Transfiguration

This is the text of a sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration), in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is Mark 9:2-9.  Observant long-term readers might recognise that it has much material in common with last year’s Transfiguration sermon; normally I try not to recycle, but in this case I had received poor feedback on last year’s and had set myself the challenge of trying to use the good bits of it in a way which came across much better.  Not sure whether I was entirely successful!

My brothers and sisters, I’d like to invite you, this morning, to pause; to set aside whatever worries and concerns you have brought to church with you, and to come with me, in your imagination, up the mountain path with Peter and James and John, following Jesus. It’s a strange encounter, the transfiguration, out of the round of everyday life and events, and it invites us to stop and see what it might have to say to us.

The gospel account tells us what the disciples saw – that Jesus’ face changed, that his clothes became white, that he spoke with Moses and Elijah. But what do those things mean?

Consider that light is an important symbol in Mark’s gospel. Think of Jesus’ teaching, where he said: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” Light is an essential attribute of God and points to God’s final salvation dawning already in the darkness of the world, through the splendor of Christ.

This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation. It really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them the foundations for their own understanding and proclamation of the good news later on, after the resurrection. This event then is a potent reminder that God’s last word in Christ is one of life and joy, even if what we experience in the interim is otherwise.

Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.

In order to make sense of the vision of restoration and hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God. This is why, after the bit we read this morning, Mark tells us that immediately after descending the mountain, Jesus is called on to perform an exorcism. It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. The light of God, reflected in the face of Christ who is the source of creation in its original goodness, turns its beams upon human beings at the point of our violence and degradation, our oppression and escapism, our loss and alienation, our fear, pride, anger and despair; choose your poison!  In the end, human beings are saved through the dual revelation of their own disfiguration and the hope of their transfiguration in Christ.

In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship (which really are two different faces of the same coin, which is our total commitment to God), that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us. When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith (if not yet by sight) in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands. These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.

So there is a call to action, here. The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope. We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.

As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness.

As Gregory of Nyssa put it, “It is not the sky which has become the image of God, nor the moon, nor the sun, nor the beauty of the stars, nor any other visible creature. You alone have become the image of the nature which surpasses all intelligence, the impression of true divinity, the receptacle of the blessed life: become, in regarding that light, what it is.”

It is the same light of love which overflowed from the inner life of God in creation, and again at the incarnation, which should draw each of us out of an enclosed individualism into the beauty and luminosity of Godly relationship; with God, with each other, and with all of creation.

So, since we have as our hope a vision of perfect peace and human flourishing, that commits us to work for these things; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, to nurture the tender new shoots of the reign of God wherever we find them. We’re supposed to be on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket; and if we’re on a lampstand, we’ll be effective in bringing light to the spaces we inhabit.

The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.

May we be faithful stewards of it.

 

Anzac as ‘civil religion’

I wrote this article for the ANZAC Centenary Peace Coalition, and they have graciously given me permission to publish it here as well (I have edited it slightly for this blog post).  To give some context, particularly for international readers, “ANZAC” stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” and refers to a group of soldiers in the First World War who have come to hold a defining place in Australian history and identity.  As we approach the centenary of the events in which they participated, many observers are concerned at the way their legacy is being used to promote certain attitudes in our society.  This piece is part of an effort to critique this public discourse.

Anzac has been widely described as Australia’s “civil religion,” providing a secular country with a mythology, set of rituals and memorials which together help to shape a sense of national identity. In religion, it is a well-established principle that the stories we tell ourselves, the rituals in which we participate and the monuments we erect shape our thinking in ways which flow out into our actions. This will happen whether we are conscious of it or not; but becoming conscious of it allows us to be critical, and to choose how we engage with our traditions, in ways which align with our core values and ethics. It is with that aim – of raising consciousness of the influence of Anzac, in order to equip people to be critical and empowered in their engagement with it – that I offer this analysis.

First, some background. The Anzac landing at Gallipoli, on 25th April 1915, was the first action where Australians fought as Australians, from an independent sovereign country, rather than as British colonials. The attempted attack on Turkey was poorly planned and executed, and ultimately unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the Australians drew pride from having done what was asked of them, and blamed their British commanders for the lack of success. From very early after the war, British and Australian views of this action and the behavior of the soldiers differed, and at times sharp historical disagreement has broken out. However, within Australia, a consistent view of the Anzacs and the “Anzac spirit” has become established in the public consciousness.

