40 slaves?!

So, Advent is a penitential season.  And in that spirit, this evening I used this nifty gizmo to attempt to estimate how my consumption habits contribute to global patterns of human trafficking.

I wasn’t expecting to have entirely clean hands.  But I was shocked that the estimate I received was that probably forty human beings contributed their slave labour to my comfortable life.

Forty human beings.  Forty of my brothers and sisters.

That’s appalling.

At the end of the survey, you get information about companies which seek to make sure that their supply chains are free of slavery, and a detailed breakdown of areas of consumption which might bear examining.  I intend to study that information closely.

What about you?  What number do you get?  And are you with me in doing anything about it?

Edited to add:  In a timely coincidence, I just received a link to this compilation of worship resources which respond to human trafficking.  Perhaps they might be useful, in this penitential season?


Christ is coming

This is a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, given in the both “church up the road” and “the church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Luke 21:25-38, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Jeremiah 33:14-16.

There’s a fig tree in my new back yard which seems to have grown every time I look at it, at the moment.  It’s enjoying the longer days and warmth of spring, and it shows.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus was talking to rural folk of the first century, which is why he could talk to them about watching the fig tree sprout the first leaves of spring.  If he were talking to us – at least those of us not fortunate enough to have fig trees in our backyards – he might well have said, “Look at that pine and all the Christmas trees; as soon as they appear in all the shopping centres you can see for yourselves and know that Christmas is already near.” How many shopping days are left?  I don’t want to know.  Moving house has put me behind, this year.

But contrasting with gentle reflections on trees and the changing seasons, today’s gospel reading also gave us vivid apocalyptic imagery of signs in the heavens, shaking of the world and changes in nature.   Occasions of distress, confusion, fear and foreboding.

What are we to make of all of that?  In a world of terrorist bombings, war, and natural disasters, isn’t what Jesus is describing just part of the present reality of the world as we know it?

Well, of course it is.  But what Jesus was trying to say to his followers was that these things had a deeper significance; even the powers of heaven will be shaken, he said.  What we can see and hear and touch is not the whole story, not the whole truth about reality.

What did Jesus mean by the “powers of heaven”?  The ancient idea of “powers” was used here to explain the presence of an evil that is bigger than just you and me, that expressed itself through cultural or social or governmental or any other kind of institution or organisation or communal reality (and I might add, which can express itself as much in and through the church as any other such organisation).

Anyone dismayed by our citizens going off to fight with Isis in Syria, or appalled that our government feels it is right to lock up refugee children in what amounts to concentration camps; or, on a more personal level, anyone who has ever dragged their feet into school or work because of a deadening environment (and hasn’t that been all of us, at one time or another?), has experienced the reality of these powers, even if this isn’t the language we normally use to describe it.  The issue is not whether we “believe” in this kind of spiritual reality but whether we can learn to identify our actual, everyday encounters with it.

And in the midst of these powers, these life-sucking realities, Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man (which is a way of referring to himself).  And it’s a mistake to understand this as being only about the distant future; what he is saying refers to the disruption of evil and corrupt systems in the present, whenever they are confronted by the reign of God.

Jesus is not enthroned in heaven in a way which is passive, removed from the world, or waiting for the time of the end before doing anything.  He is moving now; he is coming.  Jesus is pressing in on the world; he is challenging the powers which are at work keeping the world outside the reign of God; and that challenge creates great disruption.  Our reality, our world, is shaped – we are shaped – through the Spirit’s impelling us human beings into action; nudging and prodding us, until we take up and carry out an agenda which God has authorised, and in which God is present.  If you thought Christ ascending to heaven was the end of the story, and that all that remains is for us to join him there, this text says think again; Christ is coming.

Which is really the point about watching the fig tree, too.  Just as the new buds tell you summer is coming, so too are there signs of the coming of the Spirit at work amongst us, if we are willing to look for them.

