prayer, and a life of obedience to the purposes of God, we can be a real place of refreshment in a world that sees little enough of those things.

Think of what Paul wrote to Titus; “Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured.” If we can do that – if we can be a church where the integrity and reverence of our lives is the example we set before the world; if we can be a community where what you see is what you get – we will have taken to heart the example of St. Bartholomew, the Israelite in whom there was no deceit, in a truly healthy and life-giving way.

Priestly preaching

This afternoon, I’ve been re-reading a paper +Rowan Williams gave some years ago on “Living Baptismally.”  In it, he spends some time discussing the priestly dimension of baptismal identity, and he says this:

“A real priesthood is a priesthood that understands what it is to make sense and make connections, and to do so in ways which are very much more than superficial and decorative.  A priestliness which is simply putting the stamp of religious approval on what anybody else happens to be doing is not a making of connections.  The priest is there to make the unexpected connections, which is more than putting a stamp on what happens to be going on and that is why authentic priesthood is such a very difficult task both for those we call ordained priests and for the whole priestly people of God.  In fact, the priest may be seen as the one who must perpetually be asked by (and attempt to answer for) the people, the question Prospero asks Miranda in The Tempest: ‘What seest thou else?’  Making sense is hard work.  Making Christian sense, making Christian connections, is still harder.  This is a world in which fragmentation is frequently the dominant theme and to make sense, to connect across the abyss…is no small matter.”

As I think about what it might mean to be “ready” to be priested (as I hope to be, soon), this makes a lot of sense to me.  It also resonates very strongly with how I understand the task of preaching.

To me, a good sermon is one which makes connections; it brings out elements of the Biblical text and connects those to the real lives of the people listening, and their current circumstances.  It takes seriously their experiences of God and faith and seeks to integrate those into a greater whole; the experiences of God and faith of Christians (and indeed other faithful people before them) over the millennia.

This is why experience is important in theological reflection.  Because it’s only when our encounter with Scripture actually connects with our own lives, our own understanding, that it is able to be brought to life in us, to push us towards faithfulness and fruitfulness.  It’s also why good sermon preparation is about listening; it’s not just what you read in the commentaries, but what you hear at hospital beds, in nursing homes and over cups of tea with your congregation members that provides the raw material for those connections.  Preaching can be brilliant without any anchor in the concrete life of the community; but I don’t know that that kind of preaching can be truly life giving in the long term.

It also occurs to me that what +Rowan describes above takes time and space to think.  This is perhaps, for the busy pastor (and the busy mother!) the hardest challenge.  How do I create the time and space where I am free to think deeply and allow these connections to form?  I am reminded again of the importance of that discipline, which I struggle with so much.  It’s a struggle in which I need to be vigilant, for the love of the people I’m here to serve.