Mythology

The mythology of Anzac has a number of strands interwoven in a complex pattern. Former Prime Minister John Howard could describe the Anzacs as having left a national “creed” of personal courage, initiative and common purpose. The rhetoric of sacrifice is strong around occasions of formal commemoration. But if we speak of sacrifice, should we not ask to what, and for what, those sacrifices – a noble euphemism for death, injury, trauma and grief – were made?

In the first place, the language of sacrifice was a valuable psychological defence against the trauma of war and the despair of grief; the thought that all the death and destruction had been for nothing was unbearable to grieving families and responsible leaders; it was necessary that it be given transcendent meaning.

It is generally not well remembered today that at the time of the outbreak of World War One, war was often justified in terms drawn from social Darwinism (popular at the time). According to the social Darwinists, the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest meant that struggle between national groups was inevitable, and war was the ennobling mechanism by which such struggle would be furthered and humanity improved. It was to these ideals, much more than for democracy and freedom (often referenced today in speeches and writing around Anzac) that these young men were sacrificed.

More than that, Anzac has often been identified as the “creation myth for White Australia.” Australia Day, and the colonization of Australia by British settlers, have become divisive in the Australian community, particularly over the issues of the treatment of Indigenous people. In contrast, Anzac day allows the glossing over of a problematic colonial past, and the marginalization of other formative experiences for the nation, in favour of the “one day of the year” on which Australians can be united, across racial, cultural and religious barriers, in celebrating a supposedly inclusive national identity.

All of this was repackaged in the politics of nationalism in the 1980s and onward. Anzac Day took the focus off the issues popularized by the “black armband” view of Australian history, and put in the spotlight something against which there was less resistance (although critique was not entirely absent).

National identity

The first key part of the national identity supported by the focus on Anzac is that of distinctiveness from England. The stereotypical Anzac is an idealized Anglo-Celtic male; tough, with a wry sense of humour, leery of authority but loyal to his mates; practical and hard-working. He is independent, rugged, made tough by the sunburnt country which produced him, in contrast to English men who were not formed in such tough conditions. The celebration of Anzac is a celebration of a nation come of age and come into its own.

In this vein, it is worth nothing that the British monarch sends a formal message to Australia every 25th April acknowledging the occasion. In the early decades after the war, when Imperial praise still mattered, these messages were published on the front page of newspapers. Although the messages continue, their relevance is not still such that they are published at all.

There is also the question of how war relates to national identity. A nation which sees a battle as its wellspring of identity is likely to normalize militaristic values and support for past, present and future war. All wars become an extension of the one event, animated by the “Anzac spirit,” in which all Australian military personnel participate. This is reflected in the involvement in Anzac day ceremonies of veterans of later conflicts, and provides a justification for the ongoing deployment of Australian forces overseas in conflicts not directly touching Australia (“wars of choice” rather than necessity), and particularly the “war on terror.”

Despite this, Anzac as a civil religion does not make great moral or spiritual demands on its supporters; except one, that of loyalty and respect. Questioning of Anzac Day or its associated mythology is likely to provoke a strong response. It would seem that the minute’s silence – “Lest We Forget” – is ironically extended to muffle those who would seek to remember that the national identity promoted by Anzac is not one in which all are equally able to see themselves reflected (including many feminists, pacifists, proponents of multiculturalism, and those who are suspicious of aggressively asserted nationalism, all of whom find themselves attacked for their views).

Rituals (in particular, Anzac Day)

Anzac Day ceremonies have changed over time. Originally, they were largely an occasion for personal mourning, for the expression of grief, regret and remorse. However, as those who participated in World War One have died, this has allowed others to shape the ceremonies to meet a changing set of needs. Today, Anzac Day is just as much a festival of national pride and national identity in the form of the “Anzac spirit.”

These ceremonies do not take this form accidentally. Significant government funding, publicity and official rhetoric goes into shaping these events. Commemoration programmes have been seen as creating significant job opportunities. School resources have been developed by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. (This department also funds and administers “commemorative missions” to overseas theatres of war, which are part of on ongoing programme of public rituals). The inclusion of children and grandchildren of veterans in the marches extends Anzac beyond its historical context and promotes the sense that the “spirit of Anzac” is perpetuated and extended through the general Australian community.

