Master or servant?

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 2:23-3:6.

“How to destroy him.”  That is what Mark tells us the Pharisees wanted to do after their disagreement with Jesus about the Sabbath.  It’s a very strong response, isn’t it?  I might disagree with someone about all sorts of things, but it doesn’t usually leave me wanting to destroy them.  It’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?

It probably helps to realise that Sabbath, for the Pharisees, wasn’t just a point of legal detail, but was a fundamental question of their identity and place in the world.  The idea of a shared day of rest – a time for worship and recreation and freedom from the anxieties of work, for their whole community together – was part of what it meant to be Jewish, and part of what it meant to be in relationship with God. They felt threatened that if they lost the Sabbath, they would lose a key part of who they were, and a key part of their connection with God.  It was a very, very big deal.

But the problem was that in trying to preserve that, they were insisting on doing it in a way which became oppressive.  When you couldn’t pick food if you were hungry, or heal someone who could wait for medical treatment until tomorrow, because those things were too much like “work”…  well, Jesus thought they’d missed the point.

And the key to this really comes in him saying, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  His point is that the rules about not working for one day a week are not meant to oppress us, they’re meant to do us good.

It’s a principle I think we need to hear so badly today.  So often Christians take some commandment, or idea from the Bible, and they think that because God said it, that that is – without question and without exception – God’s will for us today, and that we must follow it no matter what the consequences, because that’s what it means to be a good person and to have a relationship with God.

The classic example of this happens with the question of divorce.  We know that the ideal for human relationships is one of lifelong faithfulness in marriage.  But we also know that sometimes that’s not what happens, that there’s violence or abuse or some other violation of what marriage should be.  And yet the folks who think that what the Bible says can’t possibly ever be gone against are the people who’ll urge an abused person to stay because, after all, we know God hates divorce.

This illustrates so clearly one of the central questions we have to bring to reading the Bible; are these texts, and whatever commands we find in them, something which we are obliged to obey, no matter what?  Are they our masters?  Or is the situation a bit more complicated than that?

Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Galatians; he wrote that “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” The word here that we’ve translated as disciplinarian is a tricky one; it’s referring to a social role in the ancient world that really has no equivalent today, but I think the closest idea might actually be something like a governess.  “The law was our governess until Christ came…”

There are three key things about a governess:

  • She is a servant
  • She is a teacher
  • She is concerned with the welfare of her charges.

All three of those things were also true of the role Paul described in his letter.  So we could draw from that the principle that the law is there to teach us, to foster our welfare, and – ultimately – exercises authority over us in only a provisional way.  The law serves us, not the other way around.

So if obedience to some principle we find in Scripture is actually resulting in human harm – like the person staying in a violent marriage, or the person not being healed on the Sabbath, and so on – then we can be reasonably confident that we’ve reached the limit of application of that rule.  Because none of the rules are meant to result in harm.  That’s a distortion – a bending out of shape – of what they’re meant to be about.

Now here’s the thing.  That doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we feel like or whatever we want.  It doesn’t mean that the commandments and principles in the Bible don’t matter at all any more.  That doesn’t leave us in a healthy place either, when we give ourselves permission to indulge every whim and impulse, or to ignore the rules we don’t like.

It means we need a bigger-picture principle to apply when deciding whether a rule applies just now.  We know that what God wants for us is our absolute good.  We know that we were created good; that our lives are – at their best – supposed to be filled with purposeful relationships and characterised by love, joy and peace; that God’s desire for the world is justice and reconciliation.  So when we’re not sure whether a rule ought to apply in any particular situation, we need to weigh up the outcome and ask ourselves, “Which course of action will lead to the best outcome for the people concerned?  Which will best respond to real human needs?  Which will most adequately further the mission God’s given us?”

Sometimes we won’t like the answers to those questions, personally.  They might ask a lot of us, emotionally or materially.  They don’t give us free rein for self-gratification.  But they do give us a better approach than rigidly holding to a rule or commandment even when it doesn’t serve us, because we have the idea that “God said” that’s what we must do.

