On fishing

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Mark 1:14-20.

There’s a story in my family – and you might appreciate this, after the weather we’ve had this week – about the day we arrived in Australia.  Apparently, my parents stepped off the plane in Melbourne, juggling their luggage and me as a toddler, into a day of forty-something-degree summer heat.  And my mum looked up at my dad, and my dad just said, “We can’t go back!”

My parents came here from apartheid-era South Africa.  Mum was a nurse, and after working in emergency during the riots, and some of the injuries she saw, she and dad had decided they needed to raise their family somewhere that would give us – me and my not-yet-born brother – a chance at a better life than they saw as possible where they were.  It wasn’t easy to leave; they lost a lot, financially, and dad had to illegally avoid his annual bout of army service to get out.  By the time they’d made their decisions about where to go, done everything necessary to move, and come here, what dad said was very true; they couldn’t go back.  Come what may, they had to make the best of where they were.

It wasn’t always easy, and it took a very long time for us to feel as if this was where we belonged.  But having gone back for a visit recently, I think my parents felt vindicated that they’d made the right decision; the life my brother and I have as adults here is much better than the life we would likely have had there.

I was thinking about all of this, though, because of the part of the gospel we heard this morning.  Simon and Andrew and James and John are going about their normal lives, fishing and mending their nets, and Jesus comes along and presents them with a decision to make.  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  I imagine this moment of the men looking at one another.  What do we do now?  What does this offer really mean?  A decision had to be made, and once made, lived with.  Which way lies the best future?  With the fish or the wandering rabbi?

Well, we know what they did.  The apostles left their families’ fishing businesses, and became the foundation of a new community, a new group where people could belong, based on relationship with Jesus, that wandering rabbi who turned out to be so much more.

This part of their story, though, is important, because it’s part of the story of all Christians.  Those of you who came to the Bible studies we did on Jesus and the Pharisees last year will remember learning about how the earliest Christians were kind of spiritually homeless; if they were Jewish, they got kicked out of the synagogues, and if they were non-Jewish, they’d had to leave the temples of their former deities.  Like the disciples leaving their boats, they’d had to leave what was familiar and make decisions which disconnected them from their communities, and come together to build new communities and places of belonging, at first based in their own homes because they had nowhere else.

That’s the community who first received Mark’s gospel, by the way; who would have been encouraged to realise that when the disciples left their fishing boats, the story had a worthwhile ending.  And who could then imagine that their own struggles and disconnections and so forth might have a worthwhile ending; because the process of disconnecting from what we were, to build new communities of belonging, is part of what has been the Christian experience from earliest times.

The challenge looks and feels a little different for us, I suspect, but it’s still there.  Most of you have grown up as part of Christian communities, and have known belonging here for a long time.  You haven’t had to create Christ-centred community for yourselves, you’ve received it from those who were here before you.  But the challenge we have now is how to create Christ-centred communities of belonging for people who haven’t already found that with us.

I see that challenge in various ways.  I see it in all the research that tells us that millennials want to interact with us online before they’ll ever come through the church door.  I see it in the feedback I get from some of our younger people – the ones we seldom see on Sunday mornings, and increasingly seldom in the evenings as well – that the services we offer them just don’t meet their needs, and that we need to consider different options and perhaps a more modern approach, for them to feel they belong here.

(There’s a whole heap of work to be done on what “modern” actually means in that kind of conversation; but as I look around at this building and remember how shockingly modern it was when it was built, I think it’s a conversation that we can fruitfully have).

A bit like the disciples, it seems to me we are confronted with the need to make a decision; are we prepared to willingly leave behind what’s comfortable and familiar, in order to build a community where people who don’t currently belong here, can find belonging?  And can be nurtured in faith, and grow in Christ?

If we do make those decisions, it’s going to be difficult for us, in some ways.  There will be grief; it’s normal for us to grieve as things change.  We will go through all the grief stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression.  I’d add in anxiety, uncertainty and lack of confidence about who we are and what we do.  Actually, even though I’ve only been here six months, it’s been long enough for me to see something of all of those things in our life together already.  Things will change no matter what decisions we make, and all the emotions of grief will come with that.  Making decisions just gives us a choice about what the other side of that grief might look like.