“Pilgrimage” either to Gallipoli, or to the Kokoda Trail (a World War Two site), has also become a popular ritual associated with Anzac observances. This sort of pilgrimage is seen as a character-building exercise, a forging of a personal identity in line with the Australian identity. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke described this practice as a “regeneration of the spirit of Anzac,” and the Australian government has worked hard to ensure continued Australian access to these sites for this purpose.

The Anzac mythology and the national identity which it promotes are – at this level – official government policy. “On this day,” according to Former Prime Minister John Howard, “we enrich ourselves” by drawing on the resources of this part of our past.

Memorials

World War One memorials began to be erected before the war had ended, in part in order to inspire or encourage (or indeed shame) other young people to be prepared to serve. This was particularly an issue in Australia, where two referenda on conscription were defeated and all soldiers were volunteers. In New Zealand, where conscription had been introduced, there were fewer memorials, they were erected later, and they tend to carry only the names of those who died. In Australia, memorials often also carry the names of those who served and survived; shaming those who did not serve by their omission.

In addition to this, there were restrictions on the type of monument which could be erected. Those deemed “inappropriate” – that is, those which might undermine support for the war on the home front – were refused permission. Such restrictions were maintained after the war, for example, in the NSW Local Government Act, which required all memorials to be approved by the War Memorials Advisory Board. One of the sculptors commissioned to make several memorials is recorded as finding the restrictions difficult, “an incentive to effort but not art.”

Records of the unveiling of memorials describe speeches which expressed hope that the memorial would inspire the young to emulate the men whom it honoured. And yet, even then, some local newspapers reported such unveilings in headlines like “War Glorifier Unveiled”; local communities did not always gather around such memorials without disagreement as to their meaning. War memorials were often opposed by veterans who felt that they glorified war, rather than being honest about the reality of it.

There is one very unusual aspect of war memorials in Australia, and that is their ubiquity in churches. Church “honour boards” listing those of their congregation who served brought this aspect of Anzac into explicitly sacred space and claimed for it a level of sanctity not otherwise seen, creating a nexus between civil religion and the church on this matter.

Conclusion

This brief survey has attempted to tease out some of the psychological, historical, and political ways in which the Anzac story and related observances have been developed and used to shape the attitudes and behaviours of contemporary Australians.

The question, for readers, is whether the values of nationalism, militarism, and the marginalization of all but a very narrow view of Australian heritage, identity and values, are those which they wish to adopt as their own? Or do we each individually, and together as a community, need to do more work in order to shape a national identity which will articulate different values and reward different behaviours? That is a conversation in which I hope I can encounter – and be enriched by – a great diversity of viewpoints and values.

For further reading:

Lake, M. et al. “What’s Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History.” University of New South Wales Press: Sydney, 2010.

Melleuish, Gregory. “Religion and Politics in Australia,” Political Theology, Vol. 11 Issue 6, 2010, pp909-927.

Rainbird, Paul. “Representing nation, dividing community: the Broken Hill War Memorial, New South Wales, Australia” World Archaeology, Vol. 35 Issue 1, 2003, pp22-35.

Rickard, J. and Spearritt, P, (eds). “Packaging the Past?: Public Histories.” Melbourne University Press: Melbourne, 1991.

Thomson, Alistair. “History and ‘betrayal’: The Anzac controversy,” History Today, Vol. 43 Issue 1, 1993, pp8-12.

The problem of change

This is the text of a sermon for third Sunday after Epiphany, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Jonah 3:1-5, 10.

How are you going, my brothers and sisters, with your New Year’s resolutions? We’re nearly at the end of January, so there’s been time, I would think, to establish new habits of behavior, and to be comfortably settled with your commitments as just part of the new normal.

Or is it just possible that in fact, New Year’s resolutions have been all but left behind? Bent a little at first – “just once,“ of course – and then gradually relinquished as you realized that the demand for change was too high, unrealistic and unsustainable in the face of everything else going on in life?

If your reality is closer to the latter, please, hear no judgement from me. As it happens, I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions, in part because I know that dynamic all too well!

Change is hard. It is costly. All too often – to turn the advertising slogan around – even when it does happen, it doesn’t happen overnight. Which presents us with something of a problem; because we are committed to a faith which is all about change. The kingdom of God is amongst us, and as it grows, nothing it touches is supposed to ever be the same again. Whenever we encounter God, changed hearts, changed lives and changed community are supposed to be the result.

How are we, limited humans who struggle with change, even positive and necessary change, able to engage with God’s imperative for change in ways which are going to last, to become part of us, to become our new normal?

