More precious than gold

This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 1 Peter 1:1-12.  Keen followers of the lectionary might notice that that was, in fact, the reading for last week; in fact, having had last week off, I only became aware of that at some point during the second reading this morning.  I can only blame human error when I began preparing!

“Although you have not seen him, you love him.”  What a poignant phrase!  Peter is writing to people who didn’t know Christ personally in his time on earth, but who, when they received the gospel, were moved to love Jesus.

It’s so much more than believing that the stories are true.  It’s a loyalty, a willingness to hold on to Jesus even though – as the mention of suffering “various trials” hints at – it brings persecution with it.

Loving Jesus can be risky.  At Bible study on Thursday night – I don’t remember how we got on to this, so it was obviously a good discussion – we were talking about Desmond Tutu, and as it happens I misremembered part of the story I told about him.  But I looked it up since, and it was this:

Desmond Tutu was taking a funeral of a young girl. The custom among her people was for the mourners to accompany the coffin from the church to the cemetery, and there were about 1,500 mourners there that day.  The crowd was big enough to make police nervous, and police armed with automatic rifles blocked the route to the cemetery and ordered the mourners to disperse.  Desmond knelt on the pavement and prayed, and then approached the armed police, asking that the police respect the humanity and dignity of the mourners, and allow them to pass, which they eventually did.

It was a risk.  He could have been arrested.  He could have been shot.  Police brutality was common and justice was in exile.  But Desmond’s love for and loyalty to Jesus, and the people who called him Lord, meant that he not only stared down the threat of violence, but appealed to the men behind the threat as fellow human beings.

We are fortunate that we do not have to stare down such obvious threat as we go about our worshipping lives.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at an example like that, or like the people Peter wrote to, and their love of Jesus, as an example and an inspiration to us.

When I was in college, we used to go every year on retreat to a place out in Millgrove, Pallotti College, on retreat.  Once it was a Roman Catholic seminary training missionaries for the Pallottine order; but now that their numbers have dwindled, it’s run as a retreat centre for the benefit of all sorts of outside groups.  But the motto of the order is still above the door: “Caritas Christi urget nos” – the love of Christ compels us.

Every year when we visited I would look at that motto and think of the men who came to live there, who took on the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and trained to go and care for people in places overseas they could hardly have imagined.  It wasn’t an easy life, and yet the love of Christ compelled those men, with warm hearts and generosity of self, to give themselves to it totally.

What would the love of Christ compel us to, if we gave ourselves to it, similarly wholeheartedly?  What would the love of Christ for Black Rock, urge us to do, more or differently than we do now?

I was very pleased this week to have a coffee with the community leader of L’Arche in Melbourne, who happens to live around the corner from us.  (L’Arche – for those of you who haven’t heard of it – is a Christian organisation which provides for people with and without intellectual disabilities to live together in shared houses, creating inclusive and real community rather than an institutional approach to caring for the people with disabilities).  Out of that conversation, next month I’ll be offering a quiet morning here for some of the people in the local L’Arche community; and I hope that that might be the beginnings of an ongoing connection between this parish and L’Arche.  I don’t know yet what we have to offer one another, but in Cameron’s passion for genuine relationship and community I saw the love of Christ; and it seems to me that we ought to share that love, and the journey of loving the people in our community, together with local like-minded folk as much as we can.

The love of Christ compels us together, and to common purpose.

But there’s more to it than that, too.  Peter goes on in his epistle, to point out that this love of Christ results in us rejoicing “with an indescribable and glorious joy.”

Being compelled by the love of Christ isn’t a grim thing.  It’s an outburst of laughter and singing in which the whole church, all over the world and all through time, is caught up together.  I sometimes think we miss this aspect when we talk about the church as the bride and Christ as the bridegroom; it’s not just meant to convey the closeness and exclusivity of relationship that we’re supposed to share; it’s also meant to make us remember the joy and love of weddings, and tell us that this relationship should have that level of emotional intensity for us.  For those of you who’ve been brides, do you remember walking down the aisle?  And for those of you who’ve been grooms, do you remember watching your almost-but-not-yet wife walk towards you on that day?  Do you remember the emotions of it?  Or those of you who’ve watched close loved ones on their big days?

That’s the depth of love and joy that God invites us to.