What I’m saying is that the challenge for us is to feel the grief but do it anyway.  To support one another as we build a renewed, inclusive place of belonging for people who are not yet here; a spiritual home for them that might well, for a while, not feel at all like home for us, because it’s not what we had before.

If Simon and Andrew, James and John had refused to leave their boats, there would never have been a church.  If we refuse to leave our preferred habits, there may not be a parish church here when there’s nobody left who likes things the way we do them now.

But I look back on those fishermen who became apostles, and I see a story of hope.  I look back on my own parents, and what they were able to give their family by leaving everything they knew, and I see a story of hope.  I know from the very fabric of my own life, that this kind of sacrifice can pay off.  I look forward to the process of change for us in this parish, and even though it calls for courage and vision and sacrifice, I see a blank page in our story just waiting to have written on it our own story of hope.

We will need to work on building our courage, our resilience for that process.  We will need to be intentional about working through our griefs, and committed to equipping ourselves for what comes next.  The apostles had three years living and working with Jesus; we mustn’t imagine we’ll work through everything we need to in the next few weeks or even months.

But these stories show us that it is possible.  That in following Jesus, in leaving behind what we know to build new communities of faith and belonging, the results can be much greater than we can see now.  The invitation is always to “Follow me.”  The focus is always on people beyond our current group.  What are their needs, their culture, their styles of relationship?  How can we meet them where they are, engage them as they are?  That’s part of what following Jesus means.

We can’t go back.  We can’t even stay the same as we are.  We can only follow Jesus, one step at a time, as best we can manage, into a future only God can fully see.  But we can know the basic shape of that future because we know how God works; and we know that when we follow Jesus, things happen.  People change.  Community is created.  And hope grows.   And we get to be part of all of that.

So shall we go fishing for people?

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Becoming one spirit

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1st Corinthians 6:12-20.

I had to make a decision this week.  I’ve signed up to one of the local gyms, and a couple of times a week I try to get to one of their group classes.  (It’s nice to have goals about being healthier and fitter, isn’t it?)  Anyway.  So I turned up to the class I usually go to, to discover that they’ve cancelled that class and replaced it with yoga.  And so the helpful staff member I spoke to suggested I stay for yoga.

I must have seemed less than enthusiastic about that, and he seemed surprised that I wouldn’t jump at the chance, so I had to explain.  I can’t do yoga for religious reasons.  I can’t, as a Christian, participate in what is fundamentally a Hindu worship practice, even if it has become the darling of the “spiritual but not religious” wellbeing movement.

Anyway, the point about that is not really to carry on about yoga, but to illustrate the idea that sometimes, saying “yes” to God means saying “no” to something else.

That’s part of what Paul was talking about in our reading from Corinthians today.  For him, the issue wasn’t yoga but prostitution; but his argument about why you can’t run around having a good time with prostitutes is that you can’t “become one” with something that’s incompatible with God, at the same time as “becoming one” with God.  Because “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”

The thing about this “becoming one spirit” with God, though, is that it helps us to understand what salvation really means.  Salvation is an immense gift, but sometimes we’re tempted to think of it only in terms of what happens after we die (getting into heaven, or at least, staying out of hell).  But what Paul is trying to get across here is that salvation isn’t just about that; it’s a fundamental re-shaping of our lives now, so that our lives become a participation in the life of God.

Last week we thought a bit about baptism and what it means for us, this sacramental reality of dying and rising with Christ.  And I say sacramental because I want to say something stronger than “symbolic;” we know that people don’t physically die in the font, as if I were to drown them, but something real is happening in them nonetheless.  Their story and Christ’s story, their life and Christ’s life, are being joined together in a way that can never fully be separated.  They are beginning to participate in the life of God; they are becoming one spirit with God.

