Gain a wise heart

This is a sermon for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 90.

Thirty thousand and ninety-four days.  That’s the average life expectancy in Australia (it works out to a touch over 82 years).  Put like that, though – thirty thousand and ninety-four days – it sounds like a lot.  It sounds like maybe I have all the time in the world for all the things I want to accomplish, to experience, to relish.

That’s not how life is, though.  I don’t have to labour that point; you’ve all lost loved ones.  No matter when life ends, there’s always more that person could have been, done, or loved.  We often like to pretend to ourselves that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but death is the final, immovable human limitation.

It’s not really a cheerful thing to think about, though.  But the psalmist today did want us to pay attention to it, just for a moment, when he wrote “teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”  Teach us to count our days; teach us to remember that they have a number, and after that, we die.

But not just for the sake of being morbid; the point of remembering, the psalmist says, is “that we may gain a wise heart.”  So how does remembering our mortality and limitations help us to become wise?

There are two key aspects to this.  The first is remembering who and what we are.

Here’s what I mean.  I said before that we like to pretend that our potential is infinitely open-ended, but that that is an illusion.  The problem is that because we like that illusion, we deny our own nature.  We forget that we are creatures made of dust, who have borrowed the breath of life for a short time, but who have no power to sustain ourselves.  And, because we forget that, and deny our own nature, we also deny God’s nature.  You see, if we refuse to acknowledge our utter dependence on God for every breath of our existence… then we distort the relationship between us and God.  By repressing the truth of our creatureliness, we also repress the truth that only God is God.  And we often fail to let God be God.

Isaiah said the same thing when he pronounced:

“You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
‘He did not make me’;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
‘He has no understanding’?”

In failing to let God be God, we grasp for control over things we can never really control; and we harm ourselves and one another in the process.  In failing to let God be God, we use all our ingenuity and creativity for destruction and oppression rather than for human flourishing.  In failing to let God be God, we fail to acknowledge the brokenness of human life, and turn away from the possibility of finding healing.

Here’s an example of what I mean: for messy church this afternoon, we’re going to explore the concept of slavery.  I realised that I couldn’t really explain the gospel passage I wanted to, with the kids, unless they first had some idea of what slavery is about, so I thought I’d better lay that foundation first.  And as part of my background reading on how to teach children about something which is actually fairly intense to get your head around, I came across this little online calculator designed to help people in first world countries estimate how many slaves are involved in the production of the things we consume.*

Now of course it’s an estimate.  But based on the demographic data I gave it, and the details about things I have – like how much technology, how many pieces of jewellery, and so forth – it suggested that perhaps 46 people were involved in slavery in my consumer chain.

46 people being compelled to supply their labour, for the commercial gain of others, who keep me in the lifestyle to which I rather enjoy having become accustomed.  Of course I knew modern slavery existed and is an atrocious evil, but when it becomes personal like that, it seems much more real.

But my point in using that example is that slavery is a good example of our refusing to let God be God.  Our grasping for control over and exploitation of one another, as human beings.  Our failure to honour God’s creation and allow others the dignity and full personhood they were created to have.  And so on.  I won’t labour the point, but it has reminded me of how much the price difference between fair trade chocolate and the other variety isn’t just about what I pay, but about the human price paid in its production.

So when we fail to let God be God, we try to take his place… and end up doing a very thorough job of messing it up.  So that’s one way that learning to count our days helps us to increase in wisdom.

The other side of it, too, is that counting our days reminds us that we need to make choices.  If I only have so many days to live, and I can’t do everything, what am I going to spend my time on?

In a way, that’s part of why I got ordained; the prospect of spending decades in big business making money for shareholders was enough to make me run screaming to the church.  (And that’s saying something!)

But seriously, it is a case of, “We can’t do everything.”  Learning to count our days means we need to choose.  And if we think about our choices, and remember that God is God, and have some sort of measure for our priorities that puts us in line with God’s priorities… then we’re living wisely; in that Biblical sense of wisdom which is all about knowing what God wants and being willing to do it.

I’m told that in some monasteries, there’s a custom of always having a fresh dug, open grave; so that as the brothers walk past they’ll be reminded of the prospect of their own death.  I’m not sure that we need to go that far.  But it is good, sometimes to pause and be reminded of the aspects of life that we’d rather forget; because that helps us to keep ourselves, and our lives, in perspective; and it helps us to focus on making wise choices about how we steward our days.