And then Peter goes on to say that this joy is because “you are receiving the outcome of your faith,” that is, there is salvation and healing and human flourishing as a result of this relationship with Jesus.  It’s the police, touched by someone else’s love, who lower their guns.  It’s the people who’ve never heard the gospel, who hear the message from missionaries and turn to Christ.  It’s the people with disability, enabled to live in meaningful community.  It’s all of these things, and so much more; each of you has your own story of the personal outcome of your faith.

And really it’s all tied together.  The love of Christ strengthens our commitment, which strengthens our joy, which strengthens our faith, which strengthens our love… and around we go.  And all of this Peter describes as more precious than gold.

Easter was two weeks ago now, but I see in Peter’s letter this morning an encouragement to hold on to the love and joy and faith of Easter, and to see where it will take us in the weeks and months to come.

Resurrection and renewal

This is a sermon for Easter day, given in the “church next door.”  To my regular readers, I apologise for the delay in posting; I have had a small break, and it seems, was so exhausted after the Easter services that I didn’t even think to post my sermon on the day!

“This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.”  That’s what I just sang as part of the exsultet, the joyful and victorious proclamation of the resurrection.

It’s because we remember that – that intimate link between Jesus’ resurrection and our own being washed clean in God’s sight – that Easter is a time for renewing our baptismal promises, which we will come to in a moment.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, we were all baptised; we are part of the community of faith, and we are reminded of that as we gather week by week.  Do we really need to go through the process of saying these things again?

But I think that while need might be too strong a word, we can benefit from it.  It is very easy for our focus to drift in the Christian life; to treat church – at least subconsciously – as a social outlet or a bit of a club of the like minded, or even just the place where we come to leave behind the stresses and strains of the rest of life.

But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.

Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us.  Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.

Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Colossians: “so if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”  If you have been raised with Christ; this isn’t just an event in the past, which happened to someone else; it’s an intimate part of the life story of each one of us.  Seek the things which are above, where Christ is.

When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase.  We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.

We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good.  And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.

That’s what we recommit ourselves to this morning.  We seek the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in our lives; that God might be at work in our hearts from today, helping us to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how we might be of service to others.

These are not small things.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good people of all faith positions and none will seek to be good and moral people, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.

And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves.  In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.

(And I don’t mean “not here” just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning; but a broader sense of active participation).

This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification.  To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.

These are big things.  Sometimes they are hard things.  Sometimes they are costly.  But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.

And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith.  Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of.  They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity.  And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words.  Not just a feel good moment (although there is something of that).  But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.

This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope.  And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.

Passion

This is a reflection for Good Friday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 18 & 19.  During this service, the passion narrative was sung immediately before this reflection was given; it is not the usual practice to sing the gospel in this parish, and so for the people present it was an encounter in a new mode.

It’s very different hearing the gospel like that, isn’t it? It’s certainly very different for me, to sing it like that, rather than simply reading it out loud or silently to myself.

What I noticed the most – apart from just how long that reading really is – is the incredible complexity of emotion in it.  As I had to figure out how to breathe, where to put the emphasis, where to pause, and so on, it was the emotions in the story which came to life for me.

The passion narrative is, I think, too long and complex for us to take it all in, in one go.  But I think each of us is probably able to find one emotion which somehow resonates with us at this point in time.

So rather than give you a long sermon, today I’m simply going to encourage you to feel your way through the emotions of the story, and see where your own heart responds.

  • Is it at the gut wrenching betrayal of Judas, the betrayer, standing with the soldiers?
  • Is it at the frustration of Peter, so keen to do the right thing, but being told off for cutting off another man’s ear?
  • Is it with Peter’s fear of discovery, which leads him to lie three times?
  • Is it with the puzzlement of Pilate, faced with a situation – and a person – he simply cannot grasp?
  • Is it with the hot anger of the crowd, demanding the release of Barabbas?
  • Is it with the soldiers, agents of a brutal power caught up in something over which they have no control?
  • Is it with Mary, the mother of a suffering child?
  • Is it with Mary Magdalene, watching her hope die?
  • Is it with Joseph and Nicodemus, undertaking a last duty of care for a kinsman?
  • Is it with Jesus himself, enduring what must happen for the sake of something bigger?
  • Is it, perhaps with some other person in the story, often overlooked but significant for a reason that matters to you?

My encouragement to you today is to let your emotions be your guide to this story.  That’s the point of connection and relevance to your own life; that’s where it will come alive for you.

So find that point of emotional contact.  Carry it with you to Sunday morning.  Find a few quiet minutes to sit with it and talk to God about it.  And then come back here, to see how it’s answered in the new light and hope of the resurrection.   Because we’ll only know the full power of the new morning, when we’ve allowed ourselves to feel the weight of the darkness of this day.