The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, Paul said in today’s reading; and elsewhere he refers to our bodies as “weapons of righteousness;” a weapon is wielded with a purpose, and the implication of Paul’s words is that God wields – or at least sends – us into the world with a purpose, too; one that shouldn’t be undermined by getting involved in things incompatible with that purpose.

This all means that becoming one spirit with God – participating in God’s very life – is ultimately about action.  About being in the world, doing the things God would have us do.

As this is what it means to be Christian, then we can’t say that Christian belief or faith is just a matter of assenting to the Creed (without crossing your fingers), or even trusting God’s goodness.  It has to be more than that; a taking up or embrace of our whole being into God’s being in such a radical way that we consistently act as living extensions of God in our world.  That’s what it means that we have died and yet have been raised to new life; it is a new life; the life of God, with its priorities and loves and joys.

In his other letter to the Corinthians (well, the other one that we still have, anyway), Paul puts it this way: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Participating in God’s new creation – becoming one spirit with God – means our transformation; and in different places in his letters Paul talks about how that transformation means we become the glory and the righteousness and the justice of God; ultimately we become the image of God; the image of God that we were originally created to be, before sin and the fall meant our alienation and disfiguration from that image.  So we become like Christ – the perfect image of the invisible God – by participating in the life of Christ.

And here’s the thing: all of this points us towards mission.  To be transformed into the image of God revealed in Christ; to participate in God’s new creation and to become God’s righteousness; to discern and do God’s will; to present our bodies to God as a temple for the Holy Spirit, and as weapons to be wielded for his purposes; all of these things mean that we are meant to be in service to what God is up to in the world.

Becoming one spirit with God means that God’s purposes become our purposes, and God’s priorities become our priorities.  God’s mission becomes our mission.  Those of us who believe the gospel and are baptised enter into a life of participation in God’s mission, along with all the other people who have also entered into that life.

That means that our salvation, our renewal in Christ is not the point; it’s not an end in itself.  It’s part of a much broader and deeper divine agenda; to bring together a body of people who participate in the new creation, doing God’s will in the world.

And let me push this just a little bit further; this is for all Christians.  Not just for the clergy or the particularly educated or gifted.  But each Christian person, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, participates in the new creation; and carries out a living witness to the gospel.  This is what it means to be part of the church; every single person has a part to play in the mission of God.

Do you know what your part is, today?  Do you feel equipped for it?  If not, what do you need in the way of equipping?  (That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way.  My role in this mission is to see to it that you are equipped; so if you see that your knowledge or skill or confidence is lacking in some way, tell me; and together we’ll find a way to work on that).

But to come back around to the prostitutes – or the yoga – this is why Paul says “no.”  Not because it’s a matter of being a puritanical killjoy, but because it’s incompatible with the mission.  To exploit a woman’s body for pleasure does nothing to recognise or honour her as an image of God, or to encourage her towards becoming a co-worker with you in God’s purposes for our world.  To worship another god – even at a distance – detracts from my ability to participate fully in God’s life, God’s purposes and God’s mission.

“Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”  It is a process of becoming; we grow into it over time.  But what I wonder now, is where do we need to grow into it some more, here in this parish, in order for us to live that out most fully?  What needs to happen for us to move another step closer to being one spirit with the Lord?  I leave that with you to reflect on.

Power

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Luke 1:46-55.

We began this sermon with an interactive exercise; I read out a series of statements and asked people to place themselves on a line indicating how strongly they agreed or disagreed.  This was designed to stimulate people’s thinking on the themes of the reading, and so I suggest that you also read the statements and reflect on your agreement or disagreement before reading the homily.

Statements for agree-disagree spectrum:

  • Not having power makes us vulnerable
  • Power is something other people give you
  • Knowledge is power
  • Power changes people
  • Power is about control
  • Words have power
  • Having power means being able to do what I want
  • I create my own power
  • Power gives us the opportunity to be our best
  • Sharing power makes us more effective
  • Believing in God makes us more powerful

Well, hopefully that made you think a little bit.  It’s interesting to see how we interpret things differently, isn’t it?

