Happy families

This is a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas.  The Scripture it references is Colossians 3:12-17.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That’s the opening line to Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina; but the week after Christmas is a time when I find many people reflecting on the many ways in which families may be unhappy.  Perhaps it’s not surprising; we expect a lot of our families; our physical and emotional safety, a source of our own identity, values, and a sense of our place in the world; ongoing support through the various phases of our life, and so forth.  And when you have many people all with different needs pulling the family in different directions… maybe it’s not surprising that there are many ways for families to be unhappy.

Of course, we talk about church as family too; especially for small (or family-sized) churches like ours.  And while the metaphor of church as family has strengths and limitations, it does tend to mean that we bring a lot of our family baggage into church life.

It’s a bit like when a couple get married, but come from very different families; and part of marriage preparation means that you have deep and meaningful discussions about everything from how often you mop the floor to how you handle money, to significant celebrations and how you mark them.

Except when you join a church, you don’t necessarily have the same deep and meaningful conversations, so it’s easy – and very common – to make the mistake of assuming that the patterns you learned in your own family are what should happen at church as well.  Whether it’s the person who’s absorbed the lesson that all disagreement is bad and we must avoid arguments at all cost, or the person who’s come from a very authoritarian family and thinks we should all work to a leadership model that says father knows best, or whatever it is… we all bring that stuff with us.

And even more than that, we tend to bring the roles we played in our own families.  The person who took on the role of being peacemaker at home will tend to be peacemaker at church; or the decision maker, or the contributor of ideas, or the one who makes sure everyone has fun and laughs.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, not at all.  But the reason I point it out is that sometimes, it helps if we’re conscious of it.  I know when I talk things over with my supervisor, he’ll often encourage me to reflect on what has shaped my own expectations and reactions and patterns of behaviour… and sometimes how I feel about something in the parish has nothing to do with this parish at all, but with some other context I’ve been in before; and often, because of the power our families have to shape us, those earlier contexts are familial.

But the reason I’m thinking about this now – apart from it having just been Christmas – is because of the reading we had today from Colossians.  In it, Paul describes the loving dynamics which should characterise a Christian community – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on – and which we so often learn (or fail to learn) in our families.

Paul often describes the church in familial terms, and in effect, he’s saying that the church should be for us what a family should be; a place of safety; a source of our identity, values, and orientation to the world; a place for mutual support.  But where church perhaps goes beyond family is that church also has a mission, a purpose, beyond meeting the needs of its members.  The church should be always reaching out beyond itself, proclaiming the good news, responding to the needs of others, and so on.

And here’s the thing; an unhappy church, a church which doesn’t have its internal relationships in a healthy and functional state, is not going to be effective in mission.  Part of the deal with family is, as the saying goes, that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family; the same is true of church.  By our common baptism we’re bound together whether we want to be or not, and we have to learn to get along and work together even with people we never would have chosen.

And this is also part of why Paul starts this section of his letter by reminding the Colossians that they are God’s chosen people; it’s God’s initiative which has brought each of them into the church family, and it’s not up to any human being to try to countermand God’s choice.  God chose each of us, and therefore nobody has the right to decide that any of us don’t belong or have a place, or don’t need bearing with when we hit a rough patch in life.

And not only are we chosen by God, but that choice sets us apart from the world (that’s really what the word “holy” is about; about being set apart), in order to accomplish God’s purposes.  That’s the importance of mission again.  So we are chosen, we’re set apart for a mission, and in order to be able to carry out that mission we must have our internal affairs in order; hence the need for compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on.  Each of those virtues could have a sermon of its own; but for now perhaps it’s enough to note that they are mostly other-centred.  Compassion is about our ability to recognise and respond to the sufferings of others.  Kindness is about our benevolence to others.  Meekness is about how we respond when we find others difficult.  Patience about our emotional steadiness when frustrated with others.  And so on.  We are to clothe ourselves with an all-encompassing loving attitude to others, one which in every situation seeks the good of others in ways which enable the church to function well.

Now this doesn’t mean tolerating bad behaviour.  Paul isn’t here telling you to tolerate – or forgive – ongoing mistreatment, and neither am I.  But it’s about how we choose to respond, so that we can put proper boundaries in place, end bad behaviour… and then forgive and move on, not letting old conflicts hamper us indefinitely.

