Investing in relationships: Part III

This is the third in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is Luke 10:38-42.

I love this morning’s gospel reading.  If ever I need an excuse for neglecting the housework, there it is!  There is something better than housework, and Mary is commended for choosing it.

This domestic disagreement over the division of labour might not, at first blush, seem to have much to with stewardship, which has been our theme for the last couple of weeks; but you might remember that I’ve been talking about stewardship as investing in relationships.  On the first week I talked about our relationships with God, last week I talked about our relationships with each other, and this last week of the series I want to talk about our relationships beyond our parish community; which I’m going to refer to as mission.  Of course we have relationships beyond our parish which are not about mission; relationships with the wider Anglican church and other churches, but today what I’m interested in is our relationships with the people of our community.

We tend to think of “mission” as something we do, generally by sending specially prepared and educated people somewhere else, or sending money to those specially trained people, so that they can convert the people there to our belief and way of life.

But while that’s a kind of expression of mission which got very popular with colonialism and global empires, it’s not what the Church has historically meant by mission at all.  Mission was an activity understood to belong fundamentally to the Trinity; the Father sent the Son, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit were present and active in the world in order to achieve God’s purposes for the flourishing of creation; and that was mission.  In this deeper view, mission is God’s mission; it is God’s self-revelation as the One who loves the world, God’s ongoing involvement in and with the world.  It is about God’s intrinsic nature, God’s activity flowing out of that nature, and that is something in which the church is invited to participate.  Our God is a God-for-people; the church responds by attempting to be a church-for-people where it finds itself.

Mission is God’s “yes” to the world; in the sense that the work of the Church is to express the reign of God in justice, peace and human wholeness. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love towards God’s people, since God is a fountain of sending love.

That’s why we exist as a Church; that’s what we’re here for.

So, go back for a moment to Mary and Martha and the housework.  Mary, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, knew what she was here for, what was most important.  But Martha?  Martha was distracted by her many tasks. 

It is so easy for that to happen.  Especially for community groups like small churches.  We get caught up in routines of meetings and reports and rosters and all the rest of it; all the little things that keep everything working smoothly… our many tasks.  And it’s so easy, when we’re distracted by our many tasks, to take our eyes off the ball of what we’re supposed to be doing… which is engaging with our community and context in ways which express the mission of God.

Some of you will be familiar with the 5 marks of mission, which are a statement on mission agreed on by Anglicans at an international level.  They are an attempt to capture what kinds of activities and aims would go to making up this sort of idea of mission, and they are as follows:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

These areas are our equivalent of being Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet; they’re what we’re supposed to be focussed on, and what we’re not supposed to get distracted from.

There’s a lot there, of course, and each needs a lot of unpacking to explore what it might look like in practice; so let me just make some brief remarks on each one.

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.

In one sense, we proclaim the good news just by existing as the Church.  We point beyond ourselves to our reason for being, in response to our loving God.

(Or to put it another way, I remember one former dean of Melbourne saying that the church exists “to keep the rumour of God alive.”  That people look at us, our buildings, our services, our statements and actions, and are forced to confront at least the possibility that there might be a God).

So one question for us here might be, how do we engage better in public discourse where the good news is so badly needed?

  1. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.

In some ways, I want to amend this one to remove the word “new” and just say, to teach, baptise and nurture believers.  When do any of us stop needing to learn or be nurtured?  I know I haven’t yet!

But this is the point which encourages us to reflect seriously on our study groups and other ways in which we teach and learn; our worship services, quiet days, pastoral care, and other aspects of how we nurture one another.  We might think about intentionally expanding our library and making it more easily available to the public.

On Wednesday night this week I went to a session of the Justice Conference, organised by Tear and other Christian organisations; and the main speaker on that night was focussed on hospitality as radical expression of the reign of God.  How do we enlarge our tables and gather more people around them, to feed them not only with food but with human relationships?  These are important challenges for us.

