Reality check

This is a sermon for the second Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it references is Mark 8:31-38.

What do you get out of coming to church?  That might be a dangerous question for me to ask.  I might be concerned that actually, you don’t get much out of it at all; that you spend half the service mentally making shopping lists and pondering the plot twist in last night’s TV show.

Forgive me, I’m being provocative.  But there’s a point I want to make about what the purpose of coming to church is.  So often, when I talk to couples wanting to have their child baptised, or to get married, who aren’t regular church goers, they’ll tell me that they don’t need to come to church because “I know what I believe.”

And this bothers me a bit, because – while I know what I believe, and even have a degree in it – I don’t imagine that that means I don’t need to be at church.  Because the church service on Sunday isn’t only, or even mainly, about telling you what to believe, or, even worse, what to think.

It has two main purposes; first, to allow us to connect with and relate to God, as actual persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a set of doctrinal ideas.  And second, to help us integrate what we say and sing and hear at church into how we think and live.

This goes beyond telling you what to believe, and into the realm of inspiration, of shaping the imagination, of forming a vision and a sense of purpose and commitment to action.  It’s starting with what we believe, and then pushing beyond that, to ask ourselves, so what?  We believe in God, so what?  How will that matter all the other six days when we’re not here, and we’re going about our lives as students and workers and grandparents and doing whatever we do?

This is also, by the way, why things like the architecture of churches matter.  It’s not just about what’s beautiful or appealing; because what we experience while we’re in the building, and how we move through it and relate to one another in it, shape our deep convictions about God, and how we act out those convictions.

Why should anyone have cared about the radical design of a round church like this one?  It implies a different view of the community that gathers in it, and how they worship together, than the old basilica-style rectangles where all the holiness is up one end and many people knew that their place was up the other end, away from any sense of participation in that holiness.  In a round church, theoretically, there isn’t a hierarchy of space and we all participate in the holiness of what happens here; and that equality might overflow into the rest of the week…

Oddly, we haven’t followed through with that conviction in the way we’ve arranged the furniture, but that might be a matter for ongoing consideration.

Anyway.  I could go on for ages about basic liturgical principles, but instead I’ll say, for more on that topic, come to the study series after Easter!

For now, let me come back around to today’s gospel reading, and in particular, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

We tend to get hung up on the “Satan” bit; it’s so harsh, so confronting, and we cringe as we identify with Peter, at the idea that we might ever be rebuked in similar terms.  But if we focus on that too much, we might miss two other important points in what Jesus says.

Notice the reason Jesus gives for the rebuke: You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.  I wonder what the background to this was; was Peter, over dinner at a disciple’s house or on the road, mulling over all he had experienced with Jesus and dreaming dreams of political and social glory?  Was he looking forward to the day when Jesus’ messiahship would become known, no longer a secret, and there wouldn’t be any more trailing around dusty country roads but perhaps more of a life of city comforts?

We can’t be sure.  But whatever he was thinking about, imagining, it wasn’t God’s picture of what all of this was about.  And out of all of this imagining a wrong-headed, a very human, perhaps ego-driven set of fantasies, as a result of that came Peter’s rejection of what Jesus actually needed to do.

He’s illustrating the principle I was talking about in terms of worship; what you allow to shape your imagination, what you spend time reflecting on and integrating into your sense of self; that’s ultimately going to shape your behaviour.  So just as worship matters for us because it’s an opportunity to get, if you like, a God-sent reality check, Peter needed a God-sent reality check to remind him that his fantasies were sending him off in the wrong direction.

Worship redirects our attention and sets our mind on divine things… or at least, it’s supposed to.

And notice the other thing Jesus says to Peter: Get behind me.  Often this is read as “get out of my way,” and that wouldn’t be a wrong way to read it.  But I’d push further and say, “behind me” is where a disciple belongs.  A rabbi would walk at the head of a gaggle of disciples who came behind him; observing his conduct, absorbing his teaching, and asking questions as they went.

Jesus isn’t just telling Peter off, he’s also telling him what he needs to do to get it right; get behind me, get back to being my disciple.  Quit daydreaming and pay attention to what I’m showing and telling you.

That’s not a twenty-first century model of discipleship.  Fortunately for us all, perhaps, today discipleship tends to involve much more reading and much less hiking around the countryside.  But the basic principle remains the same; get behind me; put yourself in a position to observe, absorb and integrate the lessons of our master.

So my challenge to you, today, is how do you do that?  Coming to church is good, and I’d encourage it, but I’d also argue that it’s not really sufficient.  Peter and the others followed behind Jesus all day, every day; at the very least it would be normal and healthy Christian practice for us to find some time every day to deliberately put ourselves in mind of divine things (rather than human things), and to “get behind” Jesus as the one who teaches us on the road of life.