Love and happiness?

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

“Love one another.”  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be pretty easy to work out what it means.  We don’t always feel very loving towards one another, but I think most of the time, we think we know what it would look like if we were loving.

But tonight, as we gather here almost as family, having shared a meal, with me about to wash your feet – those of you who want it – I want to challenge some of our assumptions about what it means to love one another, just a little bit.

One of the things that tends to happen in small churches like this one, is that we base a lot of our decision making, not on being in line with a particular vision of who we are called to be in God, but on keeping everyone happy.  Because we are a small community, and we know one another well, and the cost of someone being unhappy is usually very high – impaired relationships, broken friendships, open conflict and so forth – we tend to value keeping people happy above almost everything else.  And we often tell ourselves that this is what it means to love one another.

But imagine if this was how Jesus and his group of disciples had functioned.  Jesus would have given up on the journey to the cross, and instead pursued political glory, to keep Peter happy.  I don’t know what they’d have spent money on, but some of the memorable stories of the gospel wouldn’t have happened, as the money would have been managed in such a way as to keep the pinch-purse Judas happy.  And no doubt endless time and energy would have gone into managing travel arrangements and meal planning and what not in such a way that nobody would get into a snit about anything; but I’m not sure how much would have got done in the way of miracles and teaching.

They’d have been totally ineffective as a group of people serving the reign of God… but they might have been happier with each other.

The temptation for us – and for lots of churches like us, it’s certainly not unique to here – is to buy into that sort of approach, though.  To spend so much time and energy, to make so many decisions based on not upsetting this person or that one, that we end up becoming a little group completely inward focussed, paying attention to our relationships with one another, but totally ineffective at relating to the world beyond that little web of relationships.  Sweeping conflict under the carpet rather than dealing with it, and even getting to the point of seeing people outside that group almost as irrelevant or a threat to what’s really important to us here, which is how well we can get on together.

And here’s where I’m going to get challenging.  That’s not loving one another; not really.  That’s loving our comfort in one another’s company, for sure.  It’s loving that we have a place where we can feel assured that people aren’t going to challenge us too much, because we have an unspoken agreement that we don’t do that here.

But it’s not the kind of love Jesus taught his disciples, or the kind of love he encourages us to take up in tonight’s reading.

Jesus tells his disciples this, the night before he goes to the cross.  The example of love that he sets isn’t about being comfortable or mutually nice; it’s about uncompromising commitment to a big vision of what God is doing, and doing all that we can, both to play our part in that, and to encourage others to find and play their part in it.  And we know that as he presented this example of love to his disciples they struggled with it!  He had to call Peter Satan; he had to intervene in arguments about who was the greatest; he had to disillusion disciples who thought they were going to reign at his right hand, and remind them that his way led first to the cross, and only after that to any glory.

Why do I remind you of all of this tonight?  Over the next little while this parish will have big decisions to make.  The planning process undertaken by the parish council continues to unfold.  Discussions are being had about the relationship with the neighbouring parish, and how things might best function for both parishes.  The reality is that by the end of the year, I will not be here, and I don’t know who will follow me.

And I am reminding you tonight that as you work through all of that, loving one another doesn’t mean keeping everybody happy.  If you prioritise keeping everybody happy, what you will end up with is a series of insipid decisions, likely held hostage to the emotional state of whomever is most fragile on the day the conversation is had.

I am encouraging you each to participate in that process seeking to do what Jesus did; loving the members of your parish family by seeking the big vision of God for this place, and seeking to encourage one another to find your place within it.  Dream big, seek inspiration, be radical, call everything into question, if that’s what God stirs within you.  Don’t be afraid to put what’s on your heart on the table; if there’s disagreement and conflict, don’t shy away from it but work through it; and if you need help to reconcile after an argument, don’t be ashamed to seek that help.  Even the disciples, after the resurrection, needed a series of encounters with Jesus to work through the issues raised by their behaviour and attitudes.

This parish will need the best of all of you, if it is to be an effective expression of the reign of God.

Tomorrow we will come to the cross, and consider what his commitment to the reign of God cost Jesus, and what our commitment asks of us.  Tonight we have time, a pause, to consider that that cost only has meaning when it is offered in love which truly seeks God’s best for each of us.

Walk with us?

This is a sermon for Palm Sunday, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scriptures it references are Matthew 21:1-11, and Matthew 26:14-27:66.