So whenever we read the Bible, or interpret the Bible, in ways which damage people, in ways which limit human flourishing, which limit our trust in God or our ability to relate healthily with one another, we’re on very dangerous ground indeed.  Because that’s not the purpose of the Bible.  It’s not why those words were inspired, written, passed down, collected and recognised as sacred for thousands of years.

Instead the call to wholeness, personal, communal and cosmic – the wholeness and joy and peace which the Bible tells us is God’s good purpose for everything that exists – is the vision which should underpin how we read the Bible, and how we use what we read.  Because the Bible is there to serve us, and not the other way around.

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Trinity

This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday.  The Scripture quote it begins with comes from Romans 8:12-17.

Paul wrote: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Did you catch it?  In that short quote we heard references to all three persons of the Trinity; the Father – Abba – the Son – Christ – and God’s very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit.

And yet it took another four centuries or so for the church to begin to feel that we had a satisfactory way of talking about God as Trinity, which took into account what the Bible has to say, as well as the lived experience of believers.

And I want to emphasise that lived experience as important.  For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.

So we talk about God as Trinity.  And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”

I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.

What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father?  Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God?  Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence?  Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?

I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.

And then, what is it to talk about God the Son?  The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.

There is, I think, something important consider here.  And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites.  Sometimes in the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine.  The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.

I have to tell you, that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash.  There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son.  Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption.  In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.

Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that?  Last week for Pentecost I talked about spiritual gifts, but more than that, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is there to be seen in other ways.  As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.

All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer.  It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully.  It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.

I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God.  It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams.  But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration.  Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst.  Who wouldn’t be exhilarated?  Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?

All of us are here today because something about God has been deeply attractive to us.  The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.  Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

That is my answer to the question “So What?”  That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today.  And this is the vision in which I think Paul would encourage us to to join our hands and minds and voices in unity of purpose and direction.

Crossroads

This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 1.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.*

Did you spot why I started with this poem, this morning?

The psalm we just read wrapped some lovely imagery – of fruitful green trees by clear flowing waters, with unfading leaves, and so forth – around what seems like quite a stark division of the world’s possibilities into just and righteous on one hand, and evil on the other.  Two roads in the wood of life, perhaps; and sometimes difficult to choose between.

This psalm is one example among many – both within and outside the Bible – of what is called the “two ways” approach to ethics or morality. Think of Jesus telling his followers, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the gathered people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” and so on.

There are many other examples, and this way of thinking, which – with some variation – was important in ancient Jewish, Christian and Pagan ethical thinking, was prominent in the writings of the early church, and continues to be expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. In his spiritual exercises St. Ignatius included a “meditation on two standards,” in which the person undertaking the exercise is invited to imagine the army of Christ and the army of Satan, drawn up to do battle, and to choose to seek a place under the standard of Christ.

So what’s the appeal? Is it just that we all like a bit of certainty? That there’s some comfort in the idea that there are right answers to life’s puzzles, and that I can know what they are? Superficially, perhaps, that’s part of why this sort of approach has persisted for so long. But I think there’s something deeper to it as well.

You see, if someone tells you that there are two paths in front of you, and tells you about the blessings of one and the dangers of the other, even if that person doesn’t say so explicitly, he or she is setting before you a choice. And in doing so, that person – the author of the Psalm, in this case – is affirming your ability to make a choice. This is an approach to ethics which has at its roots a conviction that a human person is, in a meaningful sense, a moral agent, and that the will and choices of people actually matter.

This view of human beings skirts around the pessimism of the Calvinists, who will tell you that the only choice many humans can make is which sin to commit (because you’re going to be sinning!), without going to the other extreme and saying that since we are justified by grace, all options are open to us and equally good.

No. A “two ways” approach to ethics says to us first, that we are able to choose, and second, that our choices matter. It affirms our dignity as moral agents, neither puppets of greater forces nor completely bound in oppressions that we cannot transcend, and impresses on us our responsibility to choose well; because our own individual happiness, the flourishing of our community, and the healthy functioning of wider society, all are shaped by the choices which we make.