It’s probably true – with apologies to Tolstoy – that all happy churches are alike, but each unhappy church is unhappy in its own way.  What Paul has given us this morning is a prescription for a happy church, and if we follow it, we may also find ourselves able to give thanks in whatever we do.


Peace on earth

This is a sermon for the midnight service for the Birth of our Lord.  The Scripture it references is Luke 2:1-14.

It wasn’t a peaceful night.

Oh, it was probably pretty.  The lack of electric lights would have meant the sky – even before the angels turned up – would have offered a starscape of glory and depth that you and I seldom see.  And outside the small towns, the rolling hills and the fresh greenery of the rainy season would have had a certain charm, especially if you didn’t have to earn your living from them by the sweat of your brow.

But that’s not the same as peaceful.  This was occupied territory.  A foreign military held the power of life and death over every native inhabitant.  That foreign power had no compunction about disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods for its own purposes, which is why Mary and Joseph were far from home, in Bethlehem, in the first place.  Rome wanted to work out how much tax it could extract from this territory, so it ordered everybody to, in effect, line up and be counted, so it could work out how much it could manage to exploit them.

This census was not a peaceful affair; the residents of the area were so incensed and fearful about what it implied that there had been riots, violence, and the removal of Jewish leaders not adequately currying favour with Rome.

No doubt the shepherds had seen brutality; executions and the bodies left on display.  Knew that doing or saying the wrong thing could come with deadly consequences, for them or their families.  And knew that if they did, by some miracle, manage to lift themselves economically above a simple struggle for survival, their money would be forfeit to a government which culturally, linguistically, and religiously, viewed them as inferior, useful only as long as they were of some benefit to their rulers.

Grief, trauma, anxiety and exhaustion were far closer to being their lot, as they watched over their flocks, than peace.

But then the angels burst onto the scene.  Well, first one angel with a message; and then a whole multitude singing; glory to God and peace upon earth.

This is not a throw away line, a platitude which sounds good in a carol but doesn’t have much in the way of practical implications.  It’s more akin to a declaration of revolution.

Peace – God’s peace, the peace that was promised through Moses and Isaiah and so many others – was being announced in riotous celebration.

It helps us if we understand that peace, the way it’s meant here, isn’t just a word for “not being at war.”  This kind of peace is an all-encompassing vision; it’s the absence of violence, yes, but also the absence of oppression; it implies power structures which serve and protect the most vulnerable and needy, and provide for the good of all.  It’s about justice, and harmonious relationships in communities.  It’s about health and welfare and – because it’s the ancient near east, after all – large families and the success of crops and the thriving of livestock.  It’s about opportunity for everyone to flourish and experience all that is good in life.

This is not the peace that Rome brings, the peace that means everyone behaves because dissent is brutally crushed.  It’s on a whole other level; peace and wholeness and wellness for the whole person, the whole community, the whole land.

Of course, that peace hasn’t arrived in its fullness yet.  Christ was born into a brutal world which crucified him for offering a radical alternative.  And Christians have long since come to terms with the idea that this peace in all its fullness is for the end of time, when Christ will return and all of creation will be remade.

The mistake we’ve often made, though, is to give up on peace in the meantime.  We forget that, like the angels, our job is to announce that peace now.  To claim it both as a real possibility and as a vision which should shape our priorities; personal, communal, and social.

You see, humans are social creatures.  Our psychological make up means that we function in groups.  Those groups can have a culture of violence, hatred and oppression; and we will tend to get caught up in those things because of the way we socialise.  Or those groups can have a culture of peace, justice and openness to those who are outside the group (those who are “other”); and again, we will get caught up in those dynamics.

The church’s calling is to make sure that we are the latter kind of group.  That we build a culture of peace, justice, openness; that we create those dynamics in ways which affect positively everyone with whom we come in contact.

And that is our calling because that is the nature of Christ, the one we follow; the one we worship as very God in the flesh.

We can’t necessarily fix everything, and certainly not all at once.  But the important thing is that we actually do something; see the pursuit of peace as an integral part of our reason for existence as a church, and an indispensable part of our mission.  Pursuing peace can happen at a number of levels; personal, local, national or international.  They’re all valid, and all part of God’s all-encompassing vision of peace on earth.