How can you get behind Jesus, as his disciple, that little bit more this week?  Small changes in habits are more likely to be sustainable and to become part of your life.  So maybe pick one small thing that would let you do that, and give it a go; and if we each do that, we’ll find we’re much more on the right track – together – than getting lost in human wrong-headedness.  And that would be a very good thing indeed.


Replanting Eden?

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it references is Genesis 9:8-17.

I wonder if you’ve spent much time in Melbourne’s botanical gardens?  They are, I think, one of the great treasures of our city; and I love to spend time in them, enjoying the peacefulness.

Today, botanical gardens are thought of as scientific places; they often have labs tucked away for genetic research and selective cultivation and all sorts of arcane botanical activities, with an eye to sustaining diversity and preserving species in the face of climate change, and all that sort of stuff.

But they didn’t start out that way.  Botanical gardens as we know them have two historical roots; the medicinal gardens of monasteries, and the university gardens attached to medical schools; both interested in plants, not for their own sake, but for what they offered human beings for health and wholeness.  As Europeans began to seriously explore other continents, they brought back exotic plants, which found their place particularly in the university gardens, where they were studied, classified, and so on; and the modern science of botany came into its own.

But the point about this is that both of these activities – raising medicinal plants, and collecting exotic ones – were given religious value in the society of their day.  The monastery gardens were seen as a kind of return to Eden; or a looking forward to the end of time, when God promised a city where the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.  And the university gardens, once they started holding collections of exotic plants, were seen as a kind of recreation of Eden, too; where the many species dispersed over the world by the flood could be reassembled to grow together, as they did in the beginning.

And it was that bit – of reassembling species that had been scattered far and wide by the flood – that got my attention.  Because one of the questions about the flood story is, which way is up?

What I mean by that is, do we see the story of the flood as a continuation of the fall, a bad thing, something which is about alienation from God and which we might want to reverse?  Or do we see the story of the flood as being about restoration of human relationship with God, a good thing which results in blessings for us as human beings?

Both perspectives are possible.  You can look at the story of human beings, from Adam and Eve being kicked out of the garden, the murder of Abel, the growing wickedness of humankind, and the eventual wiping out of everything except Noah and his family and living cargo, then the tower of Babel, as one long story of falling further and further away from God.  By the time you get to the people being scattered into different language groups after the tower of Babel, the reader has really got the point: we are so, so, so very fallen.

So when Abraham comes along in the next chapter, and God calls him and makes a covenant with him, Abraham becomes the beginning of a new hope; we see God and human beings – or a specific human being and his family, anyway – moving closer to God for the first time.  And Abraham becomes the wellspring, if you like, of all relationship with God for those to follow.

That’s one way to look at it.  But there are hints of a more complex reality in the text.  Cain and Abel are both born after Eden, and both worship the Lord.  Even after Abel’s murder, Cain is under God’s protection.  Noah and his family found favour with God, even amongst his community’s wickedness.  And – as we heard in today’s passage – after the flood there is a new beginning, of sorts; God promises never again to destroy all flesh in a flood.  There is now a covenant between God and all flesh, of God’s protection; even before Abraham, there’s a bond between God and the people made in God’s image.

What I’m suggesting is that while, on the one hand, we need to take our fallenness seriously; on the other hand, it’s a mistake to focus on that as the only relevant fact about our relationship with God.  The early chapters of Genesis, in their kind of mythic take on what it is to be human, show us a complex picture in which God protects us and reaches out to us, even while acknowledging our fallenness and seeking to overcome it.

This is where I think this reading is relevant for the beginning of Lent, too.  We are fallen; we are sinful; we are dust that has lost its way.  If we don’t admit that, we’re just kidding ourselves.  But on the other hand God cares for us, God reaches out to us, and God seeks new beginnings with us; not as a one-off but on a continual basis.  And if we don’t get that, then we don’t really understand who God is.

“Never again shall I cut off all flesh,” God promises Noah.  We live under the umbrella of divine protection; and while that is true, we also live in covenant relationship with God.  Not just Jews or Christians but every human being has that pledge of God’s fidelity, whether they know or understand it, or not.

So what does that mean?  It means we don’t need to be afraid to face up to our failures.  We can look at our fallenness, our sinfulness, our fearfulness and human ugliness without flinching, because we know God does.  We know God’s attitude to us; we know that nothing we do can make him love us less.  Not even our worst moments define us as outside God’s love or God’s reach.

This means we don’t have to hide our weaknesses; we don’t have to pretend, to ourselves or to others, to be better than we really are.  We don’t have to live with the anxious idea that we are only one bad decision away from being rejected.  We can know that we are safe and secure… which gives us the emotional foundational we need, to do the difficult work of personal growth, repentance and change.