If we’re paying attention to these reminders; in the psalms, and in our lives; that will help us to truly gain a wise heart.

*http://slaveryfootprint.org/survey/#where_do_you_live

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The mixed bag of parenting

This is a sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18.  During this service, we also incorporated a “thanksgiving for a child.”

In a few minutes, we’re going to do something really special, as two new parents share with us a time of giving thanks for the birth of their son.  And it struck me that one of the prayers in the book for an occasion like this, asks God to give parents wisdom, love and patience as they work together to raise their child.

And it struck me because I think we assume that parents’ love for their children is a given.  It’s an instinctive, even a bodily thing; all that oxytocin and the hormones of bonding that are so much a part of the biology of having children, all the survival instincts which have kept us alive as a species, all of that.  It’d be quite unnatural to not love our children, wouldn’t it?  So why would we need to pray that God would give us that love, if it’s already built into who we are?

And yet it’s not just in the prayer book; in the reading we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, he also starts by acknowledging their love for one another, and then goes on to urge them to love “more and more.”  It seems both Paul and the compilers of the prayer book think that human love – even in the most intense and intimate relationships – isn’t a given.

From a Christian point of view, we are created in the image of a God who is love.  We are created to love; created for relationships which are mutual, joyful, and hopeful.  Created to extend those relationships in networks of social relationships, including parenting.  All of this is part of what God made us to be, and what God called good.

But we also know that families, even the very best of them, have their problems.  Call it dysfunction, call it neurosis, call it sin, even; but none of us get to adulthood completely unscathed from the moments when our families failed to be what they should have.  While I definitely don’t hold to any notions of original sin as a kind of stain on someone’s soul, or anything like that, it perhaps does make sense to realise that each of us is born into a web of relationships which is already less than it should be, and we are shaped by that network of relationships as we grow.  Its shortcomings affect our own ability to reach our potential, and, in turn, the relationships we form as adults.

And so each of us approaches parenting with a very mixed bag, as it were.  Our deep love for our children, and also our desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past, perhaps to do better, in some ways, as parents than our own parents did.  Hopes for our children that they will grow and thrive and embrace their world with curiosity and strength of personality, and fears about all the things that can get in the way of that.  It’s a mixed bag that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and more than a bit vulnerable, too.

And in the middle of all of that, someone like St. Paul – who apparently never even had any children – telling us to love “more and more.”  So helpful of him.

But this is, I think, the point Paul is trying to make.  Even as we carry around our mixed bag of emotions and hopes and fears, we’re not alone with it.  We surrounded by layers of support; our own families, with all of their combined wisdom and experience.  By our wider community, including the church community, where there are always people to offer practical support and reflect with you on what you’re going through.  And ultimately, by God; the same God who created this baby boy to be the incredible unique person he is and will be, and who is so on your side in this parenting journey; wanting this to go as well as it possibly can, and always offering you what you need in any given moment.

I don’t want to sound like I’m sugar-coating the tough times.  My daughter is five, and we have had some days where I’ve fantasised about being single and living on my own.  In blissful silence and with enough sleep.  So I’m really not wanting to pretend that somehow, with God, it all becomes rainbows and unicorns, because we all know that that’s not how it is.  But the God who created each of us in love, and to love, gave each of us the capacity to love more deeply than we currently know how, and is always willing to help us discover that deeper capacity.

So I think that’s why we pray that God will give us love, even though we know that love is there already.  It’s about deepening and strengthening our capacity to love, and about letting love be the engine room of the creativity and hope that will push through anything unhelpful that we’re carrying.

And even though many of you gathered here today are well past the life stage of raising small children, (if you were ever in it), I don’t think it hurts the wider church community to think about these things.  To think about how we support our family members, and the people around us in church who are in the intense stage of early parenting.  One of the great strengths of the church is that we are truly multi-generational, with people here in their nineties as well as toddlers; and we have the capacity to be a support network quite unlike anything else most parents will have access to.  How we do that – not just one on one, but also how we deliberately plan and work together to do that – is something it would be good for us to think about.  Are we doing the best we possibly can for our youngest members?  And for their parents?  And if not, what would doing better look like?