In our epistle reading this morning, nestled in amongst all of the lovely warm fuzzy things Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, there’s this little bit where Paul says that he wants to “restore whatever is lacking in your faith.”  It isn’t commented on further or explained, but left at that.

But it did catch my attention.  What was lacking in their faith?  Most of the rest of the letter is full of praise; early on Paul notes their work of faith, labour of love, and steadfastness of hope.  He also notes God’s word at work in them as believers, in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.

But scattered through the letter are little hints that perhaps this was not as steadfast as is ideal.  Paul seems to be at great pains to reassure the Thessalonians of what they believe; they seem to have become confused and unsure on some points.  And he sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage them for the sake of their faith.  It is also part of his prayer for them that God “strengthen your hearts in holiness…so that you may be blameless…at the coming of our Lord Jesus.”  If he had heard the saying of Jesus which Luke records, he may have been concerned that the day not catch them unexpectedly, like a trap.

I don’t know if the situation of the Thessalonians resonates with you at all, but it does for me.  Like them, there is much in this group here to rejoice in.  I see in front of me a group of people who work hard in faith and love.  I see in many of you true fruit of the Spirit.

And yet, I at least need to acknowledge that my faith is not as steadfast as it should be.  I have days when it seems that the sun shines, I love everybody, the world is shot through with hope and joy, and all is well.  And then, like the joke says, I get out of bed and into all manner of trouble.

But here we are at the beginning of Advent.  We can approach the next four weeks as a time of preparation – not only looking forward to shopping, parties, food, and all the Christmas celebration around the feast of the incarnation – but also looking outward for the signs that the son of man is coming, breaking into our reality anew with power and great glory.

Now is a good time to hear the words of Jesus in today’s gospel – because what struck me as I read it was the number of times he says things like, “Stand up,” “Raise your heads,” “Be alert,” “Be on guard.”  Now, looking forward to his coming, is a good time to pay close attention to the state of our faith, and mend whatever is lacking.

This is not something I say by way of a threat or wanting to instil fear.  The gospel records that the people would get up early in the morning to listen to this preaching of Jesus.  Now, I think you’ll agree with me, that you don’t get up early in the morning to listen to a preacher with nothing positive to say.  This message is worth getting up early for.  The kingdom of God is near.  Something better than our current reality is being formed in our midst.  This is the day that Jeremiah spoke of in the earlier reading, a day of fulfilled promise, of finding salvation and safety.  This is the day of joy before Almighty God.

So by all means enjoy putting up Christmas trees and tinsel and lights and all the rest of it.  But remember to look beyond the surface glitziness for the signs of a better way of being growing amongst us.

Where do you stand?

This is a sermon for the feast of Christ the King, in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Revelation 1:4b-8.

It’s sometimes tempting, I suspect, to think about titles like “Lord” and “King” for Christ and think that they are a bit old fashioned or medieval; that they might have meant something to people centuries ago when everyone knew what it was to live in feudal obedience to Lords and Kings, but that today, when Her Majesty has no real impact on my day-to-day life in a place like Melbourne, it’s become a bit irrelevant, and that using this kind of language really plays into the stereotype of religion as a hangover from less enlightened times.  It might surprise you, then (as it surprised me) to find out that a feast day for “Christ the King” began as recently as 1925; why begin such an observance at a time when Kings generally were on the way out?

In 1925, in Italy, fascism was on the rise.  Democracy had just been abolished.  The question posed to all Catholics – because Christ the King was originally a Catholic observance, which Anglicans and others adopted later – but the question posed by this new feast was sharp and clear: where do you stand?  With fascism or with Christ?

That’s a question which doesn’t date.  Political movements come and go, but on all sorts of questions, each of us has to wrestle from time to time with where we stand.

We gather together to support one another as we live out our baptismal commitment to stand with Christ.   But what does that mean, in practical terms?

I think we get some good insight into that from the reading we heard today from the Revelation to John.  John addressed his account of the revelation to “the seven churches that are in Asia;” to communities of people who had chosen – over against the Roman empire – to stand with Christ, and he wrote to them to encourage them and deepen their understanding of what that meant.