  1. To respond to human need by loving service.

We’ve done some really good things in this vein this year; packing birthing kits, raising money for local disadvantaged families and for Orange Sky Laundry; as well as our ongoing quiet support of local emergency relief organisations.

More and more I’m aware of high levels of social isolation and loneliness in our local area; our ministry to seniors might well be a good way to begin to do something about that, but perhaps we might also look at what the local council or others are doing, and how we might be involved.

We might also look at the work being done at a diocesan level on the prevention of violence against women; or ask ourselves how the work now being done on disability inclusion might be picked up and worked through in this parish.

  1. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

95 bells for 95 children detained on Nauru; it’s cost us very little, but it’s turned out to be a very effective way to raise awareness of the plight of refugee children, locally and, indeed, nationally.

How else might we be able to challenge our blindness to our own privilege, and begin to provide space for the voices of more oppressed and marginalised groups in our community life?  I don’t pretend to have all the answers but again, I put it before you as a question.

  1. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Here’s where some contact and cooperation with local environmental groups fits within our mission.  It’s also where we might take thought for our energy use, our choice of cleaning chemicals, our use of paper, and so on.  When I had some involvement with the Student Christian Movement, they had a policy that all shared meals were vegetarian, because of the high environmental impact of farming animals for meat.  I wonder what it would be like if we chose to deliberately shift the balance of our shared meals in that direction?

There are, as you can see, options under all of these headings limited only by our creativity, and I spoke a little bit about them this morning really just to prompt some thinking and reflection rather than to present a fully-formed template for mission.

What I do want to stress is that amongst the many tasks of parish life which distract us, mission is what we’re supposed to be about, and the Marks of Mission are a good aid to reflecting on what really matters.  After all, wouldn’t we rather invest in what’s really going to make a difference in our world, rather than stressing about things which, ultimately, are not the point?

Rather than being worried and distracted by many things, let’s make sure that as we plan our life together, we choose the better part.

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Investing in relationships: Part I

This is the first in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is Luke 11:1-13.

Well, it’s everyone’s favourite time of year again.  That point in the cycle of things where the treasurer makes appeals to your generosity, and I’m asked to spend some time reflecting with you on the theology of giving.

I know – because many of you have talked about it with me – that here you’re very familiar with the idea that giving isn’t just about money, but is also about giving of your time and talents, so I’m not going to go over that ground with you again.

Instead, I want to talk a bit about what we’re investing in; what we hope to accomplish by what we give.

And I’m going to suggest to you that fundamentally, we’re investing in relationships.

We give to God of our time, our energy and our money not just because we like having a building or an institution or even a vicar, but because those are things which sustain the Church as a network of relationships; relationships in which we are accepted, loved, cared for, and through which we can accomplish more than any of us could on our own.

And I think about that in three kind of concentric circles.  First – and what I’m mostly going to talk about this week – there’s our relationship with God, which should be at the centre of our life as a Church.  Then – and this will be the focus next week – there are our relationships with each other; what it means to be a functional community.  And finally, there are our relationships beyond our local church community, which, for a convenient shorthand, I’ll call mission.  (Of course mission’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s a helpful way of thinking about it).

So; relationships with God, with each other, and beyond our own community.  And by the very nature of relationships, all of them require an investment from us if they are to work and continue to be healthy relationships.

But for this week, let me share with you a comment from Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran theologian.  I saw an interview with her once, where she said her students often ask her what she does to get closer to God.  And she said – with her typical disarming honesty – “Why would I want to get close to God?  Whenever Jesus gets close to me I end up having to love someone I hate, give away more of my money, or forgive someone I don’t want to forgive.”

And it seems to me that that comment so neatly captures our human dilemma, in relationship with God.  We want to be loved, accepted, cared for.  We want to know that our heavenly father’s arms are always open to us.  But at the same time, we’re keenly aware that such an encounter is going to make demands of us, and that we might not like some of them very much.  Maybe it’s safer to stay away.