There is, however, a twist to this, particularly in the context of Christian thinking. All too often, people have made the easy identification of the right way – the way of the just and righteous – as simply being part of the Church. So the dualism of right and wrong gets carried over into thinking in terms of insiders and outsiders; we the green trees drinking deep from the waters of the Spirit, and outside, the sinners, the mockers, the evil doers. Us and them. And God on our side, of course.

But it’s not that simple. Christians can make bad choices. We do it all the time. And those outside the church – even if they don’t recognize God in terms we can easily affirm – can and do bear fruit in due season. So if we have meaningful choices in front of us, they have to be more than just the choice to express some sort of party loyalty. The church is a good thing – don’t misunderstand me, if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have committed my life to it! – but in ethical terms, at least, it’s not an end in itself.

So what is the end? Although the psalm says that the righteous prosper, this is not an encouragement to a kind of prosperity ethics, one which says that if we make the right choices God will bless us by giving us all that our hearts desire. The image of green trees growing by flowing waters is not, ultimately, just about how lovely it is for the trees. Instead, throughout Scripture large, shady and fruitful trees are a symbol of God’s blessing for others.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed; so often what we focus on in that parable is the growth of a great shrub with large branches from the smallest of all seeds, and of the glory of God in bringing about that growth. But remember how that parable ends: “…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The smallest of all seeds becomes a source of shelter and security, a place of blessing, a place through which God works to provide good things for his creatures.

I wonder what it might be like to consider our own ethical questions – our own moments in which we are confronted with real choices – and to make our choice in trust that if our heart follows the heart of God well enough, even our very small choices might become opportunities for God to bless others, providing for their real needs through our integrity?

It’s a very high view of human potential. But not, I think – looking out at all of you – too high. We are capable of real and meaningful choices. We are capable of taking delight in the knowledge of God’s way. We are capable of being like green trees, made fruitful by God for the blessing of the world.   And that, if we choose it, will make all the difference.

*The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

A matter of trust

This is a sermon for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas).  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 9:2-7.

I’ve often wished that Scripture told us more about the thoughts and motivations of the people in the Christmas story.  What did the shepherds really think when the angels turned up with their good news?  Did they trust what they were told, or set off in search of the child with more than a bit of doubt in their minds as to what they would find?

Trust can be an issue for us, too.  Was Mary really a virgin, or are the gospel writers glossing over a more mundane start to Jesus’ life?  How come Luke and Matthew tell completely different stories about Jesus’ birth, and just what was John on about, anyway?  And is coming to church to be reminded of all of this going to somehow make me a better person, or at least give me something to think about, or is this really just a comforting tradition with which I can soothe my secular anxieties, but which isn’t going to provide real answers to any of life’s questions?

Do I trust Christmas, trust the part of the Christian story celebrated at Christmas?  And if I did trust it, what would that mean for the rest of my life?

The Old Testament reading we had today, from Isaiah, was actually aimed at people with very similar questions.  In a corrupt society, where justice and piety were given lip-service but not much more, and the king was more interested in personal and political gain than his people’s welfare, people wondered what they could possibly trust; and whether their God actually offered them any hope or was a prop to the status quo.

(Some things don’t change so much, it seems).

But in the midst of that situation, Isaiah sets out to systematically build a culture of trust and hope.  He pointed to the things people worshipped which were either powerless or evil and called them out for what they were; worthless and not deserving of our devotion.  He pointed to our tendency to be selfish and egocentric and highlights that all manner of evil comes about when we build a society which treats some people as more important or valuable than others.  And he points to God – the one God who really exists and has any capacity to cut through our human darkness and chaos – and points to that God as a solid foundation for our hopes; the one stable point which we can trust to the depths of our being.

His message today starts with “the people who walked in darkness…”  The darkness is real.  We don’t have to look for to see it.  War, terrorism, refugees in detention, poverty, addiction, abuse… we know these things.  We carry the burden of them in our hearts.  But Isaiah insists that in that darkness a light has shined.  In that darkness there is still hope.  In that darkness, there is still one we can trust.