Perhaps we can find some insight in the story of Jonah. In the snippet of it that we heard this morning, Jonah hears the word of the Lord – a second time, this is after the episode with the big fish – and sets out and goes to Nineveh, where he cries out that in forty days, the city will be overturned. The people of the city believe, and fast in sackcloth. The city is indeed overturned; not by God’s wrath, but by changed hearts and the abandoning of evil and violence.

This is, we know, not an easy thing for Jonah. He goes off to have a mighty sulk, even asking to die, apparently finding death less objectionable than having to change his attitude towards Nineveh! It is not an easy thing for the people of Nineveh either; fasting, formal shows of repentance, and – most importantly – changed behaviours would have made demands on their strength, their resilience and their egos. And – ultimately – we know it didn’t last. They weren’t destroyed in the time of Jonah, but some time later, their time was up, and in this theological reading of history, God’s patient concern for them was overtaken by his demand for justice for the victims of their cruelty (and they were a cruel people).

It strikes me that in both of these cases – Jonah, and the Ninevites – they don’t engage in the new, desired behavior because it comes from within them, from who they are. Jonah hasn’t been given much alternative! And while the Ninevites initially respond positively to his message, it’s a shallow change, one which dissipates only slightly more slowly than the threat extended over them.

Perhaps this is like our New Year’s resolutions? Things we decide to do because we know we “should,” to fit our society’s, or our family’s, or even our own ideas of what a “good” person should be; but not because the desire to be those things is burning within our hearts; not because we cannot stand to be anything else a moment longer; not because failure in these resolutions would be an unbearable lack of integrity with who we are, fundamentally, in our heart of hearts.

And what of the gap between our ideals, as a Christian community, and our reality? What about all of the times we fail in hospitality, in generosity, in kindness, in patience – all of those things? Is it possible that the gap is because we know, intellectually, that we “should” get those things right; but that knowledge hasn’t taken root so deeply in our hearts that it has moved us to genuine change?

Note: just because, this morning, I am addressing the question of change, and this means that I need to talk about the fact that there are always areas where we do need to change, I don’t want to be heard as saying that we don’t do anything right, either. We do a good many things very well. But while it is good to recognize that, it is not good to let ourselves stop there, and fail to address the rest of it.

There is a song by the Christian musician Matt Redman called “The heart of worship.” The church which produced this song was well known for its proud music tradition. It had produced many worship songs which had become popular around the world. Its musical production on any given Sunday had everything you could want in terms of band and sound system and all the rest of it. But their pastor felt that they had lost their way, lost their connection with what was most fundamental. So he decided that for a while, they would use none of it. No band. No sound system. No accomplished singers leading. And he challenged his congregation: “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” That decision, and that question, were the beginning of a time of renewed and deepened worship and connection with God for the people in that place.

And after this time, one of their musicians wrote this song, which runs: “When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come, longing just to bring something that’s of worth, that will bless your heart. I’ll bring you more than a song; for a song in itself is not what you have desired. You search much deeper within, through the way things appear; you’re looking into my heart. I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you; it’s all about you, Jesus.”

That church’s decision to do without all of the richness of their usual worship style for a while helped them to get beneath the surface and feel the need for change, feel the lack of integrity between what they proclaimed and how they lived, to long for something more faithful and more fruitful.

So here is my challenge: how do we get beneath the surface of our lives? How do we move from intellectual understanding of God’s holy demands on us, and know them burning deep within our hearts? How do we get to the point where we can’t stand still, unchanged, a moment longer? How do we create the change that is so deeply rooted that it becomes our new normal, without any desire to turn the clock back to yesterday?

We don’t want to be modern-day Jonahs, reluctant, sulking, willing to die before we let God’s new reality break in. Nor do we want to be like the Ninevites, changing in the short term but returning to our old patterns as soon as we’re not being pushed. The change that we’re called to is deeper, more real and more lasting. If we can be open to it.

How will we do that?

Special bonus for blog readers, which I couldn’t use in the sermon itself: here is a link to the song, The Heart of Worship.

Where are the women?

Warning: angry rant ahead.  Proceed at your own risk.

I am angry right now.  I just saw the list of names of people to be ordained deacon in my diocese next February.  I have no problem with any of those names, but I have a problem with the list as a whole; of the seventeen people, only four are women.  For the second year in a row, the proportion of women being ordained deacon will be less than a quarter.