And so there can be this internal push-and-pull towards and away from God.  This is part of what Jesus is addressing when he says in our gospel reading today: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In other words, we may not like the process of learning to love those we hate, or forgive those who have hurt us, or relinquish having our own way about something, but it’s something God invites us to, ultimately, because it is for our own good.

There is also the all-too-common problem that many of us have an image of God that makes closeness difficult.  Many of us, deep down where we might not even fully recognise it, believe in a harsh God, one who judges our faults, who demands more from us than we can give, and who is more interested in our obedience than our happiness.

Of course you’re not going to want to be close to someone like that.  Who would?  It would be toxic to continually expose yourself to that kind of harshness.

Now, that sort of deap-seated image of God isn’t something that shifts just because a preacher tells you something different.  It takes time; it takes actual encounters with the real God to dismantle the false image.

What I’m going to suggest to you, as we begin this consideration of stewardship, of how we manage all the good things God gives us, is to start by taking an inventory of your relationship with God.  How are you getting on with God, anyway?  What would it take for that to improve?

It might well be that you realise that in fact, there’s something that’s become a block in that relationship.  Maybe you’re angry with God about something.  Maybe you’re not actually on very good speaking terms right now.  And that isn’t, in and of itself, the end of the world; but be honest with yourself about it, and open to how that might change.  And of course, if you’d like to come and talk to me about any of that, my door is always open.

Of course, each of us has our own individual relationship with God, with all its complexities.  But there is a dimension of that which we share, as we come together to worship.  Our liturgy gives us a solid framework for that, but the liturgy isn’t the relationship; it’s an opportunity to work on the relationship.

And while our own personal relationships with God mostly require time from us, our shared prayer life is often where our talents and treasures find their place.  So many people enrich our worship with their talents; whether with words or fabric or music or the hidden but crucial arts of maintenance.  And having vibrant worship which is able to meet our needs, desires and moods does require material investment also.

By focussing on relationships over these three weeks what I’m trying to do is put the question of our giving in human perspective.  It’s not about numbers in a spreadsheet or tasks on a list or keeping the doors open, but about the quality of the connections between us.   And as we keep exploring that theme over the coming weeks, I encourage you to take that seriously in your own reflections.

St. Francis of Assisi

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

What kind of man preaches to the birds?  Was Francis a bit simple, or was he, perhaps, making a point about his frustration with human congregations?

I suspect something a bit more subtle was going on, but to understand what drove the man famous for his affinity with animals and nature, it might help to start with something he wrote.

Towards the end of his life, Francis wrote a “Letter to the Faithful,” an attempt, perhaps, to make sure that the people aligned with the movement he had started, had some of his words to hold on to, when he was gone.

And in that letter he told a story.  The story – I’ll paraphrase it for brevity – is about a very wealthy man, a man who has become wealthy through fraud and deception.  This man falls sick, and knows that death is near.  Friends and relatives come and advise the dying man, “Put your affairs in order.” His wife and children, friends and relatives, all pretend to mourn. Looking up from his deathbed, he sees them weeping, and decides to leave all his ill-gotten wealth to these family members.

There and then, they call a priest; he says to the sick man, “Do you want to be absolved from all your sins?”  And the dying man replies, “I do”. “Are you ready then to make restitution as best you can out of your property for all that you have done, all the fraud and deceit you practiced towards your fellow men?” the priest asks him. “No”, he replies. And the priest asks, “Why not?” “Because I have left everything in the hands of my relatives and friends”, is the answer.

So the fraudulent rich man dies without making things right for the people he mistreated, and without being reconciled to God.  And rather than being appreciative of what he left them, his family curse him for not making more for them!  So, Francis concludes the story with the rich man suffering torments in hell, his body being food for worms, and his ungrateful relatives remembering him with bitterness and not love.

It’s not really a cheery story, and it’s a far cry from cuddly animals.  But why did Francis tell it?