So this passage emphasizes for us that Christ is our creator.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, and all things have been created through him and for him; including us.  Christ’s work on the cross is not out of keeping with what has gone before; but even as He originally made us, through the cross He continues His work in us, freeing us and bringing all of creation a step closer to its ultimate perfection.  To stand with Christ, then, also means allowing God to work in us, so that we can experience that salvation in the most profound way.

More, there is no doubt in this passage that Christ is God Himself.  All the fullness of God dwells in Him.  Christ is supreme over all the world, the rule of the kings of the earth.  There is nothing in existence which is more powerful than He is.  There is no other ruler which can withstand Him.  There is nothing, ultimately, which can get in the way of His purpose.  On the cross Christ allowed himself to be weak and abused, even to die; but He rose, and He has the triumph over all hatred, fear and evil.

Notice that the reading says that “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.”  John doesn’t go into great detail, but it seems that these “tribes” refer both to spiritual realities and to human ones.  These are things which – like everything else – are created in and for Christ and whose true purpose is to serve Him; when that purpose gets bent out of shape, that’s when they become agents of evil. It’s a mistake to think of this in over-spiritualised terms; Scripture talks about Satan, but most of us meet him not in visions but in the very concrete realities of human oppression, injustice and hurt.  Even the church can participate in that evil when we forget that our purpose is in and for Christ.  Over against that very solemn warning, though, we need to be encouraged that although these kinds of powers have some limited authority now, it is the work of God in the cross which gives our existence its ultimate shape and end.  Which is why even the judgement motifs in this passage are really a way of emphasizing John’s main point, which is salvation and hope.

And this reading talks about the Church as a kingdom and priests serving God; it tells us that ultimately, we belong to Him, and not to anyone else.  We have our origins in Him, and also take our identity, our purpose, and our unity from Him.  We aren’t always good at unity, but wherever we are reconciled and at peace with one another, that is a true expression of what it means to stand with Christ.

It takes some unpacking, I think, that John here calls us “priests.”  It’s not a word he uses much for Christians, and to make sense of what it might mean for us we need to look elsewhere in Scripture.  Peter, in his first letter, instructs his readers: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

This tells us that being priests serving God – standing with Christ, the high priest – is not an individual matter.  It is together, corporately, that we are built into a spiritual house, and offer our prayers and praises as a sacrifice acceptable to God.

And it reminds all of us today that praising God, also, is part of what it means to stand with Christ.  John does that by punctuating his message with phrases like “to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.  Amen.”  Glory has two important aspects to it; the sense of light and beauty, and also the sense of praise and honour.  We do that by making sure that whatever else is in our worship, we always have some element of praise and giving thanks.  And that overflows – or it should – in our lives so that praising God is an attitude which we cultivate throughout the week.

We commit to standing with Christ in His Kingdom, being assured that all other kingdoms, all other allegiances, all other loyalties will pass away; ultimately no other power will stand in the presence of the power of God.  Choosing to stand with Christ means allowing ourselves to be under God’s loving reign, and to share in the sure promise of eternal life.  Standing in that kingdom means continuing prayers of praise and thanksgiving, prayer for and unity with one another, allowing God to work in us, and trusting in God for eternity.  Today, on the feast of Christ the King, I hope we can hold on to all of these as blessings in our life together.  Amen.

Deus Lo Volt

Last week, a very dear friend of mine died suddenly and unexpectedly.  Although we had been friends for only a relatively short period of time, I have found my grief to be significant; perhaps because our daughters played together and this reinforced my own vulnerability, or perhaps because my friend was a remarkable and very unusual person.  She was also a convert to Judaism, and while I honour Judaism enormously and have often been enriched by its wisdom and traditions, it left me a little at a loss as to how best to honour her in a way which was fitting for her and yet authentic for me.