It wasn’t always that way.  I can remember within the last ten years, times when the proportions have been about even.  But I have noticed, over the last few years, the proportion of women gradually dropping.  And people are starting to comment, and to ask why; to wonder if fewer women are discerning vocations, or if perhaps it’s a statistical blip.  Or whether there is something else, harder to identify, in play.

I’ve only very recently been through the whole selection-formation-ordination process, and I believe my own experiences have given me some insight into why women might not be coming forward in equal numbers to men.  My experience suggests that:

– When we first begin to discern a vocation to ministry, we are often discouraged from taking on leadership roles and developing our potential in our own parishes, while watching our brothers in Christ receive encouragement and opportunities to do so.

– If we have children, we discover that the formation system can be inflexible around the demands and juggle of parenting, necessitating long periods of deferment rather than continued progress during that time.  (I was forced to cease attending college altogether while pregnant, rather than being able to undertake a negotiated reduced load).

– We encounter resistance from clergy who might employ us in lay roles which would further our preparation and development; as was told to me: “It’s not appropriate for a young woman to do this job.”

– We find that colleges can prioritise their own convenience over working with candidates to enable them to study to their fullest potential: “Just stay home and enjoy your baby.”

– We find that examining chaplains often seem to assume a one-size-fits-all model of ministry, normed on traditional male experience, so that instead of accepting or even celebrating women who are young mothers offering for ministry, we find our care arrangements for our children while we are working criticised as “undermining your ability to set a good example of Christian family life.”  (Whose version of “Christian family life” are we expected to live up to, anyway?  And where is that documented as a diocesan standard to which we may all refer, for transparency and clarity?)

– Further to that last point, we find that our attempts to find our own identity, our own discipline, of life in ministry can be met with bafflement or judgement if they don’t meet other people’s ideas of normal.  Had to adapt your prayer life because quiet meditation doesn’t work while the toddler destroys the house?  Don’t expect your attempts to be creative, flexible and faithful to be well-regarded; instead, you’re more likely to be told that your prayer life is insufficient.

And so on.

This is just a quick sketch of some of my experiences.  It’s not exhaustive.  It doesn’t take into account the particular barriers and biases – conscious and unconscious – which my sisters also face when in this process.  And which I suspect may actually be increasing, given the dropping rate of women ordinands.

That some of us get through anyway is not an indication that all is well.  Some of us are able to find mentors who will encourage us and help us navigate the landscape of the contemporary church.  Some of us find decent men and women in positions of power who will shelter us and provide us with the space to flourish.  Some of us are gifted with more than the average quota of sheer pig-headedness.

But unless you truly believe that God is not calling and gifting men and women equally for service and ministry in the church, the numbers indicate that something is wrong.  And if we recognise that, we need to look at the structural realities in the church which are the institutional expression of that wrongness.

Each and every one of us is part of this system.  We each have the power to encourage or discourage; to create opportunities, to give chances, to be creative and thoughtful, to listen to people and honour the vocations in their hearts as well as the circumstances of their lives.  Those of us who truly honour the vocation of women need to be intentional about this; to work together, to do the hard thinking, the careful planning and the gentle encouraging, and the loud and public speaking which will not let these problems go unrecognised or unaddressed.

I am angry because I had to stare down every one of the barriers I listed above in order to be faithful to the call of God on my life.  I am angry because I believe that there are fine, gifted, called women out there who encounter these barriers and don’t have the resources I was fortunate enough to have, to get past them.  I am angry at the stupid, heartless wastefulness which will let that go by instead of realising that we need every one of us to make a difference in the mission of God for the world.

I will not let it go by.  I will think about it and talk about it and work together with those of like mind to make a difference.  I hope you will, too.

On the cusp

This is the text of a sermon for the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are Mark 1:4-11 and Acts 19:1-7.

In Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins and his travelling companions encounter a perplexing stranger, Tom Bombadil; he has mysterious powers over nature and the weather, and they don’t quite know what to make of him. After a while, Frodo works up the courage to ask, “Who are you?”

Naturally, he doesn’t get a straight answer. Bombadil replies, “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?”

Frodo has no answer. And Frodo’s not alone in that. Who am I, alone, myself, and nameless? Who are any of us, once we get beneath the names on our badges, or the labels such as “curate,” “music director,” or “vicar”? Perhaps some of that angst, the desire to create identity, to know and be known, is part of what drives the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, blogging… I might not be sure of who I am, but I’ll tell you all about it!