I doubt that Isaiah really understood who Christ would be.  But when God set aside all the power and dignity of heaven to become human; to become small, vulnerable, and helpless… then Christians looked back on what Isaiah had written and saw how well Isaiah understood the character of that God.  The trustworthiness of that God.  This is how far God would go, to bring light into our darkness.  This is the price God would pay for our hope.  To become part of our human family and, in doing so, to bring the potential for radical transformation of our darkness.

Christ is born; glorify him!  Says one of the most ancient Christian hymns for this time of year.  Glorify him – praise him – because in doing this, he demonstrates more love for us than we can fully understand in a lifetime.  Knowing our own inner darknesses, it’s extraordinarily difficult for us to believe that we are truly and completely loved.  But as you look at the manger and consider what motivated God to exchange the throne of heaven, the seat of power and authority over all of time and everything that exists, to be born in a stable; doubtless a bit grotty and certainly highly undignified; remember that it was love.  Love for each of us.  Love that wanted to create light in darkness and let that light shine, unconquered, as a source of hope and strength and joy for each of us.

It’s a powerfully humbling thought.

If we can trust this, though; if we can take hold of it and let it sink deep into our hearts; let it transform our doubts about our own worth or lovability, this truth can change us.  And as it changes us, it can change the world.

This is where the joy of Christmas comes from.  Not from all the pretty (or tasty!) things the shops are so eager to sell us all, but from the love of God for us so profound, that it holds the potential to bring light to every darkness there is.  Mine, yours, the churches’, Manus Island, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia and wherever else that darkness currently holds sway.  What would you do differently tomorrow, if you really trusted that love?

God came in human flesh; so we celebrate with trembling and with joy.  With trembling because of our darkness – our sin, even – and with joy because of the hope we have that that darkness will finally be defeated.  It will not have the last word; the last word belongs to the one who spoke the very first word; “Let there be light.”  And there was light; and it was good.  We who have seen that light can trust that the last word will be just as good.

And so at the manger we can let go of our burdens, as Isaiah urges; the burdens of our sins, our despair, our doubt and our fear.  We know who it is who has come to us.  We know why he came.  And we know that nothing will ever be the same again.

Earlier I asked you, if you really trusted that love, what would you do differently tomorrow?  My own answer is that tomorrow – or at least once all the celebrations are over – the work of Christmas begins.  To live in the light we’ve been given and seek to magnify it for others.  To find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, pursue peace, and inspire hope.  Each of us will bring different skills and passions to that work, and it’s something we must realise is a group effort; not to be done on our own but undertaken together.  And we must do it with genuine trust that it’s an extension of what started so long ago with a baby in a manger.

But not just any baby.  A baby we can trust.

Impulse towards the Infinite

This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 22:15-33.
We had a couple renewing their vows on their golden wedding anniversary this morning, so the sermon is written with that in mind.

“In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

What do you reckon?  Are you looking forward to your wings and halo?  And would that somehow compensate for being single?

At first blush, this reading might look as if it has quite a low view of marriage; as if it’s fine for something for us to do, you know, to pass the time in this life; but that when this life is over and we go to glory, it won’t really matter any more.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying, exactly, although that might take some unpacking.

The first thing to note is that this discussion really isn’t about marriage at all.  The issue here is about what happens after we die, and whether resurrection is really a possibility.  The Sadducees argue that it is not; and they make that argument because, if we see resurrection simply as picking up where we left off, a kind of continuation of this life, there are significant logical problems with that.  So, seeing the logical absurdity of having to choose between several spouses, or other problems of a resurrected life that is just “more of the same,” they reject the possibility.

Jesus’ response is to challenge their limited imagination.  Resurrection – he tells them – isn’t “more of the same,” it’s a radical transformation of our very nature.  Paul put more words around the same idea when he wrote about the resurrected body: “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

I guess what Paul talks about as a “spiritual body” is his way of describing what Jesus means when he says we’ll be like the angels in heaven.