And then I found these words in her eulogy, which was emailed to me since I could not be at the funeral.  In describing her relationships with others, her partner said:

“Jenny Green helped so many people live more fully. If each person is made in the image of Gd, then Jenny – at her best – was the archaeologist, the conservator, the restorer; who recognised the worn imprint of Gd for what it was, identified its flaws and its distinctions, and with sharp energy and confidence brought its colours out to their full brightness…  As a student and teacher of the Crusades, Jenny adopted its motto, and would tattoo it on the whiteboard before each class. Deus lo volt. Gd wills it… She believed strongly in seeking out purpose and marching with raised voice, in spite of adversity, to fulfil that purpose.”

Here is the point at which I can find a way to honour her memory which is both fitting and authentic.  I, too, believe that every human being is made in the image of God.  And if there is one thing about which I can be confident that God wills it – amidst the many bad and dangerous claims of that nature – it is that every human being should experience absolute fullness of life.  I do not know whether Jenny ever discovered Irenaeus’ saying that “The glory of God is a human person fully alive,” but it has become something of a theological touchstone for me, and an enormous part of how I understand what I have committed myself to as a priest.

That each person should be fully alive.  I can recommit myself to that, knowing that in living this way – although in my own way – I can honour the memory of an extraordinary woman, as well as being confident that I am working for something which God truly wills.

Deus Lo Volt – so who am I to seek anything less?

Treasures old and new

This is a sermon for the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 13:52.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus said that “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  I think it’s a saying which needs some unpacking.

In Jesus’ community, the scribes were learned people, community leaders who were advisors, teachers and lawyers.  As the most literate people in their communities, they had authority because they had knowledge and skill in matters closed to most people.  Their learning was supposed to support the day to day life and the spiritual health of the people, but, being human, in the gospels we sometimes see them portrayed as being caught up in other, more petty, concerns.

But here Jesus is talking about a scribe who’s got it right, a scribe who has been “trained for the kingdom of heaven.”   And it’s an important image because it’s one that we can transfer from his context to our own and apply to the church.  Gone are the days when the parish priest was often the only person in the village who could read and write, but as people who are – or who should be – “trained for the kingdom” we are a community who have knowledge and skill in matters which much of the rest of the world ignores.  And we are called to use that knowledge and skill to support the day to day life and the spiritual health of the community around us; to be “salt and light” to the world.

In my sermon last week I said that we hold in trust for the world around us a precious heritage of Christian faith and practice, and that our task now is to find new ways to help people connect with that heritage in life-giving ways.  That task of finding ways to help people connect with the gospel in life-giving ways is, I think, exactly what Jesus is talking about here as the work of the scribe who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

In some ways, it’s much easier to understand the “what is old” part of our treasure.  We have lots of old things – old Scriptures, old prayers, old forms of architecture and so on – which might help people connect with something of God.  I think, though that for many of us the “what is new” part is more challenging; even more frightening.  Where do we find “what is new”?  And if it is truly new, how can we be confident that it is in keeping with the good news of the kingdom, rather than just the latest fad or bright idea?

These are serious and important questions.  But taking them seriously is no excuse for backing away from the need to be able to bring out “something new.”  So let me give you an example of “something new” which I’ve seen recently, and then think a bit about what principles we might draw from that.

In another parish, I happen to know a woman in the congregation whose professional work is occupational therapy, mostly with children on the autism spectrum.  One day she approached the clergy in that parish and said that she could see a real need; many of the families who were connected to her therapy practice were people of Christian faith, but they were no longer churchgoers; either because their children were not truly welcome in church, or because they simply could not cope with the expectations of them in “normal” church.  So this woman asked, could we do something for these children and their families?  Perhaps a workshop on prayer, designed just for them and their needs?

That led to that woman and one of the clergy in the parish exploring together a variety of forms of prayer, looking particularly for the things which had a sensory aspect, or which involved movement.  What grew out of that is a once-a-month Sunday afternoon service, which incorporates many of those forms of prayer, as well as telling a gospel story using pictures and movement.  To the best of my knowledge, nothing quite like that service has ever been done before; it is truly “something new.”