The point of the flood story isn’t about the insoluble puzzle of the boat and the animals; how they all fit, what they all ate, and all of that; we reach the point today, where all flesh receives the promise of God’s protection, the promise of basic safety.

And this is where I think those renaissance gardeners, trying to recreate a garden as it might have been before the flood, had it wrong; to undo the flood would be to undo that promise of safety.  It would put us back into a primeval world where God’s protection against the elemental and chaotic forces of the world was not yet promised; not yet understood.

But we have that promise.  So as we embark on Lent, and try to take this seriously as a season of preparation, a season of penitence, a season of spiritual growth, let’s hold on to that promise of protection, of safety and of care; that covenant bond between us and our creator.  Because if we know that we really are safe, we have what we need to try to deal with some of the primeval, chaotic or dark aspects of our own souls; and to do the painstaking work of becoming who we are created to be.

And that’s a recreation of Eden that is worth striving for.


The art of life in dust and ashes

This is a sermon for Ash Wednesday.  The Scripture it reflects on is Matthew 6:1-21.

I read a reflection this week by an artist, who had been asked to provide some artwork for a book of reflections for Good Friday.  The catch, for her, was that the artwork had to be black and white; and her usual style was colourful, bold, and intricate; a style that didn’t translate at all into black and white.  So instead, she picked up a piece of charcoal, and tried to put her thoughts on paper with it.  She had to – in her words – learn a new language of artistic expression to be able to do anything useful for this task.

As she struggled to learn that new language, she described her early attempts as mess; smudgy, ugly and chaotic.

But as she gained some skill, she said that what she came to love about this new approach was the dramatic contrast of it.  The black and white, stark simplicity; conveying a scene in the smallest number of lines possible; subtracting all that is not essential, and leaving something which is beautiful in its sufficiency.

Learning the language of charcoal drawing was a process she compared to the journey through Lent.  Discovering what is essential, what is elemental, what remains when all that is unnecessary is stripped away.  Taking out the colour, some of the expressiveness, and the clutter of ordinary time to see what’s left.  Learning to sort through our messy, smudgy, ugly and chaotic attempts at life, to see the lines of what endures.  Examining our habits, practices, possessions and ways of being to see whether they actually help us live holy lives, or get in the way.

It’s an interesting comparison; I’m not an artist, and I’m afraid if I put charcoal to paper, the result would certainly be closer to mess than beauty.  But isn’t that how we often feel about life?  We try something, it doesn’t turn out the way we imagined, or people don’t react the way we hoped, or we come to recognise that what we thought we wanted really isn’t all that satisfying after all… and we’re left to go back and start again.  Where to from here?

Maybe it’s a good thing to stop and take stock, before circumstances and stress force us to, and while we have some inner store of resilience to face up to the parts of that which are difficult.

It seems to me that this process of interior sorting is something of what Jesus was talking about, when he tells his disciples not to store up treasures on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven.  He’s saying that our energy and devotion ought to go, not into what is fleeting, but into what is enduring; what is essential to who we are, and what is necessary to what we’re called to do.  The rest, while it might be nice in its day, ends up slipping away with all the vanities of the world (in the old-fashioned sense of “vanity” as something which, in the end, is in vain; does not achieve anything lasting).

I’m reminded, really, of the opening lines of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

And so on; he goes on for quite some time.

But we know about this kind of vanity, don’t we?  The groundhog day of domestic routines that never seem to actually get us anywhere.  The rat race of workplaces which don’t actually care for us as human beings at all.  The cycles of love and grief which leave us wondering what meaning we can take from it all.  Sometimes our lives can feel like the wind, going round and round, but never actually getting anywhere.

But Jesus points us to the deeper reality that there is something that endures.  The treasures in heaven he speaks of are to do with the things we do here that have eternal significance; our own relationships with God; our nurturing of other people as they seek God; our nudging the world towards the light of God’s truth and justice and love.  Every time we do those things, we invest in something beyond the surface vanities of life, but in treasures that will outlast time itself.

Whatever you give up, or take up, for Lent, this would be my advice to you.  Like the artist making a minimalist charcoal sketch, look for what’s essential.  What will help your relationship with God?  It doesn’t have to be huge; it might be something as simple as finding five minutes a day to really pray, if that’s not already part of your routine.  But find the thing which will be an enduring investment of your time and energy; something which will connect you to what is eternal.

Let the rest go; the vanities of this world will slip away, so don’t invest in them (and that can include your own expectations or tendencies to perfectionism); but find the way that is right for you to build and store up interior treasures that nobody can take from you.  And in that way, too, we will see God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

All things to all people

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 9:16-23.