But what does that mean?  To be honest, I don’t know the details; and I suspect it’s something we can’t really understand from this part of our existence.  But it follows that if our bodies undergo radical change, that so will our human relationships.  The cycle of life, with the particular demands of growing and aging, of pair-bonding and parenting, and all of that, will clearly not function in the same way.  I don’t think that means we will lose the potential for meaningful relationships, but trying to describe them in terms of what we know now clearly isn’t going to work.

But – and this is the thing I really want to focus on today – that doesn’t rob our family relationships, or specifically our marriages, of eternal significance.  Human relationships are the context in which we learn, change and grow; and marriages, as the most intimate and enduring (at least ideally) of those relationships give us a particularly intensified opportunity for that change and growth.  They can be a crucible for holiness.

Marriage is an all-embracing experience.  We bring to it all that we are, in giving ourselves to each other, and in turn it is the foundation on which all of our later life experiences are built.

And being married is not, and never has been, a fixed state of happy-ever-after (after 50 years how well I’m sure you know that!).  There are troubled times, times when you’re divided, or there are power struggles, or it seems like you don’t know the way forward.  It’s in facing up to those struggles and learning from them that our own personal growth comes (as well as increasing depth and intimacy in the marriage).

This growth comes about because in all the ups and downs of a marriage, we find ourselves at our best and worst, our most loving and joyful and generous, and our most fearful, vicious and selfish.  If we’re paying attention, the way we treat our spouse and our family holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and sins, and shows us where we still need grace.

I can remember, for example, when my daughter was a newborn, and we were having a rough night, and were up for what felt like the umpteenth time, and she was screaming and I was in tears and nothing was going right, and my poor husband looked at me in lost bewilderment and said, “I didn’t think it would be like this!”  And it took all my strength not to throw something at him – he was lucky I was holding the baby! – and yell, “Well, what did you think it would be like?!”

Love is patient, apparently, and it seems marriage is designed to gradually teach me that!

But even this sort of personal growth, too, while good and healthy, is not an end in itself.  As marriage helps us grow and mature, it also helps become able to form generous and open-hearted relationships with others, beyond the marriage.  This is part of what having children is about, but even for people who never have children, growth in personal maturity turns us outward towards community, secure in ourselves and able to support others without anxiety or feeling threatened.  When two adults commit themselves to life and growth together, their relationship reaches far beyond them to transform and create other relationships; what I’ve seen described as “an energy to embrace newness.”

Ultimately, I’d describe that “energy to embrace newness” as hope.  If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for,” as the writer of the Hebrews put it, then having the energy to imagine that things might be different, to welcome and even collaborate in that newness, and to be assured that God is at work in that, bringing about what is good and true and just… is one possible end result of being attentive to what marriage can work in us.

Of course all of this takes work.  It takes commitment.  It takes time and making the relationship between the two of you actually a priority.  This is easier in some phases of life than others; and maybe easier after the children have moved out, than when they are little.  The golden years, rather than being about fading or declining (which some people might fear) can be a time of deepening and enrichment, if you’re clear that that’s what you want them to be.

Or, to put that the way Pope Paul VI put it, married love is an impulse towards the Infinite.

Now, I do want to add a disclaimer.  Not everyone is able to marry, not even all those who wish to; and in talking about the potential of marriage in this way, I don’t want to suggest that this crucible of holiness that we find in relationships, isn’t available to single people in different ways.  Intentional and intimate relationships of all kinds can afford us the same opportunities.  But marriage is, for most of us, our most committed, most enduring and most intimate relationship, so it’s worth stopping to reflect on it specifically on an occasion like this.

So if I’d dare to offer you any suggestions, on this special day, it would be to be open to the potential of your marriage; to help each of you continue to grow; to support each of you to be your best selves in the world; and to be a relationship which cultivates hope and openness to what God might be up to.  And may God continue to bless you richly.

Let’s build a megaphone

This is a sermon for the feast of Michael and All Angels.  The Scripture it references is Revelation 12:7-12.