And looking at that example, I think there are several things to notice about what made it ‘’successful’’ which might translate well to other efforts.

First, this wasn’t something manufactured because a committee sat down and decided that the church needed to do something new, and tried to decide what a good initiative would be.  It came about because someone had a genuine, caring connection outside the church which allowed her to recognise a need, and motivated her to think about how the church might meet that need.  In that sense, it was both an authentic and an organic initiative.

Second, while the form it took was new, it drew on some of the “old things” in the household of God.  Forms of prayer such as dancing to praise music, or painting and drawing, were not invented for this service; they already existed as tried and tested resources in Christian tradition, and were able to be incorporated into this effort with confidence that in their new context they would still offer something of real value.

And third, and I think probably crucially, when the occupational therapist first raised the question, she met with leaders who were open to learning and experimenting, even if they weren’t sure what the outcome was going to be, and who were willing to put in the time and energy to give it a go.

So here we observe some things which answer some of our anxieties about the idea that Jesus might expect us to produce something new.  The ‘’something new’’ which is truly part of the kingdom will come about because we are connected in with the world around us, looking for the needs and opportunities, and open to asking how we might meet them.  The ‘’something new’’ which is truly part of the kingdom will draw on the best of what has gone before, perhaps reshaping it to fit a new context but never thinking that the wisdom and experience of two millennia of Christianity is irrelevant.  And the ‘’something new’’ which is part of the kingdom comes about when the people of God are open to working together, learning, experimenting, and willing to give things the time and energy they need to see if something will take off and grow.

What does that mean for us here?  It means that each of us needs to take seriously our lives away from church – whether that’s in places of work or social circles or hobbies – as places where we might see the needs and the opportunities for God’s kingdom to break in.  It means that we need to be – like the good scribe – trained for the kingdom; with a toolkit stocked with resources drawn from Scripture and the breadth of Christian understanding and practice, so that we can find the right fit between what we have to offer and the needs of the world.  And it means that we need to foster a church culture in which it’s okay to make “out there” suggestions, to try new things, and in which we’re willing to give our time and energy to things which are not yet tried and tested.

I think there’s plenty there for us to think about, as we begin to look ahead to a new season in the parish’s life.  But I would make one last point; we are not alone in this.  God goes with us, as the origin, the centre and the dynamism of what we do; surrounding us on every side, enriching us with every blessing, and rejoicing in all that we do well.

Building with the Lord

This is a sermon for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 127:1.

For regular readers of my blog, I feel I should explain a little about the new context in which I am working.  I have come as assistant curate to work in two neighbouring parishes, which are cooperating and sharing clergy and lay staff.  As a result, I will be dividing my time between two quite different communities, with different issues in play, which will shape the way I preach in each place quite differently.  As a result of a burst of imaginative inspiration, I will differentiate them here as “the church next door” and “the church up the road.”  This sermon is the first I have preached since moving, and it was given in “the church next door.”

I wonder, if you could be any sort of tool, which one would you be?  Are you the hammer, knocking everything into shape?  Are you the knife, to cut through anything in the way?  Are you the tape measure, making sure that everything fits where it needs to go?

Why would I start my first sermon here with such a strange question?  Because today I want to think about what we heard in the psalm, that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.”  And it got me thinking about building, and the different ways people with different gifts and passions and personalities can approach working together on a common goal.

Here’s the thing.  God is at work; God is always at work.  At the time that this psalm was written, He was building a local community; later, when it was added to Jewish temple worship, He was building a religious system which could sustain the faith of a nation; and as we use it in our worship, He is at work here and now, building all of us together into something which is more than the sum of our parts, more than each of us can be on our own.  And God is doing that so that we can then reach out and invite those around us to participate in His reign, His alternative vision for human life.

The reign – or the kingdom – of God is not just about heaven, or what happens after you die.  Nor is it simply the institutional church, with its buildings and programmes and bureaucracy (it’s definitely not the bureaucracy).  The reign of God is something much more fundamental in the reality of human life now.  The reign of God is real and concrete when we experience relationships and social systems which accurately reflect the desire and the power of God to call us back from our own stupidities, to be as we were created to be by a perfect God.