Each year I find myself thinking that Palm Sunday is the one occasion in the year that the church really “does” irony.  This morning’s tradition, of carrying palms in procession, goes back to the very early church in Jerusalem, who would walk into and through the city gates at the beginning of Holy Week, strengthening their sense of personal connection with the events they were about to remember in worship.

Half a world away, and centuries later, at the beginning of Holy Week, we also come to strengthen our sense of personal connection in worship.  We place ourselves with Jesus before the gates of a city. We place ourselves among the adoring crowds at the triumphal entry, but we don’t share their innocence.  We know, with a sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs, that all too soon it will go wrong, and end so utterly badly.

We know that once we have entered we shall be swept up in events that we cannot control and that will bring us to the very edge of what we can bear, as we walk with him to Calvary and the tomb. This week tells us that God is able to change everything about us; our fear, our sin, our guilt, our untruthfulness. But to actually live out that change, to make it concrete and personal, asks so much of all of us that we often shy away from it, using whatever distraction is available; even, sometimes, using religion as a shield between us and the demands of a holy God.

As human beings, we live, metaphorically, at the gates of a city; we each look out from our own personal bubbles into a bigger system of things, what Augustine would have called the “earthly city;” a city where so many innocents suffer, and where all manner of evils are hidden under a cloak of self-justifying, selfish, posturing words. We know that in this earthly city, trying to live by faith, hope and love leaves us looking pretty helpless. And we also know in our hearts that so much of what fuels the horrors in our world is in ourselves too: the passionate longing never to be a victim, the hunger for security expressed in the ownership, the near-mindless fury that bursts out and brings destruction to so many. We know the urge to defend what can’t be defended because we can’t lose face. We are, by our human nature, citizens of this worldly city.

Yet, that worldly city – that system which puts refugees in concentration camps, which allows systems of slavery to flourish to produce its consumer goods, which spends its wealth on weapons of war rather than investing in human flourishing – that city of which we are citizens is also the place where, if we are willing, God works transformation. Jesus does not steer us away from the bustle of power and commerce, to send us back into the holy silence of the desert or the peace of the countryside. He plunges himself, and us with him, on triumphal procession into the heart of it all; and he tells us that the entry point into the systems of human evil are also the gates of heaven. If we recognise our involvement, our complicity in human systems, and despite that shock of recognition, find the courage and honesty to walk with Jesus into the heart of that system, to the cross and the tomb, the path takes us to unexpected joys, because it is God himself who walks with us. We stand not just at the gates of the earthly city, the great city where the Lord was crucified, but also at the entrance to the heavenly city, the city of God.   At the end of this week’s story is the garden of resurrection, where all of our systems of evil are shown for the sham they are.

Are we willing to move towards that garden, learning the mind of Christ? It will ask a quiet costliness from us.  A succession of small gestures, each of which defies the systems of evil by treating others as valuable; tiny personal admissions that we cannot live forever in isolation, pride or unforgiveness.  It is those actions – everything we do, no matter how small, which acknowledges the worth and dignity of another human being – which will finally bridge the gap between vision and reality, letting us experience God’s heavenly city in the midst of our worldly one.  It’s that insistence on refusing to compromise the regard in which we hold one another, because we have come to see the depth of the regard in which God holds each of us, which will finally bring reconciliation and healing.

It’s worth noting that in the story of Jesus’ arrest, two of his disciples betray him; both Judas and Peter, each in their different ways, betrayed Jesus profoundly.  But only one of them saw the resurrection.  The difference between a Judas and a Peter isn’t in the surrender to temptation; it’s in the openness to see that our worst moments need never be the ones which define us.

Standing here this morning, we can see the possibilities. By faith we know that we can enter with Jesus and walk with him, to and beyond the cross, to the beginnings of new life. But that sick feeling in our stomachs at the fickleness of the crowds reminds us of another set of possibilities; our own potential for cowardice, for self-interest, for weakness.  We know that we could find ourselves caught up in the murderous crowds, and, at the end of it all, find ourselves with empty and even blood stained hands.

This week, if we enter into it fully, will take us on a guided tour of all of this.  We will see and hear things we don’t want to, and at the end be surprised that apparently, despite it all, God hasn’t given up on us.  The challenge to us is to not let the irony of Palm Sunday turn into cynicism, but to let it help us develop a kind of double vision; one which always sees God’s possibilities overlaid on human realities.