The process of pursuing peace will not always feel good.  It will make us angry, as we pay closer attention to all that is wrong in the world.  It will hurt.  Grief and anger are normal and healthy responses to a broken world and broken people.  And being grieved or angry doesn’t disqualify us from being a people of peace.

The way forward is learning the art of constructive anger.  It’s emotional energy which pushes us to act, to force change, to make a difference.  To say that no child should die for lack of clean water; no community be devastated for the enrichment of individuals.  It’s closely twinned to a passionate sense of justice.

“Glory to God, and peace upon earth,” the angels sang.  We join them not just by singing the words but by being involved in making them a reality.  Their song is a call to roll up our sleeves, to get our hands dirty, to put our hearts and our selves on the line.  Christ is born; the oppressive forces are on notice; their day will end.  The very creator of the universe will set things to rights; we cannot, in the end, lose.  Violence and brutality will not have the last word.  Instead we press on toward the final reality John recorded in his book of Revelation:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

Peace on earth, indeed.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Side by side

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it references is Luke 1:39-45.

It’s been a week of high drama.  In kindergartens, schools and Sunday school groups all around the world, there has been passionate longing, terror, envy, open strife and many tears.  Why?

Well, you see, in every nativity play, there are plenty of shepherds (and sometimes sheep), angels with sparkly wings and tinsel halos, a few wise men and Joseph and perhaps an innkeeper… but there’s only one Mary.  And most every girl wants to be good enough, pretty enough, charismatic enough, to be Mary.  Being part of the sparkly angel chorus isn’t really the place for a young girl who just knows she’s meant for the starring role.

(Full disclosure: I was always an angel.  Take that whichever way you’re inclined to believe it)!

Of course, aspiring to be Mary, or like Mary, is not just a problem with nativity plays.  We know that through Christian history, in different ways, Mary has been held up to us as the perfect woman; completely asexual, completely devoted to family, and with a meek and compliant nature that meant God’s designs unfolded within and through her without her needing to actually take initiative or do anything other than say “Here I am.”

And if real women found that an impossible ideal to live up to, well, that’s only because we weren’t as impossibly perfect as Mary was.

I say that, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but meaning the criticism of how Mary has been pliantly fitted into various – usually male – constructions of perfect womanhood, with little regard for who she probably actually was, or even acknowledgement that most of her life story is unrecoverable to us now.

So there’s something very comforting to me about this morning’s gospel reading. Because here we have two very, very different women.  Oh, they’re both clearly presented to us as good women – earlier Elizabeth’s been described to us as righteous and blameless in her way of life – but in every other way they’re contrasts.

Elizabeth is old; Mary is young.  Elizabeth is “barren” after many years of trying for a child; Mary is a pregnant virgin.  Elizabeth can look back on a long life of unfulfilled longing; Mary can look forward to a life of uncertain potential.

And together – between them – these two very different women hold the keys to the future; to God’s future.  Jesus and John the Baptist – the two boys who will be born from them – will need each other.  They will grow and learn together.  Their ministries will overlap, and they will encourage one another for as long as they’re both alive.

I remember being pregnant.  It was terrifying.  On the one hand, you feel total responsibility for the welfare of a little person who is completely dependant on you for everything; and on the other hand, you have almost no control over the things which will shape that child’s life.  Once they’re born and the more they grow, the more concrete that lack of control is; and you have to let your child take their place in the world and their community and hope and pray that disaster won’t strike.

Elizabeth and Mary might have had reason to be a bit less anxious than most; after all, if God had plans for their miracle babies, then presumably God was going to make sure those plans were fulfilled.  But at this moment, all of that is in an unknown future.

These two women have a moment of shared joy and hope before it all begins.  What God’s asking of them at this moment is openness to what God might be about to do; to give themselves, their health, their energy, their intelligence and creativity, to shaping the lives and minds of two boys who would grow to change the world for the better.

But the thing that I find comforting about that, is that it’s the same challenge to both of them.  Mary doesn’t stand alone here as the archetype of perfect womanhood; she stands alongside Elizabeth, and shows us that if God has plans and a place for these two very different women, God might have plans and a place for us too; even when we’re not the same as our heroes (or heroines); even when we don’t feel we measure up to any particular ideal.