This implies that even when we are committed, involved, busy members of the church, there are two possibilities in the work that we’re doing.  We could be doing the things that God would have us do, following the prompting of the Holy Spirit and effective in bringing about the reality of the reign of God.

Or we could be doing something else; something not necessarily bad, or evil; perhaps something we like or that is even beautiful for its own sake.  But if it’s not what God is doing, ultimately those tangents we might be off on won’t last and bear fruit.

Really what I’m trying to say is that our life together is not just about “being church.” Much more than that, our life together is the result of God’s initiative, in creating each of us as unique, cherished and precious human beings, giving us each gifts to contribute to our common endeavour, and calling us to participate in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.

Our life together should make a difference!  It should flow out of the doors of the church, down the street and into the whole area.  Why?  Because God’s loving concern extends beyond the doors of the church, down the street, and over the whole area.  And the “house” that God is building – the house that God invites us to participate with Him in building – is the reign of God, which transforms everything with which it comes into contact.

That’s not something the clergy can create on our own.  It is something that requires each person – each of you – who is part of a church community to decide freely to participate in what God is building, if we are going to be all that we can be.

So it seems to me that our focus, our guiding question for the next little while needs to be, “What is God building in our context?”  We need to be looking for where the Spirit is at work, going ahead of us, stirring up possibilities for us to share the good news of the kingdom, to teach the curious, to respond to the needs of those around us.  We need to be looking for evidence of people’s hearts being stirred to challenge the injustices of our society, and to care for and steward the life of the earth, and how we can partner with them in doing that.

I don’t know the answers yet.  I’ve only been here a week; and we’re still just getting to know one another.  Working out what God is up to, so that we can cooperate with it, is a much slower process; it takes patience and careful observation and listening to other people’s stories.  It takes time spent in prayer, getting other distractions out of the way and starting to pick up the rhythm of God’s heart.  It takes careful thinking and planning, looking at the possibilities of world around us with an imagination shaped by the big truths of Scripture.

But above all it takes an openness to the reality that God is building.  I know that I have come to this church at a time when you are at something of a crossroads.  The parish is not able to continue as it has been, and there is a real fear that decline may continue, and that at some point in the near future, the doors of this place might close for the last time.

I don’t believe we’re anywhere near that, though.  I would not have agreed to come here if I believed that God was done with this place or this community of people.  I believe that as Christians in our particular tradition, we are a distinctive community who hold in trust for the world around us a precious heritage of Christian faith and practice, and that our task now is to find new ways to help people connect with that heritage in life-giving ways, in ways which incorporate those people into the house that God is building.

I may have only been here a week, but already I’ve started to hear your stories, to look around at the photos and displays and objects in the church, and to spend time praying in this space.  It seems to me that this parish is like an old tree, sturdy, strong, with deep roots, well-connected to your past and with an established sense of identity.  But you have been for some time in a season of winter, and now I wonder whether it’s time for us to rediscover together what it’s like at the beginning of spring?

I wonder whether it’s possible that, if we look for the signs of budding new growth around us, we might find the Spirit’s invitation to come out of winter hibernation and find the beginnings of a new growing season?  An invitation to find new ways to extend God’s hospitality and grace to the community around us?

We don’t have to start with big stuff.  I think it’s enough to start with thinking about the small things, the things which are totally within our reach but can have a big impact.  (And that’s why it’s important to have a clear sense of who we are, which is really where I started; because when we know who we are, we can be confident about what is within our reach to do).

But for now, let me leave you with some questions to ponder.

Where in our life together can we see the promise and the challenge of new possibilities – God’s possibilities – breaking into all of the brokenness of human life?  How could we work to bring some of those possibilities to reality?  What is God sending us out to do, when we go out in the power of His Spirit, to live and work to his praise and glory?