It helps us if we understand a little bit about the world he lived in.  Francis lived in a time of great social upheaval; the system that had dominated in previous centuries – of nobles exercising feudal power over peasants who were mostly engaged in agriculture – was giving way to the new power of merchant families who ruled city-states; expanding international trade through Italy’s big port cities made those merchants unbelievably wealthy, and completely disconnected from the poor people outside the gates of those cities.  (If we listen to rhetoric about coastal “elites” and impoverished, neglected rural folk in America today, the comparison in terms of mutual distrust and ideological disconnection is actually striking).

So the economic base was shifting, the old social norms were being brought into question, and more and more, the wealthy were getting wealthier by exploiting the poor.  The story of a young Francis stripping naked in the town square to protest his merchant father’s ill-gotten wealth is famous; but perhaps we don’t always recognise how much that was one example of enormous social division of the time.

Many rural towns already had groups of poor people living communally, sharing everything they had in order that everyone might eat; and because this was, after all, medieval Italy, those communal groups thought of themselves as being a bit like a monastery, and called themselves “penitents.”  But the main thing they were repenting was involvement in an economic system which had utterly failed them.

So when Francis started his order – and by the way, he was ordained a deacon but never a priest, so let that be a reminder not to underestimate deacons or the diaconate! – he naturally drew followers from these communities of penitents, and their movement can be seen as a powerful social protest against exploitative wealthy people feeding a lavish consumerist culture, which left the poorest and most vulnerable out in the cold.

Francis and his brothers – and later the women in their companion order, as well – lived in a way which turned those values on their heads.  Choosing poverty – for they lived by begging – was a way of saying that people and things have a value which can’t be priced on the commercial market.  Treating all of creation as sacred, down to the humblest animal, was a way of saying that God’s creation is good in and of itself; and that the worth of something isn’t measured by what someone will pay for it.

What price would you put on sunshine, anyway?  Or the feel of the breeze on your face?

Francis wrote and talked a lot about penance, but what he seems to have meant by it is mostly a disengagement from attachment to stuff.

This was a more complicated social critique than just wanting to turn back the clock and make Umbria great again.  By the time Francis gathered others around him, he had been observant enough to see that the old feudal system didn’t work all that well, either.  He’d been among the lepers who were outcast even from the rural towns, and been horrified at their callous exclusion from human community.

Instead, for Francis, penance was about treating human beings as sacred, each and every one of us. It was about forming communities which treat each and every person with worth and dignity, and which treat the bonds of relationship between us and every other good thing which God created, as sacred.  For Francis, it’s in rightly honouring every good thing which comes to us from the hand of God, that we know grace; and come to overflow with grace in how we relate to everyone else.

This sacredness inherent in every person and creature, is Francis’ vision of human life as it was meant to be, and as it will be when God’s reign is fulfilled.  The community he formed around him was meant to be a sign pointing a corrupt and lost society towards that vision.

That’s the point of the story in Francis’ Letter to the Faithful.  All the luxuries in the world can’t save you, can’t keep you alive, and can’t help you have relationships worth having.  And I think it’s the point of preaching to the birds, too.  The birds who are our fellow-creatures help us praise God, and point us towards more authentic humanity than anything you can buy.  The letter and the honouring of nature are all parts of an alternative value system, and an alternative vision of human community; one in which people matter for who we are, and not what we have.

And that’s a timeless message which still very much resonates in our own day!

 

The text of the “Letter to the Faithful” can be read here: http://www.traditionalcatholicpriest.com/2014/10/05/letter-to-the-faithful-by-st-francis-of-assisi/

Words matter

This is a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is James 3:1-12.

When I was a theological student, and working at the Cathedral, part of my job was to occasionally take school groups around, show them different parts of the building, answer any questions and so forth.  Usually they were a lot of fun.  And one day, I was taking around a group of grade three kids, and one of them asked me, “What do you have to do to become a priest?”  I gave some answer at about the level I thought an 8 year old could understand, but even so, she looked up at me with wide eyes and said, “Wow, to learn all that you’d have work really hard, like, all day and all night and not sleep!”