This passage shows us very clearly that God works in and through very diverse people; that you don’t have to fit a particular image or be in a particular stage of life (important to remember in this culture which so worships youth); but that provided you come with the right attitude – of openness and willingness to collaborate with God, and the rest of God’s people – you’ve got something to contribute.

And this is so important for parish life.  You see, a healthy church – and certainly a growing church – isn’t a game of superstars and spectators.  God doesn’t have some people who are specially gifted and holy – or even just active – who make it all happen while everyone else is sidelined.  Each of us has different gifts, different passions, different experiences, different personalities, and we need them all – not just mine, not just the key people with particular roles like wardens and parish council – but all of us, for this parish to be what it’s meant to be.

You see, some of you are much wiser than me.  Some have more faith.  Some are much better at recognising other people’s struggles and caring for them.  Some will be better at teaching and explaining things.  Some will be much more encouraging or generous.  And a theological degree and an ordination ceremony don’t change that.

And this is true, not because there’s something wrong with me, but because this is how the church works; we all have different strengths, and together, when we each play our part, the whole community is strengthened and built up.

Of course, not all of these gifts are going to be the ones which get lots of attention.  But even Paul said that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”  Indispensable.  It’s often the quiet contributions which go unseen and unrecognised a lot of the time which have the biggest impact on the life and the health of the church.

Of course, try telling that to the kids in the angelic chorus, dreaming of being stars!

But we need to have a bit more maturity than that.  Mary and Elizabeth stand side by side and support one another as they prepare for a challenging future.  Let’s rather take them as our model, and seek to hold in trust between us the hope, the courage and the joy of what God is up to in our lives together.

Love and holiness

This is a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it references is 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13.

Advent is – it seems to me – kind of the season the world forgot.  The supermarkets have worked out that even in Lent, they can sell something – the cold section often has big signs up encouraging “fish for Lent,” – but not so much Advent.  After fathers’ day, or perhaps after Halloween, it’s all about Christmas; and food and drink and carols and decorations and presents and parties and all of that have been a big topic of advertising and conversation and serious planning for some time now.  And don’t get me started on school activities!

So where does that leave Advent?  Squeezed in, if we’re lucky, with a chocolate calendar amidst the glitz and parties.  But the whole point of Advent, as a season, is to help us prepare.  It’s to help us arrive at Christmas, not harried and already all celebrated out, but in a good state to get the most out of a special time.  Originally, it was a time of preparation for Christmas baptisms, and the whole community would fast and pray with and for the people to be baptised.

So, thinking about preparation, and what would help us be able to celebrate a truly joyful and peaceful Christmas (despite the bustle), I noticed Paul’s twofold prayer here in our reading from 1 Thessalonians.  He prays that the Lord may “make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” and that he may “strengthen your hearts in holiness.”  Increasing in love and being strengthened in holiness; how do they sound as possible goals for our Advent season this year?

Notice that when Paul prays for this community to increase in love, it’s “for one another and for all;” the community is supposed to look beyond itself to the whole church and to all people as God’s cherished creation.  Of course they’re supposed to love one another; but that it’s not that kind of group dynamics that loves its own group and hates everyone outside it.  Instead it says that this group is a subset of a bigger group, the group of people loved by God (everyone), and that we have a role to play in that bigger group.

It probably helps to remember that the Thessalonian church was in a really different place, socially, than we are.  Paul had done a three-week preaching tour in the synagogue in Thessalonica, and then been moved on by the authorities responding to claims that he was a trouble maker.  This letter is his attempt to keep in contact with the people there who had responded to his preaching of the gospel; a very young church, just learning what it is to be Christian and how to live that life.  And learning those lessons in an environment where they weren’t welcome in the synagogue and didn’t really relate easily to the Pagan life of the city any more either.  Love for all would have meant having to ask what it meant to love the synagogue community who had rejected them, and what it meant to love the Pagan community who despised them.  Love for all was how this community would resist the temptation to allow harassment from outsiders to turn them into an introverted, withdrawn group.   It wasn’t always a feel-good thing, it demanded a significant level of personal discipline.  This prayer of Paul’s is directed to God, but to the Thessalonians (and us) listening in, it’s a call to actively take responsibility for these aspects of our own maturity.