But if you’re wondering why we’ve done this today, let me say just a little bit to flesh things out.

You’ll remember that over Advent I’ve been preaching each week on the Psalm, as a series on “songs for the journey.”  Except this week we have, not a psalm strictly speaking, but a song from Luke’s gospel; Mary’s song while she was pregnant with Jesus.  Well, that’s a song for a journey, isn’t it?!

But while there are lots of things we could draw out of it, what struck me this time round was how much it gives us a theology of power.  In it God shows strength, scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty.  It has a lot to say about power, and about the relationship between God and people who have power, and between God and people who don’t have power, and – by implication at least – between the people who have power and those who don’t.

It puts forward what Rowan Williams described as “the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.”

And that was – and is – the truth of what power is for.  Power exists, held by God or in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.  Scripture is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the God who is all-powerful judges the powerful people on this earth.

It’s worth remembering this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved.  What does that say – to the “powers that be” in church and society, and even all of us too – about how we understand and use the power we have, power which, in Christian terms, is only ever held by us on loan from God?

It occurs to me, too, that many of our churches’ worst failures have come about when we have not recognised our own power in relation to the powerlessness of others; when we have not realised our own potential, whether by action or by inaction, to do harm.  And if you’ve been following the news about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean there.

Power doesn’t exist for its own sake.  Becoming more powerful – whether that’s measured in wealth or education or social position or in any other way – is never an end in itself for someone whose heart is in pilgrimage towards God.  I’m not saying power is bad; I’m saying it’s a tool, a means to an end; and that as we go on our journeys of faith, we need to check, from time to time, that we haven’t made power the destination rather than fuel for the journey.

“My soul magnifies the Lord…” Mary sang.  For our lives to magnify the Lord, we need to make sure that our use of power is a focussing of God’s use of power; that we pay attention to the lowly and the hungry, and marshal our resources – because let’s not kid ourselves, by world standards the resources we have at our fingertips are extraordinary – to do what God would do for them.

This final song for the journey, this Advent, might be our most challenging, because I think it asks us to examine ourselves honestly and take account of our own power and how we use it, or refuse to.  But perhaps as we go through that process of taking account, we may well find our hearts moving much closer to God than they were when we began.

 

Righteousness is our guide

This is a sermon for the second Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 85.

Last week I began a series of sermons for Advent, each week preaching on the psalm, which I am thinking of as a series on “songs for the journey.”  I suggested that we are, each of us, on our own individual pilgrimage in life; and that we as a community are also on a pilgrimage; not just towards Christmas (although that is coming scarily fast!), but in engaging in a process of change which will take us towards being who and what God calls us to be.

And I raised the question of what sustains us on those journeys; what helps us to know who we are, and what motivates us to keep going.  And I suggested that our cultural resources – including, especially in church, our songs – can be an important source of hope and joy for us.

So it’s worth pausing to see what the psalms have to offer us.

So today’s psalm, as it’s given to us in the prayer book, finishes by saying that “righteousness shall go before [the Lord], and tread the path before his feet.”  But I actually prefer the translation that we’re singing at 10am today, which puts it this way: “truth and justice are our guides.”  I think that’s much more helpful; it explains to us what righteousness is doing in walking ahead of the Lord, and, by implication, ahead of us as we follow as well.  Righteousness is there to guide us on our journey.

Is it encouraging, to think that we have a guide, and we don’t have to work it all out for ourselves?  I found that a bit comforting, myself.

I think I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, that the Hebrew word that we translate as “righteousness” – or doing what is right – isn’t just about playing within the rules (however we understand them).  It has a sense of relational loyalty and faithfulness; of giving of yourself to the full in your relationships.  Your relationship first with God, of course, but also those around you.  It’s a very warm term, not one to be read as forensic or legalistic.

So our guide on our journey – our pilgrimage – is our sense of righteousness; of loyalty and faithfulness and full-heartedness in our relationships, with God and others.