Or we can stay at the gates, at the edge, looking in but unwilling to commit ourselves because we know that as soon as we enter there will be trial and suffering; but if we stay there, we shall never reach the resurrection. How much do we want to be there, where God walks with us again?

As we enter Holy Week, we reaffirm our desire to walk with God, whatever the cost. We pray that God will raise up communities whose vision of this is clear, who look to One who has cleared the way for us. We stand at the gates, and they stand open. Let us walk with Jesus this week, with him to his cross and his resurrection.

Dare we imagine?

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The main service of the day included a baptism.  The Scripture it references is John 11:1-45.

Recently I was talking to the father of a young boy; seven years old or so.  The father was a bit worried because his son had taken an action figure of the Star Wars character, Qui-Gon Jinn, and was calling the figure Jesus and using it to act out various scenarios.  The problem was that Qui-Gon Jesus came complete with light sabre and was, in these imaginative scenarios, acting in a most un-Jesus-like way.  What to make of this?  The dad worried.  Should I stop my son’s play, tell him this is wrong, is it maybe even a sort of blasphemy to have “Jesus” cut down his enemies like a Jedi?

I was (I hope) able to reassure the father that this is very normal.  Children of that age haven’t yet learned to categorise fact and fiction in an adult way; all of the ideas they encounter get mixed up together and engaged imaginatively, and that’s how young children learn and grow.  It’s normal to play with ideas – even about sacred things – as young children, and we do, mostly, eventually grow out of it.

In fact, I have a suspicion that often we train ourselves out of it a little bit too thoroughly.  We need imagination in the life of faith; not that I want to imagine myself striding, robed and light sabre wielding, through all opposition, (satisfying though that might sometimes be); but that if we are to have hope, we have to be able to imagine that things can be different than they are now.  If we are to believe that God is up to something; at work in our lives, in our community, in our wider world, we have to be able to imagine what change might be needed, and how things might be, after that change.

In our gospel reading today we see Martha and Mary struggle with this need for imagination.  Lazarus is dead.  It’s been four days and the reality of that has started to sink in.  Jesus arrives and first Martha, and then Mary also goes to meet him, and each says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  They each have enough sense of who Jesus is at this point to know that things could have been different, but now that Lazarus is dead, their hopes for a resurrection are postponed to the last day.

Jesus’ response is key here; “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says.  I am here, now, present, and you don’t yet see how much that changes the range of things which are possible.  I am the resurrection and the life; and that means that Lazarus can rise today, that life can return to one whose body already stinks.  Throw out the normal rules, ladies, because where Jesus is, they don’t apply.

I wonder how often, in our lives, we do the equivalent of saying to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, things could have been so much better…” instead of looking around with the eyes of imagination, and seeing how things could still be so much better?

In a few minutes, Oscar’s parents are going to bring him for baptism.  And for them, too, this is an act of a hope-filled imagination.  They have seen that with God, with Jesus, there is potential open to Oscar which is absent if God is not acknowledged.  None of us can know, when a child comes for baptism, what God will do in the life of that child, how he or she will grow, what he or she will become or accomplish.  But we can claim the presence of God in that child’s life, knowing that that presence of God broadens the horizons of life, of spirituality, of hope for that child.

In baptism we claim that the one who raised Lazarus, the one who told Mary and Martha and the assembled mourners that all the usual rules don’t apply to him, will be present and active in Oscar’s life as he grows.  That God will help him to develop a character which expresses love and joy and peace.  That God will work through Oscar to bless those around him, in the uniqueness of Oscar’s particular gifts and strengths.   We claim that for each of us who has gone through the waters of baptism.

In baptism we claim that broadened horizon of hope even beyond this life, trusting that somehow even in eternity we will continue to be in the presence of God.

These are big claims.  It’s quite possible that some of you are listening to me, but thinking that they are not, in fact, very credible claims.  And I can certainly understand why you would think that.

But this brings me back to thinking about the other little boy I started talking about, the one with the action figurine with the light sabre.  Maybe he doesn’t know Jesus’ character so well yet, but he’s got one thing right; it’s a mistake to try to put limitations on what Jesus can and can’t do.  The innocence of a childlike imagination is helping him to avoid the very grown-up traps of preconceived ideas or rigid thinking.

Jesus once said that unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  It seems to me that one aspect of this is the ability to let go of our own perceptions of what is possible; to suspend disbelief, and to let our imaginations play.

So we come to the font, to baptise Oscar and to remember each our own baptism, and my question to you is, dare we imagine?

Question everything

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 9:1-41.