Holiness is a bit of an elusive concept; what does holiness look like, sound like, in action?  Sometimes at home my daughter likes to dress up in a surplice and mimic me with my hands in the air saying “Alleluia!”  But that’s more like an expression of piety than holiness (remembering that we can do all the outward observances without being at all holy).  But for Paul holiness basically meant “doing what God wants you to do.”

A bit further on in the letter Paul goes on to spell out what being strengthened in holiness might suggest.  He puts forward a three-fold model of holiness; to keep yourself from sexual immorality, to keep your body under control, and not to wrong or exploit another person.

Those ideas can sound to us as if they’re very much about rules to be kept; but for Paul they exist within the matrix of a fundamental relationship with God and with one another.  It’s about that relationship shaping our whole way of life, and perhaps shaping it away from the conventional values of our culture.

But while it would be a mistake to see Paul as being obsessed with micro-managing our sex lives, he touches on sex here as a key issue because it is such a litmus test for our character.  Are we people of integrity; do we live up to our commitments?  Do we have robust personal boundaries?  Do we know our own weaknesses, and seek to prevent them from governing us?  Are we unselfish, generous, loving and patient within our marriages?

It’s not a comfortable thing to talk about, but we know that many Christians struggle in this area.  Research shows about two-thirds of self-identified Christian men, and a smaller proportion of self-identified Christian women, admit to using pornography once a month or more often.  And while there might be all sorts of areas of ethical discomfort with that, I’d point you to the question of the conditions in which that material is made, and its degradation of the people involved, and have to ask, does taking advantage of that – creating a market for it – demonstrate the love for all Paul here exhorts us to?

I don’t think I need to labour the point more than that.  Self-control is, Paul wrote elsewhere, a fruit of the Spirit; and so our personal holiness and our relationship with God are inextricably related.  A call to love and holiness is a call to deeper relationship with God.

So let’s make that our focus this Advent.  Four weeks – a bit less, actually –  to make a point of working to deepen our relationship with God, to grow in love for one another and for all, and to be strengthened in self-control and holiness, so that we can arrive at Christmas more open to the blessings it might bring.

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.

St. Faith

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Faith of Agen.  The Scripture it references is John 15:18-21.

Mahatma Gandhi said:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Gandhi, of course, spoke out of a particular political and social context.  For him, Christians were oppressive colonial overlords; economically exploitative, power-hungry, and deeply, deeply racist.

I hope it goes without saying that Gandhi’s observation was correct; Christians in his experience were so unlike Christ.

If we put that next to what Jesus said in our gospel reading today, though, we realise that we may have – at least potentially – something which may allow Christians to be a bit self-deceptive.

You see, Jesus said: If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.  If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you… If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.

The problem – or at least the potential problem – is that we can read this and, even when we’re not being very like Christ at all, can convince ourselves that it’s good and right that the world hates us, because after all, they hated Christ first.  That the criticisms of those around us are evidence of how much we have it right.

And this is where the stories of the martyrs can be quite helpful to us.

Take St. Faith.  (It’s her day, after all!)

When we look at Faith, although the accounts describe her answering to the authorities with confidence and a “clear voice,” they describe a powerless person who refused to compromise her integrity in the face of personal threat.

Now, that’s Christ-like.

I think, for example, of what Paul wrote in Philippians:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
even death on a cross.”

There are some key phrases here.  Jesus didn’t regard who he was as “something to be exploited.” As God himself, he set aside his power and his knowledge, “emptying himself” and placing himself in the hands of those whom he had come to save.

God could have chosen to accomplish God’s will by brute force, but he didn’t.  He emptied himself, humbled himself, made himself vulnerable.  And accepted that in doing so, suffering from human brutality was part of the deal.  He deliberately yielded control of the situation to those who would kill him.

But this is where I wonder whether there’s a challenge for us.  I’ve observed that for many of us, perhaps even most of us, in our culture today, we like our illusions of being in control.  We will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them in place.  We don’t like to admit that at times we are powerless, or worse, overpowered; and we’ve bought into the idea that it is shameful not to be in command of our circumstances.

This has two unfortunate outcomes; first, it stigmatises people who are, for whatever reason, not in control in some way.  Hospital wards are full of people who are not only sick or injured, but struggling with feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless at their physical circumstances; and a lot of pastoral care in those circumstances is about helping people to accept that their physical situation doesn’t also indicate a sort of moral deficiency.  (Oh, they won’t call it that, but beneath the frustration and sense of worthlessness, it’s often there).  And all of us, as we age – and I’ll get there eventually too – will have to wrestle with questions of our personal identity and value as our bodies gradually fail us.