I had, in fact, been up most of the night before writing an overdue essay, so I wasn’t really inclined to correct her!

But looking back on it, one of the most difficult things – one which almost all of us failed in at some point – had nothing to do with study or essays or any of that.  It had to do with the annual college retreat, at which we were expected to observe forty-eight hours of silence.

Arrive Friday lunchtime, settle in, and then silence would begin; and wouldn’t end until lunchtime Sunday.  I think the oddest part was meal times; forty-odd people sitting together around tables, eating and… not talking.  It goes against our every social instinct.

The point, of course, in that setting was to allow each person the mental and emotional space to work through whatever God was doing with them in that retreat time, without being encroached on by others’ thoughts and needs.

We were terrible at it, though.  Some snuck off to have a chat at a nearby café.  Some had whispered conversations in private corners.  One memorable night I had to get out of bed and ask the group of students one floor down (who were getting rather louder the more they drank) to please shut up so I could sleep.

It was not always an edifying example of Christian maturity, anyway.

And our reading from James today reminded me of that.  “No one can tame the tongue,” he said, and certainly our college attempts even just to keep silent showed me how hard it is to discipline our restless speech.

But James’s point is, in a way, even more basic than that.  Words matter.

Words matter.

James wasn’t going to tell people that sticks and stones might break his bones, but names would never hurt him.  He described our words as being able to “set on fire the whole cycle of nature,” by which he meant that every sinful dynamic – every occasion of lovelessness or joylessness or violence –  could find itself sparked by words.  There’s power in our words, and the way we speak to one another can all too easily damage or intimidate or overwhelm.

The flip side of that, of course, is that our words have power, and so used intentionally, the way we speak to one another can heal or encourage or invite, as well.

Even our government recognises that, now; and as a result we’re seeing such an emphasis on respectful relationships in schools, not just for their own sake, but deliberately intended as a way of building a healthier society; with a particular eye on future domestic violence rates.  (I’ve had it said to me – in all seriousness – that churches also ought to focus on such things as respectful relationships, and I take the point.  Just beyond today’s reading, James goes on to say: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  But often we forget, and church culture is not always particularly gentle).

But for James this goes beyond a practical matter of keeping a peaceful and prosperous society, and goes to the heart of who we are.  How can we say we worship God, and then with our words denigrate a human being made in the image of that God?  How can we do that, and then claim to have any integrity?

His point isn’t just an exhortation to being more moral in our speech, but his criticism cuts much deeper than that.  If you’re using words to hurt, to control, to intimidate, to dominate, or in any manner which falls short of truly loving and upholding the person in front of you… you don’t really know, or worship, God.

That’s his implication here.  If you really worship God – if you really attune your heart to God’s heart at every opportunity – you cannot look at a fellow human being, lovingly created by God to be the unique person that they are, and so precious to God that Christ’s incarnation and death were not too high a cost for their well-being; you cannot look at that fellow human being as less than precious and deserving the very best words you can muster for them.

Now, let me be honest here.  I’m not perfect at this.  I get grumpy; especially when I’m stressed.  I can be bitchy, especially when I’m feeling powerless in the face of someone else’s bad behaviour.  And I can be overly critical, particularly when I’m convinced that I’m right.  So I’m not saying these things this morning as if I’ve reached James’ measure of absolute maturity and am a perfect teacher.

But James is pointing us towards the remedy for these problems as well.  When we find harsh words, hurtful words, gossipy words, coming out of our own mouths… it’s time to pray.  It’s time to get back to seeking God’s heart, and seeing those around with God’s loving and nurturing attitude.  It’s time to clean out our hearts so that from them can flow refreshment and hope and inspiration for others.  If our habits of speech are showing us hearts which don’t yet love one another, that should be a prompt to get on our knees (metaphorically, at least).