As Christians who worship together in a liturgical service – by which I mean that the way we worship has been carefully thought through, and created to give us an opportunity for a dynamic encounter with God – all of the elements of our worship, the hymns, the sermon, the creed, communion, all of it, should tell us something about, and help us to become, who we are destined to be in Christ. The liturgy itself is designed in part to offer an answer to the question of identity.

But it is baptism above all which marks us, which gives us Christian identity, and which admits us to the fullness of Christian life and worship. In this day and age, where we encourage people to come to church and hope that the experience will allow them to encounter Christ, we forget that in the persecuted early church the practice was completely different. A person did not join the Christian community, was not present for communion, did not even hear the gospel read, until after being baptized; baptism was the watershed encounter with God which made all of the rest possible. Long periods of formal preparation – up to several years – were the norm, and very high ethical standards were expected of those preparing for baptism.

We’ve come a long way since then, and perhaps we are more confident of God’s grace and more humble about our own potential for perfection. But a look backwards at the early practice of the church can remind us that baptism is not a feel-good event, but a crisis moment which shapes everything that follows.

And this is where we can begin to see the significance of Jesus’ baptism. In a dramatic demonstration of his solidarity with fallen humanity, Jesus descended into the water which symbolises chaos, death, disorder and a place not regulated by God. But then he ascended into life in the Spirit. In the meeting place of chaos and the Spirit, there is the beginning of a new life, identified as the life of God’s beloved child.

This is as true for us as it was for Jesus, and as it was for those in Ephesus who were baptized by Paul. Living in accord with our baptism means being confronted with the chaos, the ugliness – dare I say the sin – in our lives, and facing that honestly. It means welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit into that mess, and celebrating that presence in our brokenness as the beginning of new life, and the new identity to which God calls us.

The chaos of our lives isn’t resolved by a distant and detached God, one who is too holy and fearful to have anything to do with the darkest corners of our heart. With Christmas just barely behind us, we have still fresh in our minds the incredible intimacy of God’s involvement with us. St. Augustine put it as crudely as to say that Christ was born between feces and urine; but we tend forget that, and try to hold Christ at a distance from the grotty bits of our lives. We are tempted to let our sense of shame at our mess override any ability we might have had to yield to him.

If baptism has anything to do with our identity as Christians, then, it cuts across that shame and tells us that we ought to be suspicious of the kind of distance and control which is about hiding or fearfulness. The person alive to his or her baptism is aware of chaos, of the impossibility of being perfect by sheer goodwill and hard thinking. Aware that I must not pretend that my inner life is tidier than it is, or be afraid of confronting sin and chaos. We live amongst the mess of this life, out of which God calls us and forms us. We live on the cusp, as it were; able to look in joy at what God has done, and in hope to face honestly the forces of darkness, looking for what God will do.

To live according to our baptism, then, is daily self-examination and conversion, daily turning into the darkness which we have not yet understood, away from the comforting emotional and intellectual patterns that we can devise for ourselves and use to keep ourselves “safe;” the social structures which justify our individualism, our selfishness, and our complicity in injustice. This vision of what baptism means is not warm and fuzzy; it doesn’t cuddle up to our culture or make us feel good. Rather, it provides us with a lens which can bring the blots on our own life into sharp enough focus to be addressed.

In choosing baptism, in choosing to identify with human life in all its chaos, messiness, and brokenness, Christ found his identity as the beloved son, with whom the Father is well pleased. Each of us might struggle to give a full and complete answer to Tolkien’s question – who are you, alone, yourself, and nameless? – but looking to Christ’s example, we begin to have a sense of what it might mean to answer, I am baptized.

15 Questions for Theists

One of the blogs I follow is hessianwithteeth, which I find interesting because it is a good place of encounter and dialogue between theists (mostly Christian) and atheists, including the two atheists who write for it.  Recently, they noted that in their experience, Christians often grill atheists with lots of questions about their unbelief, but similar questioning is seldom turned on Christians.  (I note that this doesn’t match my experience!)

However, in the interests of good dialogue and good will, I have undertaken here to answer their “15 questions for theists.”  I encourage anyone else who is also interested to do so.  And, while I’m on the topic, they are also running surveys on discrimination against Christians, against atheists, and because of religion or lack thereof.  I think those surveys are looking at interesting questions and encourage you to provide them with much-needed data.

But, without further ado, here are their questions and my attempts at succinct answers.

1)How many gods are there? What are their names?

One God.  יהוה.