I think that’s often difficult for us, actually.  Divided loyalties have always been a human problem, but I think they’ve become even more acute in the complexity of modern life.  Just in the last week, I’ve had conversations with people about the divided loyalties we experience in parenting, and the competing demands on us in trying to be “good parents.”  (If anyone has a magic formula for perfect parenting, I’d certainly appreciate hearing it!)

Or the particular tension that new technology has brought into our working lives; now that we can all be instantly contacted, and our work can be done anywhere we have mobile phone reception, the boundaries which once helped keep working patterns healthy are slipping, and instead, those of us who are still working constantly have to negotiate our divided loyalties to our work, and everything else in our lives.  (A point which I make while writing my sermon on my day off, because this week there was more work than there were working hours to do it in).  And I know I’m not alone in finding that balance point difficult.

So if righteousness is our guide on this journey of faith, and righteousness is about our loyalty and faithfulness in our relationships, and our relationships are pulling us every which way… is it any wonder we sometimes feel like we don’t know which way is up?

What do we do with that?

I suspect that part of the answer is to stop, regularly, and re-assess our relationships and the demands being made of us in those relationships.  Sometimes, the most righteous word in our vocabulary might be “no.”  “No, I’m sorry, I can’t take that on.”  “No, I won’t be able to make it.”  “No, that doesn’t work for me.”

We often feel guilty for saying no.  Many of us have taken on board the message that we’re supposed to help others, we’re supposed to please others, and we’re supposed to be “nice,” and saying no – politely, of course, but firmly – can feel like we’re not doing that.  In some families, saying no is seen as being unloving.

But I’d challenge that sense of guilt.  A well-deployed “no” is actually not a betrayal, but a protection of our loyalties.  I might say “no” to extra things so that I can say “yes” to time spent with my husband.  “No” to busy work so that I can say “yes” to prayer.  “No” to taking up a new hobby so… you get the idea.  In a world where it’s easy to feel like our lives are a constant act of juggling confetti, the only way the important loyalties will get their due will be if we vigilantly guard them.

Start with your primary, biggest loyalties and work outward from there.  What would it look like to give your relationship with God everything it needs?  Would you need to find time every day?  Where would that time come from?  What else might need to be put aside?

What would it look like to give your marriage everything it needs?  And so on.  But if you start from the centre and work outwards, then you’re not going to end up treating things which mean less to you as if they’re actually the most important thing.

Maybe, part of our process of pilgrimage is working out what the most important things to us are, and being willing to let go of others; or at least, let others take a diminished role in our lives.  A kind of spiritual de-cluttering, as it were.

Before we moved house in July, I – ah – encouraged my husband in a process of fairly ruthless de-cluttering of our house, because I definitely didn’t want to be packing, moving, and unpacking, anything that wasn’t of any value in our lives.  I think he found that a bit stressful, at times, but by the time we got to unpacking the last box, I think he did see the value in what I was trying to do!

If we’re a church on the move, on pilgrimage to where God is calling us, maybe it would help us not to carry stuff that isn’t of any value to us, either.  Although I can’t decide for us all what’s of value, and what isn’t.  That’s something we need to work on together.

Anyway.  That’s what it seems to me our “song for the journey” offers us this week; righteousness – right loyalties – as our guide to what we do and how we do it.  If last week our request was that God “restore us,” this week it’s that God “guide us.”  And that’s a good thing for us to carry into the week ahead!

Songs for the journey

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 80.

 

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood. 

That’s George Herbert’s poem, Prayer.  In it, he piles image on top of image to try to give an impression of all that prayer can be, might be, if we would give ourselves to it without reserve.  (I don’t understand all of the images, either; what does he mean by saying that prayer is “the land of spices”?  Does he mean we might discover both the bite of chilli and the sweetness of vanilla?)