This picture* looks a bit like something out of Tolkien, doesn’t it?  If, like me, you grew up reading The Hobbit long before you ever read the book of Revelation, you could be mistaken for thinking that this sort of imagery belongs to the world of fantasy, not of faith.

Dragons, cosmic war, mythic signs… what are we to make of all of that?

I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice.  But on a day when we stop to think about the reality of angels, and what role they might play in the life of faith, to read from Revelation is actually very fitting.

You see, it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense.  There is a very good reason for that; Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is a type of writing which is pretty much a dead art form.  But the key to making sense of it is in the name – “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this genre of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality.  A parish like this one has something of a head start, perhaps, in being able to come to grips with this; and that’s because apocalyptic writing, in its use of symbols and images to convey deeper truth, is a lot like the language of liturgy. Just as, behind the symbol of shared bread, is the deeper truth of our belonging to one another in the church, just as behind the symbol of lit candles is the truth of the light that Christ brings into our lives, and so on – I could go on for ages – behind all of life, says apocalyptic writing, is deeper truth and deeper meaning.

And if we are unveiling layers of meaning, that implies that things are not entirely as they might seem.  So let’s take a few minutes to look at what John says is really going on behind the veil of everyday life.

So this morning’s reading begins with “And war broke out in heaven…”  This war is timeless.  It began before the creation of the cosmos, and it continues to be one of the deepest truths of our reality, which shapes everything we experience.

Let me pause here and say that I know some of you won’t believe in a literal devil and demons.  That some people see those as powerful imaginative ways to represent our experiences of evil and darkness.  But certainly the New Testament authors did believe in those powers as being wielded by actual evil personalities; and whether we see them as personal or impersonal, we all know that human life is marred with that reality of genuine evil.

Anyway.  So there’s a war; and we’re all caught up in it.  The forces of good vs. the forces of evil; and what we’re given a glimpse of here is that evil is losing.  In fact, evil has lost, and all that remains is something of a cosmic mopping-up operation.

This text, strange as it is, is telling us to hope.  Yes, we experience bad things; evil wreaks havoc; there is oppression and abuse; human beings are hypocrites; and so on.  But what John’s vision showed him is that that’s just the mess that needs cleaning up after the battle’s been won.  It’s not the last word.  It’s not forever.  It’s purely temporary, and the powers of God – here represented by the angels – will throw down what evil remains and creation will be renewed.  Our reading today finishes with “the time is short.”  The time is short!  This soon shall pass!  We might be suffering right now, but we’re on the winning side.

You might have heard some more Pentecostal types of Christians talk about spiritual warfare; and while that can sound quite intimidating, really all that means is recognising the reality of this cosmic war, and deliberately aligning ourselves with the winning side.  In that sense we engage in spiritual warfare every time we meet for worship.  Every time we pray “your kingdom come.”  Every time we choose hope over despair.  We are saying that we recognise the deeper reality of good and evil, and we choose good.

But there’s something else we’re called to do in this mopping-up operation, and it’s hinted at in this reading too.  John heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming… but he didn’t tell us whose voice it was.  Remember that for John, heaven and earth are two interwoven dimensions of the same reality.  What he sees in his vision tells us the deep truths of our lived reality.  So when he says there’s a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, he’s also saying something about the very real fabric of our lives.

Proclaiming is our job.  We’re given this vision, this insight; this peek behind the veil; not just so that we can know what’s going on, but so that we can share that knowledge with others.  We’re given a message of hope, and we’re supposed to make that hope known to everyone who hasn’t heard it yet.  It’s not just one voice in heaven; or more accurately, it’s one voice made up of the many voices who have seen the victory and who cry out to tell all creation that the forces of evil have been thrown down.  That the power of God has won.  That it’s time to rejoice!

It’s grand final weekend.  The secular world has just shown us something of the rejoicing of those who win.  And we’re called to lead the way in that rejoicing, on a cosmic scale!  Michael the archangel might have led the fight; we get to kick off the party.