2)How do you know these gods (or this god) exists? Why do you believe they exist?

I can’t be absolutely certain, but it’s got to the point where either God exists or I am quite mad.  I prefer to believe (and the world seems to concur) that I am sane, so I’m operating on the assumption that God exists, that I have a relationship with God which is deeply personal, in which God and I can converse and have conversed, and in which I have seen God’s power and positive influence in my life and in those around me.

3)How do you think the universe began?

The big bang; but that speaks to material cause.  I would say that God was the efficient cause.

4)When do you think the universe began?

The physicists say that it’s about 14 billion years old, and I’m happy to accept that as a working number.

5)How do you think life began?

I’m pretty happy with the idea that complex organic molecules organised into self-replicating particles gradually over time.

6)When do you think life began?

I believe scientists are currently estimating 3.5 billion years ago or so.  (Have we established by now that I’m not a fundamentalist and quite comfortable with a world view which integrates my faith with current scientific understanding?)

7)Is morality objective or subjective? How do you know, or why do you believe, this?

Objective.  Right and wrong are not something we each get to determine for ourselves, on a whim; there are ethical principles which transcend that kind of petty individuality.  Ultimately, since I believe we are created in the image of a moral, ethical God, I believe all human goodness is a reflection of divine goodness; but you don’t need to agree with me on that for us to have ethical common ground.

8)What do you think this god, or these gods, want from humans? Why?

Relationship.  God is within Godself relational and communal (a trinity of persons), and that desire for relationship, for mutuality, is what I believe has motivated God to create other beings to draw into communion with Godself.

9)What do humans mean to gods? What is our importance or significance?

I think I’ve sort of covered that in talking about relationship.  We are loved.  I believe we are destined to go on to deeper relationship beyond this life and into eternity.

10)Could they get whatever it is they want from humans without humans? Do they need whatever it is they created humans for? Why?

I guess there are the angels, and possibly other created sentient beings as well. But our existence suggests that we bring something unique.  I’ve come across the idea that if God didn’t create us, God would have needed to create some other for the relationship which would fulfil God’s relational nature, so I guess in that sense it’s a need.

11)Could you conceive of a world where humans exist without need of a god? What would that world look like? Why would it look like that?

I guess I could conceive of a world which had become entirely atheist – I think that’s more denying/not recognising the need for God rather than truly not having that need.

I’d be out of a job, for a start… Beyond that, I’m not sure.  I’d like to believe it would be possible to construct an ethical, humanist, peaceful, just, atheist society… but deep down I suspect it would be no better than now, and probably worse, as whatever good influence religion does have would be removed, with nothing to replace it.  Perhaps the atheist forms of Buddhism could flourish?

12)What do you believe to be the consequences of a world without god(s)?

I think I sort of covered this with question 11.

13)Where does evil come from? What is the god(s) role in the existence of evil?

Ahh, theodicy.  The big question.  I concede here that there are multiple views, and I am not claiming any ultimate authority.

Evil is not-good.  The shadow where there is no light.  It’s not a substance or essence in and of itself but the quality of an absence.

I guess God’s role is allowing a space where there can be that absence.  But I do not believe it will endure forever.

14)What makes one thing good and another thing bad? Do good and bad have the same source (ie. The same creator)? Or do they have different sources? What is the source of bad things (if it’s different from the source of good things)?

What is good is, broadly speaking, what is aligned with God’s nature, and what is bad is what is contrary to it.

I think I’ve kind of covered your following questions already.

15)Why do you think your god(s) exists, but the other possible gods don’t? Why do you thing I should believe in your god(s)?

I believe that if the other gods were real and important for me to know about, God would have pointed me in their direction (as indeed the Father did with Christ – long story).  As God hasn’t done that, I feel free to commit myself within my own tradition, and I find more than enough to occupy me there!

I acknowledge that others have had similar experiences to me and claim that their belief in their other gods is validated by those experiences.  I suspect that at least some of them – giving a particular nod here to the other monotheists – have encountered the same God within different traditions.  Beyond that I can’t say much about what they have encountered, except that one day we will all know more fully than we do now!

That last question – why should you believe?  I can’t argue you into belief.  All I can do is invite you into encounter.  Come and see.

A horrible warning

This is the text of a sermon for the commemoration of Holy Innocents, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are Matthew 2:13-18, 1 John 1:5-2:2, and Jeremiah 31:15-20.