It’s in prayer that we will find the gentleness born of wisdom which James is pointing us towards.  Earlier in his letter James instructed his hearers: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”  He’s not talking about esoteric knowledge or insight here, but the wisdom that treats everyone with gentleness, with care for God’s precious creation.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take days of silence on retreat to help us do that (and just as well!)  But we do need to take seriously how prayerful appreciation of one another is supposed to be at the bedrock of our relationships.  That’s how we break the sinful “cycle of nature” and instead create a cycle of mutual building up, a cycle of respectful relationships engaged in with integrity.

And that’s how we create a community of mature believers, who will be able to encourage and nurture others on their progress towards maturity; which is part of what we’re called to be, as the church.  And which is much more important than half the things I had to write essays on, too!

The Quest for Peace

This article was originally written for Orbisology, and can be read here.  

September 21st is the International Day of Peace, and as I come to write this, preparations are under way for prayer services, vigils, and advocacy focussed on that day.

Peace has a spiritual quality; in my own tradition it is described as one of the “fruits of the Spirit.”  It also has very concrete and complex social, relational, economic, political and legal aspects.  All of this means that the quest for peace has about it something of the quality of a “wicked problem.”

This leads my reflections in two different directions; one is to note for you the existence of the organisation, Science for Peace.  You might be interested in checking out their list of current working groups, here: http://scienceforpeace.ca/current-working-groups

The other is to note how often a lack of peace is a failure of compassion.  We do not have compassion for others, especially those we judge to be less powerful than ourselves, and so we feel free to resort to the oppressive use of power in serving our own interests.

So my challenge to you all is; on this coming day of peace, or at any other time, what might you do to seek peace and pursue it?   Whether that’s within yourself, in personal relationships, or on a wider scale, how might you contribute to a more peaceful world?

And if that seems too abstract or overwhelming, here are some questions to prompt reflection:

  • What experiences in my past make it easy or difficult to be compassionate with myself?
  • What is it like for me when people are compassionate towards me?
  • What makes someone deserving of my compassion? Undeserving?
  • What attitudes and emotions surface when I relate to emotionally needy or dysfunctional people?
  • Read an account from someone caught up in a situation of conflict (see here for examples). Imagine yourself in the situation faced by that person.  How does their experience impact your perspective?

 

Come, O Justice, come, O Peace:
come and shape our hearts anew;
come and make oppression cease:
bring us all to life in you.

Ethics and eschatology

This is a sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 4:17-5:2.

You might remember, if you were here, that two weeks ago I preached from an earlier reading on Ephesians, about what it is to be “rooted and grounded in love.”

Today’s reading carries on in that train of thought, as Paul begins to unpack what that should look like in the actual fabric of the day-to-day life of the Ephesian church.  Paul’s argument runs like this:  This is how gracious and amazing God is, and as you grow in relationship with God, this is how your own character should be formed to mirror God’s character.  And the evidence should be in how you behave.

So Paul draws a sharp contrast; this is what people without God in their lives are like; indeed, what the Ephesians were like before they became believers.  But now, his instruction is, don’t be like that but instead be like Christ.  His vision is of a total and radical personal transformation.

For those of us who’ve been raised as believers this is sometimes problematic.  We don’t have a clear “before Christ” in our lives, and so the idea that somehow we still need to undergo this total and radical personal transformation, when we’ve known Christ as long as we can remember, becomes tricky.

But all of us – definitely myself included – develop patterns of thought and habits of behaviour which really have sin at their root.  I recognise, for example, in my case, that I eat badly and fail to care for my body because comfort eating is a quick fix and an easier way to deal with a lot of difficult emotions, than doing the hard work of dealing with why those emotions are difficult in the first place.

There’s a failure to trust God, there.  There’s a lack of self-discipline, and so on.  But my point is that for all of us, in this lifetime, there is ongoing work of recognising, and letting God be at work to change, what is in us that needs that radical transformation that Paul’s on about here.  It’s not just for new converts.