And that’s before we even touch questions of mental illness or other, less tangible constraints on our lives.

But the other unfortunate outcome of us fighting very hard to hold on to control is that we use it as an excuse to behave badly.

This is where we come back to Gandhi’s comment that Christians – in his experience – were not very like Christ.  They were very willing to behave badly towards others, to control and exploit and oppress others, rather than give up an ounce of control over their own circumstances.

But if the stories of the martyrs tell us anything, it’s that we’re not really in control.  God may write happy endings to our stories, but in this life, natural forces, political and social forces, cultural and economic and family pressures, and sheer happenstance, set the parameters within which we have some limited scope.

If Faith had had this propensity to buy into the lie of being in control, she could have turned away from martyrdom, taken up nominal Paganism, told herself that she had chosen this or that suitor, and settled down to make the best of things.  It might not even have been, on paper, a bad outcome, and I doubt any of us would have judged her for it.  After all, she was very young.

But she didn’t.  She chose to be like Christ; not exploitative of her circumstances, but humble and obedient, even to death.

That’s hard for us to contemplate.  Few of us are up close to martyrdom in our own lives.  But it is, for many Christians even today, the end result of an absolute integrity; a lack of hypocrisy which refuses to compromise, refuses to bargain, but accepts that being like Christ comes at a price.

But while the world may hate us if we’re truly like Christ, surely what we can see by now is that it certainly won’t respect us if we give that up in a hypocritical search for power and control.  And it won’t love us if we interact with wider society in a way which harms others; which we all too often have.

Instead, if our lives are going to show people Christ, if they’re going to point people to the one who sent us… we’re going to actually have to be Christ like.  Emptying ourselves, and humbling ourselves; not just individually, of course, but institutionally.

I leave you to ponder what that might mean for the wider church.

But as for what it means for us at a local level, I’d say we need to remember that a conversation with you might be the only sermon someone hears this week.  The only chance they might have to glimpse something of God might well be through you; and they’ll be watching, not just for what you say, but how you act; and keenly aware of any lack of authenticity or integrity.

Our lives are meant to show God to others.  For most of us that will never carry us to the point of death, but the martyrs like Faith show us that even if it does, God can be at work in and through that to inspire and encourage those who come after.

Some things are worth dying for.  But for most of us, what is going to matter is what we really think is worth living for; and whether those around us find us to be at all like Christ.

Greatness and power

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent, and refers to Luke 9:46-50.

It’s such a gorgeous day today, that I was walking around outside in the church grounds this morning, thinking about this reading and what I might say about it.  And for most of that time, trying not to be too distracted by the young couple having a very loud and acrimonious argument in the memorial garden.  (Never a dull day in parish ministry!)

But as that young couple wrangled over their own version, I guess, of who was the greatest (or worst) in their relationship, it left me looking at this reading in a new light.  Because how do we decide who is the greatest, and who is the least?  Who is it who gets to decide, or presumes to make such judgements?

It struck me that what Jesus was really doing was not just telling people to be humble and self-effacing, but that he was undercutting the informal power dynamics of the group.

So often we use power to construct hierarchies; and then we use hierarchies to determine how we will treat people.  Is this someone I need to suck up to, or can run roughshod over?  What will be the social consequences of either behaviour?

That’s simplistic, of course.  But even the more subtle behaviours, of encouraging someone, or being open to suggestions or feedback; or on the other hand, ignoring someone, not inviting their thoughts and ideas and so forth; they’re all subtle exercises of power which structure our worlds.  And if we don’t think about that power – notice that we have it, and be conscious of how we use it – we can often unconsciously be very destructive indeed.

It strikes me that in churches we often don’t want to talk about power because we want to pretend that everyone loves one another, and if that happens, power should be an entirely positive thing; but my reflection is that in fact, we need to notice power, we need to think about it and talk about, because that’s how we’re going to notice when it’s not being used lovingly, and that’s when we’re going to be in the best possible position to be the servant of all.

Power shouldn’t be taboo, it should be something we are mindful of as we seek to welcome all those from whom the world withholds power.