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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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.

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!

Wake, awake!

This is a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 50:4-9a.

Imagine, if you will, a school playground.  It doesn’t really matter where or when, because some things seem to be universal; so go ahead and imagine it with details that are familiar to you.

And imagine that among the bustle of children eating and laughing and playing at lunchtime there is someone…. well, different.  Someone who comes from somewhere else; whose looks and accent and lunchbox set her apart as distinctive.

And as she moves through her peers, they push her away with their words; label her a freak; dirty; disgusting; insult her intelligence and make lewd comments about imagined sexual deviancies.

And – this is the crucial bit – as she eventually finds somewhere to sit alone, away from their sight, she blinks back tears, holds her head high and remembers that her foremothers were queens, and dreams of a day when her culture and religion might hold sway over a society where no little girl would ever need cry alone.

All of us can relate to that playground scene in some way.  And it is, I think, very similar to how we might think about the author of today’s passage from Isaiah.  His school playground was one of the large cities of the Babylonian empire, where his people, the Israelites, were living in exile.  As they held to their own language, customs and religion they were generally (a few notable exceptions notwithstanding) excluded from power, opportunity and social respect.  They were conquered, exiled, downtrodden; and while they weren’t quite slaves, they certainly weren’t free to shape their own destinies as they wished.

But like our girl in the schoolyard remembering that she comes from a line of queens, they remembered that their current circumstances didn’t define who they were.  And they dreamed of a day to come when things would be very different; when the ideals of their culture would build a very different sort of society.  One in which no one would experience the oppression of forced exile and all that went with it.

And someone in that exiled community, or perhaps a small group of visionaries together, wrote and edited together this part of the book of Isaiah, and particularly, the texts that have come to be called the “servant songs.”  The servant songs are a cycle of poems about an idealised version of God’s servant, which gathers up the memories, longings and hopes of that community and builds them into a portrait of a champion; someone who was everything good and right and holy; everything that community longed to experience and aspired to be.

It’s the daydream of the bullied kid in the schoolyard; given shape and content by hundreds of years of legend and history and prayer.

And that’s what we heard part of today, in our Isaiah reading.

So let’s take note of a few of the details of this poem.  Notice, to start with, the repeated reference to being woken and having an open ear.  While we could take that literally – as if the ideal servant of God wakes in the morning with inspiration bursting in his brain (why are ideal people always portrayed as morning people?!  But I digress) – we can take the imagery of being wakened in a more metaphorical way as well.

Someone who’s awake is aware of what’s going on; not lulled into complacency.  They see beyond the surface of an apparently thriving society and can recognise injustice, oppression, and corruption.  They see the alienation of the world from its Creator, and from the purposes for which it was created.

The ideal servant of God, as presented to us here, suffers in part because he knows the truth and feels compelled to try to reach others with what he knows.  He looks around him at a society which is not awake – does not recognise its own shadow side – and feels the burden of trying to make people aware.  Not just for the sake of awareness, but for the sake of restoring a right relationship between people and their Creator; and out of that right relationship, building a better, healthier, more just society.

Well, we know how well that usually goes.  Comfortable, complacent societies tend to punish people who disturb the status quo.

And this is why the poem goes on to describe the servant having his back struck and his beard pulled out; this standing in the gap between an unaware, but drowning, society; and a God who can put things right if only people will turn to him, is costly.  The servant bears the emotional outbursts and the immaturity of an unreconciled humanity.  But the servant also sees the potential for things to be different, and it’s that vision and hope which gives him the resilience to persevere.  Those who torment him still have the opportunity to turn from their self-centredness and enter a relationship with a holy God, and the community of other people in relationship with that holy God.

It is, as visions of hope go, remarkably sophisticated.  The servant isn’t a champion who tramples every enemy into oblivion, but one who holds out a hand in steadfast offer of reconciliation.

Later, of course, the earliest Christians read these passages and reflected that Christ had fulfilled them to a unique degree, more than any merely human person could.  In Christ, that hope and that reconciliation are always, steadfastly on offer.

More than that, though, in the Church – this community which is supposed to embody Christ to the world – that hope and that reconciliation are supposed to be always, steadfastly, on offer.  The servant songs hold up a picture, one vision of what the Church is supposed to be, and invite and challenge us to live up to it.

In some ways that makes more sense for us now, psychologically, than perhaps it has for centuries.  The Church is being marginalised in our society in a way that we haven’t been since before the fall of Rome.  For too long we’ve had more in common with the bullies in the school yard than the people they pick on, but now we are remembering what it’s like not to have the world revolve around us.  And other writings from other faith communities in our own history which have been in the same place, can offer us some clues to making sense of life on the margins, and some resources for thriving and living faithfully in that new situation.

We do need to allow ourselves to be woken, though.  Woken into relationship with God; woken into deep awareness of our own context, woken to hope and inspired by what could be.

Just a little bit further in Isaiah the prophet cries out:

“Wake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;…
Shake yourself from the dust, rise up!…
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

It’s imagery of hope, and it calls out to us today as well: Wake up!  Put on your strength, claim your beauty, get out of the dust and hold your head high.  Tell the good news in ways that shakes others from their sleep, that builds peace and reconciles enemies, that submits every impulse to oppression to God’s justice.  It’s time for daydreams and ideals to be forged into action.

Our God reigns.  We know that; now how will we live it?

Who is my enemy?

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent, and refers to Psalm 69.

Reading today’s psalm – like so many psalms – it struck me how much ancient Israel must have been a competitive and conflict-driven society.  So often the psalmists pray about, and from the context of, deep awareness of being surrounded by enemies who hate them and wish them physical violence or social ruin.

When we then make their prayers our own, we are at some level confronted with the question of what these verses mean in our own lives.

I suspect that most people do one of two things; either they turn this mentally into a Christians-vs.-everyone-else situation, and see as their enemies the militant atheists, indifferent governments, and socially destructive commercial forces which surround the church.

Or they spiritualise it, and see as their enemies the demonic forces of temptation and despair, just waiting for an opportunity to slip past our guard and bring about our downfall.

I’m not saying that either of these readings are wrong; but I’d suggest that both of them, if not reflected on critically, might lead us to unhealthy attitudes and behaviours, as we retreat into a siege mentality and start seeing everything beyond our own comfort zone as a threat.

I wonder if there is another way to read these ancient prayers; aware that we ourselves are not surrounded by personal enemies in the same way, but still drawing inspiration for our own courage and resilience, in the face of our own personal struggles, from the honesty, faithfulness, and integrity of the psalmists?  Seeking to reflect the attitudes, rather than the circumstances, of the psalmists, in our own contexts?