But I did catch the mention of the “heart in pilgrimage;” the heart on a journey to some sacred place.  And perhaps because I’ve been thinking about change, which is a process of getting from here to there (wherever there is), and – at least in the church – change ought to be a pilgrimage of sorts, that image of prayer as “the heart in pilgrimage” seemed like it was worth spending some time on.

So between now and Christmas, I’ve decided to preach on the psalm each week.  And I’m thinking of that as a sermon series on “songs for the journey.”  I think that might help us to think about what we’re doing, on a number of levels.

Because of course, the idea of “being on a journey” can describe different things.  On one level, we’re journeying towards Christmas; with all the things – sacred and secular – which go into making Christmas special.  On another level, each of us is on the long journey of a lifetime, with its various seasons and themes.

There are other journeys too.  Every time we meet for worship, that’s a journey, of sorts; we’re supposed to walk out the church door not quite the same as we came in, having encountered God and one another in a way which will change our lives in some way.  And the psalms themselves are each a journey; they have a beginning, a middle, and an end; and the habit of praying them is supposed to move us along with the words so that we’re not unchanged.

So, many journeys; some long, some short, some individual and some shared; but all having this point of connection as we come together Sunday by Sunday for worship.  And all, hopefully, finding themselves as some expression of pilgrimage; all seeking something sacred.

And when we think about what sustains us on those journeys, what helps us to know who we are, gives us our ethical frameworks, and so on… a lot of that comes from the fabric of our culture.  From the stories we tell, the books we read, what we watch on TV, and – at least in church, still – the songs we sing together.

(I always try to remember that people will be humming a hymn from Sunday during the week, long after you’ve forgotten anything I said in the sermon.  Singing engages much more of the brain that just speaking and listening, and it helps embed things much more deeply in us).

And as part of all of this, we have the psalms; with all their requests, complaints and praises; all the breadth of human experience which they bring into our worship, and which help us to recognise and give voice to where we are in our various and shared pilgrimages.

And this morning, the repeated cry of the psalm is for God to “restore us.” To fix us; even, perhaps, to make us new.  There’s a cry from a heart in pilgrimage; journeying towards a sacred place of healing and wholeness, and praying that God would help us find it.

That’s what Christmas should be, of course; a sacred moment of healing and wholeness; but it isn’t that for everyone.  Domestic violence shelters get more calls close to Christmas time than other times of the year.  The strain of poverty is more keenly felt, as our society goes into its annual consumerist orgy.  And grief is sharp as people remember the faces who are missing from the family gatherings.  That’s part of why, a few days before Christmas, we’ll have a quiet service of evening prayer for people finding Christmas difficult; it doesn’t matter why it’s difficult, but even just being able to come, and be, without being expected to be all jolly and merry, can be a sacred encounter for people who are doing it tough.

The cry for God to “restore us” works at other levels too.  Every week we begin our worship with the prayer that God would “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts;” that whatever baggage we’ve picked up through the week, that’s weighed us down or distorted our love of God or one another, that we’d be relieved of that and, once again, be restored to love and worship as we ought.  That’s not trivial; it’s an important part of what Herbert called the “plummet sounding heav’n and earth;” taking soundings of what’s really going on in our hearts, and straightening what’s turned crooked.

Paul wrote about this pilgrimage of the heart, this journey towards the sacred, using a different image when he said that “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Well, bringing something to birth is also a journey of many months, and yet Paul seems to think that we’re at the interesting end of that; with ourselves and all creation gripped in labour pains which are soon going to bring to birth restoration of God’s good creation.

We might come back to that idea at Christmas.  But for now, here is the question for our hearts in pilgrimage, this week: what is it in our lives – in your life – that needs restoring?  What would make you feel, tomorrow, that God’s face is shining on you just a little brighter than it is today?  What do you dare hope for?

Don’t be shy to bring those things to God in prayer.  The psalmist wasn’t, and Paul wasn’t, and even Herbert the poet wasn’t; and we shouldn’t be either.  “Restore us” can definitely be a song for the journey, even as we look forward to what is coming.

Gain a wise heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah said the same thing when he pronounced:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mixed bag of parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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