Over these Sundays in Lent, as Bruce pointed out to us last week, we have a series of readings which describe different people’s encounters with Jesus; each encounter giving the people involved – and through them, us – a deeper insight into who Jesus is.  But this morning I want to look at the process of arriving at that deeper insight.

I mean, we often call this morning’s gospel reading, the story of the “man born blind,” but until somewhere towards the end of the story he’s a fairly passive figure.  In contrast, the whole encounter is kicked off, if you like, by a question from Jesus’ disciples, and the unfolding drama is an outward spiralling of layers of response to their question.  So is this the story of the man born blind, or part of a bigger story of the disciples and their developing discipleship?

Think how often through the gospels Jesus’ teaching or explanation is prompted by questions from the disciples.  This isn’t just because they’re dim and not getting what’s right in front of their noses; it can also be because they are doing what good disciples do, and questioning their teacher about their experience to learn as much from it as possible.

Think for a moment of the Jews in this reading who claim to be disciples of Moses.  By this they meant something much stronger than simply that they obeyed Moses or kept the Law.  I once had the chance to hear a Rabbi speak about the Jewish approach to Scripture.  He explained that even very ancient Jewish scholarship on Scripture is constructed as a series of questions which the scholar brings to the text and to which the scholar attempts to find answers.  And not necessarily the sorts of questions we might be used to as scholarly, about author, date of composition, social setting, and so forth, but questions about emotions and motivations and matters of the heart, questions about how this text hits our own living concerns.

So for example, this morning’s Old Testament reading began with the Lord asking Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” and the Rabbinic commentaries on this might well spend pages and pages exploring the questions of why Samuel was grieving, what Saul’s kingship had meant to him, and how this might relate to our life of faith now.

So the disciples of Moses, immersed as they were in this kind of questioning, open-ended – even, we might say, creative and imaginative – study of Moses, are willing to open Moses up to questioning in great depth.  That’s what it meant to be a disciple, and that lies behind the mentions of discipleship in this morning’s gospel.

This reading plays out almost as a series of questions and answers, but there’s a great difference in attitude reflected in the different sorts of questions.  There is, on the one hand, the genuine question of Jesus’ disciples; ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ And at least some of the Pharisees were willing to wonder ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’  And towards the end of the story, when Jesus was talking about the Son of Man, the way the man born blind himself asks,  ‘And who is he, sir?’

On the other hand, there are questions which are not really questions at all.  ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’  ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’  Not so much questions as expressions of closed-mindedness.  There is here an absolute refusal to recognise that this situation might have anything to teach them.

In this encounter, the questions which come from openness, which allow for the possibility of real learning and growth, are those of disciples or those exploring the idea, maybe on the way to discipleship.  This suggests that a mind open to unexpected insight, and indeed actively seeking understanding, is a fundamental trait of discipleship.

To this questing mindset – and this was reinforced for me by what I heard from the Rabbi about how Jews approach Scripture – study and learning are not ends in themselves, but a form of worship.  To question, to wonder, puts us in a stance of fundamental openness to and humility before the God who is greater than any human understanding.  To worship in this way is to become the fertile ground in which God can grow much that is good for the healing of the nations.

It is when we question that we bring our problems, our struggles, our hurts, to Scripture, to tradition, and to God Himself, forging points of connection.  Without our daring to question, our difficulties and the resources which might speak to them stand separate, static, without any point of contact.  But when we question we throw a bridge across that chasm and claim all the riches of God for our very present trouble.

Discipleship starts where we are, just as it did for the man born blind.  The first step on the path is always at your feet.  But it is in being open to questions and new insights that we are able to move along that path.

When I was working in North Melbourne, I had a particular parishioner I visited several times in hospital. And she reflected with me, in the face of uncertainty about what her future held; that in her words, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”  If we are certain of something we are closed to any possibility of something new breaking in.  The Pharisees in this reading had a very great deal of certainty; about God, about wisdom, about sin.  But in the end they were blind because their certainty closed their eyes to anything new.

So where does that leave us?  As disciples of Christ, each of whom has promised in baptism to love God with our whole mind, I’d suggest that this reading calls each of us to fresh encounters with Jesus.   It shows us that we should not be satisfied with what we already have, but take the initiative in seeking more and deeper wisdom, to bring the deepest longings of our hearts and minds, to bring all of the circumstances of our own lives, into questioning dialogue with Christ, in whatever form we each find effective.

This is how we will grow and become all that God has created us to be; so let’s not neglect the opportunity.