And this is the thing, really; an angel is, more than anything else, a messenger.  This day where we remember angels, reminds us that actually, we’re all supposed to be messengers.  We’re all supposed to carry with us wherever we go, a message of hope and joy and faith.  Ours is the loud voice resounding through heaven and earth.

Is your megaphone at the ready?

Is that an intimidating question?  If you’re unsure about being that loud voice, remember that you don’t do it alone.  We need to find ways, together, to be messengers of hope and joy and faith.  We need to find ways to make sure that our voice resounds, beyond our doors, down the street, and to all the surrounding area.  That we announce whatever brings hope; whatever lets people know that they can trust that in the end, God wins;  whatever lets people in on the infectious joy of knowing that the time of suffering is short; that’s our job.

So let’s build a megaphone.

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Transfiguration

This is a sermon for the feast of the transfiguration.  The Scripture it references is Mark 9:2-10.

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

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

Mark’s account here is brief, but Luke fills in some of the blanks for us, and explains that this is all about glory.   Moses and Elijah appeared in glory; the disciples saw Jesus’ glory.  A quick Google search tells me that today, glory is a word mostly used about sport, and war; both contexts in which it is closely associated with winning; with coming out on top and triumphing over competitors or enemies.  God, who is without peer, has neither competitor nor enemy who is any threat to him; and he exists in a state of eternal glory, which is something which both Mark and Luke come back to, again and again, throughout their gospels.

Glory exists the gospels when people praise God, and when they experience the nearness of heaven (think of the shepherds in the fields at the time of Jesus’ birth, and how “the glory of the Lord shone around them”).  Glory is what we recognize as the power and the presence of God, both in its utterly holy otherness, and its intimate nearness to human life.

And that reality – the power and the presence of God – is what the disciples recognized on the mountain.  So this tells us again who Jesus is.  The power and presence of God shines out of the depths of his very flesh, reminding us that he is God, who, although he has chosen to humble himself and take on flesh, is not limited by it in the way that we are.

In the language and understanding of faith of the time, the events on the mountain claim an unmistakable divine identity for Jesus, which lays the foundation for understanding the events of his suffering and death.

More than that, though, the transfiguration looks beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the future.  The glory which shone out of Jesus on the mountain is the glory which we will most fully know in God’s future; in the banquet at the end of time, and the establishment of perfect peace and harmony.  The glory of Jesus on the mountain is a peek behind the veil of time, a foretaste of the future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, human beings will cease their destruction, and all of creation will flourish in peace and beauty.  Remember the promise in Revelation that at that time, we will no longer need sun or moon, because the glory of God is the light of the new creation – and it is that same perfect and holy light which shone from Jesus’ face on the mountain.

So the light and the glory of the transfiguration aren’t just minor details of the event on the mountain, but really they are the event.  They are a down payment on a future where God’s salvation will triumph definitively over evil and suffering, where God’s glory will be – as Paul put it – “all in all.”

This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation.  Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.  So it really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them another glimpse into deeper understanding of who Jesus was.

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

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

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

As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, to nurture the tender new shoots of the reign of God wherever we find them. We’re supposed to be on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket; and if we’re on a lampstand, we’ll be effective in bringing light to the spaces we inhabit.

Martin Luther King, Jr., told the story of how, during his struggle for justice, he was strengthened by God’s promises; by his vision of this hope.  One night he woke up to find twelve sticks of dynamite on his front porch with the fuse still smouldering.  The next morning, during his sermon, he told his congregation: “I am not afraid of anybody this morning.  Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them.  Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them.  If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.”

What would it take, my brothers and sisters, for us to be convinced that we have been to the mountaintop, and we have seen the promised land, and it’s going to be here, in Burwood?  What would it take for us to live with that absolute rock-solid certainty, so that we would persevere, unafraid, certain of what God is up to in our midst?  Perhaps, until we reach that point, we will need to keep coming back to the transfiguration and let it speak to us of the hope and glory of God.

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

May we be faithful stewards of it.