(Note: this sermon is very much intended to be a unit with my Christmas morning sermon, which is the previous post on this blog.  For the full point I made over these two sermons, I recommend reading both posts).

“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” It really should have been the Herod family motto; in the whole of the New Testament there isn’t a positive mention of any of them.

What we heard this morning, though, gives us a particularly vicious glimpse into their world. Herod the Great (father of the Herod who later was involved in the deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus) has heard from the Magi that there is a child born as “king of the Jews.” Unable to be sure which child it is, but knowing in which town he lived, he has all the boy children of the right age killed.

We don’t know how many children that was. Contemporary historians, looking at the population of Bethlehem at the time, have suggested it was maybe a dozen; whereas medieval enthusiasm suggested thousands. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter; the horror of this action can’t be reduced to a numbers game.

The real question for me is, why did Herod do it? This isn’t an isolated incident, by the way; history records that Herod killed two of his own sons to prevent them becoming a threat to him. (Prompting the Roman Emperor of the time to comment that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son, since Jews don’t eat pigs).

But why this approach? It’s not as if Herod didn’t have options. Confronted with a similar message, another ruler might have decided to govern so well and benevolently that the people would never support another claimant to the throne. Or he might have decided to identify the child, or a pool of possible children, and offer to train them for an important post – to be a future general or civic administrator or Sanhedrin member – and thus bring the child under his patronage. He might even have simply decided to exile all of the relevant families.

But instead of doing something creative and interesting, or even boring but relatively harmless, Herod reached first for the most brutal solution. What is that about?

Matthew sort of avoids the question by making it all about Jesus fulfilling Old Testament typology; just like the original sons of Jacob, Jesus goes into Egypt; and the weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem answers the weeping of Jewish mothers in exile in Jeremiah’s time. But while that might be a fruitful way of exploring connections, it can’t – for me, at least – be enough of a satisfying answer to the question of why.

On Christmas morning, I reflected in my sermon that accepting the baby Jesus was an exercise in hope and trust. Here in this part of the story, we see where the lack of that hope and trust ends when taken to an extreme; fruitless, destructive paranoia.

Herod wasn’t a particularly devout Jew, but what would it have been like, I wonder, for him to read that passage from Jeremiah that we heard this morning? Would he have found anything with which he could identify, at all? Not the weeping mothers, surely; but what about “Ephraim” pleading to be allowed to come back to God? What about seeing himself as the recipient of God’s promise of hope and a future, or as the dear son in whom God delights, for whom God is deeply moved?

What does it take to be completely closed to any of that? Perhaps Herod was simply an atheist, culturally a Jew but without any sense of God. Even if he were, I don’t think that explains his actions. Most atheists don’t reach first for the most brutal answer to their issues. Herod’s pattern of response goes far beyond passive indifference to the idea of God, and well into active resistance to moral as well as spiritual light. Unable to be reached by the faith of his people, the boundaries of the law or the pleadings of the prophets, he stands as a fine example of what Martin Luther described as a “man curved in on himself;” a sucking vortex of anxiety and neediness, a horrible warning of what sin looks like, given free rein.

So if Herod is the warning, what do we make of that for ourselves?

Just because none of us is out to kill babies, doesn’t mean we know nothing of this internal resistance. All of us have dark corners within ourselves; there are plenty of private little hells behind the walls of this city. And if we deny it, as John wrote in our other reading for this morning, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Herod points us to what John tells us is the only remedy; to be self-aware, to be honest, with ourselves and with God, about where those dark corners are and what lurks in them. To be prepared to commit ourselves – over and over again, if need be – to open our closed selves to the light, and to allow that light to cleanse, heal and change us.

It’s a gradual process; the work of a lifetime. It’s sometimes painful, humiliating, or fearful to be willing to accept discipline; even from a loving father who delights in us. But the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

There’s one more point I want to make this morning. This phenomenon of being curved in on ourselves, so closed to God’s light and hope that we give darkness free rein – or at least cut it a lot of slack – is not just something that happens to individuals. It happens to groups of people too; even to congregations and parishes. Such groups can obsess endlessly about petty things, and be blind to the wider horizons to which hope might call us. And if you’re tempted to think that that doesn’t happen at all in this parish, I have a question for you, my brothers and sisters; why is it, do you think, that the single biggest conflict in the church this year has been over the question of how we should serve morning tea?

It would seem that we have a choice about which we would rather be in the Christian life; a good example, or a horrible warning.  The apostle tells us that God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all. All we need do is be open to Him.