Paul finishes the instructions that we heard this morning by telling his hearers to “encourage one another.”  I hope that for all of you, being able to be here today and share this time with us is an encouragement.  But I also hope we can take to heart the need to be intentional about encouraging one another through big life transitions – like becoming parents – because we all need that extended network at its best.

Living in the gap

This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Micah 3:5-12.

When I was accepted as a candidate for ordination, the diocese supplied me – amongst other reams of paperwork – with a document headed “Indicators of Readiness for Ordained Ministry.”  It ran to eight pages of dot points, including such gems as “I understand how people outside the church think,” and “I know how to send and receive emails.”  I’m not sure I found it entirely useful.  But there was one dot point in particular which I’ve often found myself reflecting on.

It said, “I have learned something of my own reactions to living in the gap between vision and reality.”

This is such an important aspect of our experience as Christians, and yet we seldom talk about it.  We live in the gap between vision and reality.  And that’s often not a very comfortable place to live, at all.

I mean, on the one hand, there’s the vision.  The ideal; the ideal for our society, of justice and peace and reconciliation.  The ideal for our church, of holy worship and loving service.  The ideal for our families, of safety and faithfulness and joy.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the gritty side of reality.  Of a society plagued by injustice and a propensity to hatred of the other.  Of a church which is corrupt and a theatre for the egos of the powerful.  Of families in which abuse and selfishness and despair are all too common.

Not every family, of course.  Not every moment in church, or every government decision, either.  But more than enough to make us painfully conscious of the gap between the vision, and the reality.

And the question then becomes, what is our reaction to living in that gap?

We can look at the Scriptures as offering us some models.  People who have gone before us, who have caught the vision that God offered them, but have been painfully conscious of their own lived reality, have reacted by producing documents which attempted to address that gap, and which the Church has come to recognise as Scripture.

And in particular, this morning, our reading from Micah speaks powerfully into that gap.  Micah lived in a time when his nation’s rulers were weak – politically and personally – and his society was corrupt and oppressive.  The gap between vision and reality was stark.  And Micah described it:

5 Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry ‘Peace’
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths…

and so on.

If we take Micah, then, as an example we can follow, here’s what I take from this passage:

  • Living in the gap between vision and reality doesn’t mean passively accepting that gap. It means pointing it out; constantly proclaiming the vision back into the reality, and stretching reality towards the vision.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means choosing leaders who recognise that gap and are committed to narrowing it; and holding them accountable to their responsibilities.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means paying attention to the experience of the most vulnerable and the most powerless, and making any injustice towards them a priority for change.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means taking up the roles of prophet and teacher, defining the work that needs to be done, and equipping our community to do that work.

A Church that isn’t filled with the Spirit of God, that isn’t bold enough to talk about justice and sin, that is unwilling to walk and weep with those who are broken, that loves its own power and status more than it loves the God it professes to worship; that’s a church that’s denying the gap, and in the end, denying the vision altogether.

Many people have told me, since I’ve been here, that this parish is a social justice focussed church.  But it’s startling to me, then, that as a church, we don’t do much about social justice.  I mean, individual people here do significant work, but we don’t take up the challenge or get involved together.  It’s almost as if, somehow, we’ve forgotten how.

We need to rediscover how.  We need to look around and ask ourselves what issues of justice are urgent and compelling around us.  We need to work out how we can be effectively involved in those issues; how we can bring our own vision of God’s justice back to shape our reality.

And we need to do it, not just because it’s who we are as a people gripped by a vision of God’s reign, but because if we want people to be attracted to us – if we want people to want to be part of our community – we need to give them a reason.  There is a whole generation of people coming into their prime now who don’t particularly care about institutions, but do care about making a difference; and who might well put up with the baggage of institutional church, if we give them a significant enough opportunity to be part of a community that makes a difference.  But why would they want to be here, if they see us as part of the problem, instead of part of the solution?

We do live in the gap between vision and reality.  What we need to do is get beyond just reacting to that, and start responding to it.  We know that, in the end, our efforts won’t fail.  We know that the story of humanity ends with evil judged and humanity restored.  What we have is an opportunity to bring that just a little bit closer to our lived experience today.

Micah’s voice cries out over the centuries, recalling his vision of justice and peace and prosperity, and calling us to participate in it.  So how shall we respond?