Something that’s very interesting for me to observe at the moment, is that my husband’s church is going through the process of looking for a new minister.  And because they are like most every other church out there, the list of things different people want in a new minister is dizzying: someone who’s a strong leader, who never upsets anybody.  Someone who’s great with kids and will encourage new families to join, while having the senior members as gatekeepers.  Someone who will help shape a vision for the future, while keeping everything exactly the same.  And so on; it’s not that long since you were searching for a new priest, I’m sure you can relate.

So that came to mind for me when I read Paul’s line this morning that “I have become all things to all people, so that I might be any means save some.”

All things to all people; often the pressure we feel is as if what Paul means is that we have to please everyone all the time; be exactly what they expect, meet all of their needs, and never, ever rock the boat.  (Not just ministers, either; I get the distinct impression that parents and even grandparents get their version of this too).

It’s not humanly possible, of course; in fact, trying to be that person is a recipe for a nervous breakdown.  But what that points us to is that, in fact, that’s really not what Paul meant at all.

But then, what did he mean?  And how does it apply to us today?

Let’s start here.  Paul has as an assumption underlying a lot of what he writes, that the church – as a community of people – is fundamentally different to the wider society around it.  That Christians do not think or behave in the same way, or have the same priorities, as other people.

Now it’s debatable whether that’s as true in our situation as it was for the first-century church; a lot of the people around us still inhabit a culture profoundly shaped by Christian convictions (or as one Jewish friend put it to me, most Australians are still “not quite not-Christian”).

But let’s take that assumption seriously for a moment, and see what it suggests to us.  What Paul is saying is that the people out there – who are not Christian (yet) – are different from you; think differently, behave differently, and so on.  In effect, they’re inhabiting a different sub-culture from the one we inhabit.

And Paul’s saying, the work involved in bridging that cultural gap is our work to do.  If people don’t think like us, talk like us, do what we do… our job is to learn to think in their terms, speak their language, and be involved in the things they care about, in order to build the relationships in which they might come to know Christ.

Our job is to meet them where they are, because there’s no intrinsic reason why they should want to do the work to meet us where we are.  And that’s no less true when the person we want to reach is across the street, than it is when they’re across the world.

Or to give you a different example of the same principle, my mum grew up on a sugar estate where her dad was the manager.  When her brother, my uncle, was old enough, his dad set him to work supervising one of the cane-cutting crews.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the tough men who were used to hard labour in the cane fields had little time for this young brat who’d never done a hard day’s work in his life.

So he picked up a machete and laboured alongside them.  He came home with the palms of his hands shredded to ribbons, but in engaging in their world, experiencing life from their perspective, he earned the respect of the men, and the right to be taken seriously.

Paul’s saying it’s the same with mission.  Meet people where they are, engage with them on their terms, if you actually want to build meaningful relationship (because it’s in genuine relationship that people will come to know something of Christ, through you).

This is what has often been described as an incarnational approach to being the church.  The idea is that just as God the Son left the throne of heaven, emptied himself, and entered into human life for our sake – in the incarnation – that’s our model for how to engage with others too.  That we should be prepared to set aside our preferences, and enter into the life of others for their sake.  That Jesus, in his very life, gives us the model for how to live in a world which is different to us, but in whose flourishing we have a loving interest.

Now this is not the only way to think about mission, and it’s not the only thing we need to bear in mind as we go.  There’s no point, for example, identifying with others so thoroughly that we lose our authentic identity as people shaped by Christ.  But it is an important principle that reminds us where the obligation lies, on the divide between Christians and non-Christians; the obligation lies with us.  It’s our job to build that bridge, make those connections, nurture relationships.

That’s what being all things to all people is about.  Not pleasing everybody but cultivating the ability to relate to everybody.  The mental flexibility to see things from a different point of view.  The empathy to care about someone else’s fears and concerns.  The willingness to spend our time and energy outside our own comfort zones.  Paul talks about being all things to all people in terms of behaving differently with different groups, but actually I suspect the most important skill for us is real and deep listening.  We can’t relate deeply to people where they are, if we can’t even gain an appreciation of where they are, or how they got there.

One fairly easy way to do this is to read some of the anti-Christian stuff online.  Really read it; look beneath the rhetoric and understand the hurt, the fear, and the anger which drives it.  Understanding those things will help us to understand how not to play right into those emotions every time we interact with people who have good reason to be hurt, fearful or angry with the church.  Because we’re kidding ourselves if we think they don’t have good reason.

“I do it all for the sake of the gospel,” Paul said.  Those of us who’ve found the gospel, who’ve been transformed by the gospel, and who feel that gap between a Christian way of being and the culture around us, have work to do in bridging that gap with our neighbours.  But let’s do it, and do it well, for the sake of the gospel; and the opportunity to invite others to share in its blessings.