And this emphasis on radical transformation tells us that Paul is doing more than moralising, here.  He’s not just telling the Ephesians to be good boys and girls and play nicely together; he’s setting ethical instructions in the context of the grace of God, in the context of the death and resurrection of Christ, and in the context of the Holy Spirit’s work in giving life.  It links traditional morality – because Paul’s actual moral instructions here aren’t really anything very original – with the growth of the church, both in terms of conversions and in terms of maturity.

The central claim underlying Paul’s whole argument here is that the grace of God makes it impossible for us to live as if nothing has really changed.  It’s not just people who undergo radical transformation, but in Christ, all evil is defeated.  In Christ, all darkness is driven back.  In Christ, all that is broken is healed and restored.  Including us, and therefore, we can’t possibly be the same any more either.

So Paul tells the Ephesians that they entered this process of personal transformation by having “learned Christ.”  Not “learned about Christ,” as if you could learn to recite the Creed and then remain indifferent to it; but to learn Christ.  To be formed by Christ; to have your character and conduct re-shaped profoundly by who Christ is, what Christ does, and who Christ calls us to be.  It’s a dynamic and present Christ, a Christ who still speaks to us today, and whose speech still creates new things and brings forth new life, a new life lived in response to Him.

When Christ speaks today, we hear the truth about ourselves and about our world and about God; and about what God wants for ourselves and the world.  We hear the call of God’s good future, and we hear the call to personal discipleship, and we need to realise that these are two sides of the same coin; because it’s in and through our faithful obedience and discipleship that God’s good future is brought about.

To give a live example, I was really struck this week when someone here asked me, “What would we do differently if we thought of ourselves as a church plant?”  That is, a newly created congregation who had come here deliberately to establish and grow a church community where there had not been one before.  And I was turning that over in my mind when I was at a training day on Wednesday, which had an English bishop and experienced church planter as the keynote speaker.

And what struck me about what he was saying was that he was describing church plants where really quite small groups of people – say 20 people – went somewhere and grew a church very quickly into much bigger membership.  And the difference between those groups of 20 people or so, and us, wasn’t that they were all younger, or better educated or qualified, or better resourced, or anything like that.

The difference was mostly one of attitude.  Those church planting groups had an understanding that:

  • They were on a mission to grow the church by introducing people to Christ, and every person had an essential part to play in that.
  • Their mission meant they needed to build relationships with people outside their own group; outside the church.
  • Within those new relationships, they needed to create opportunities for meaningful conversation which could touch on matters of faith, and invite deeper exploration.
  • And, everything they did as a church needed to be intentionally structured for those who were not part of the church yet.

No magic formula, really; just a very clear and intentional focus on creating a network of relationships around their church community which would allow them to offer people opportunities to explore faith.

The point about that is, those people who took up the challenge to be church planters heard the call to a form of discipleship which pushed them to form relationships beyond the church; and in doing so, they were able to invite people into the good future God had in store for those people.

The call of God’s good future and the call to faithful discipleship, lived out together in ways which transformed communities and established thriving churches.  And there’s nothing there that’s beyond us to do, if we were to adopt the same mindset.  There’s an example of what Paul means by “learning Christ.”

There’s self-sacrifice in this, of course.  There is giving up of our own preferences for the sake of others’.  This is why this passage ends with urging us to be imitators of God and reminding us of Christ’s sacrifice.

We sometimes forget, in our culture, how much sacrifice in the ancient world wasn’t really about the personal cost but about how much sacrifice was believed to make things happen.  Sacrifice was believed to be effectual.  Christ’s sacrifice – as we’ve already noted – was in Paul’s thought the single most effectual event ever in human history; the single event which changed everything forever.

We can’t repeat that sacrifice but we can imitate both the attitude behind it and the effectual nature of it.  We can give of ourselves in ways which change lives.  As with the earlier part of the letter, to do with being rooted and grounded  in love, it’s about the quality of relationships we nurture; and about being intentional in creating those relationships in the first place, so that other people have the opportunity to know the radical transformation into which we are all called.

 

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.