Consider Christ

This is a sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Hebrews 9:19-28.

I wonder what you do to build your own resilience?  Is it something you do consciously and deliberately, or is it fairly instinctive (like, in my case, reaching for the chocolate)?

There are, of course, as many different ways of building resilience as there are individual people, but one which is very commonly used now is imaginative visualisation.  So there are no end of resources out there helping people to imagine, say, a peaceful place, a place of complete safety, to calm anxiety; or warmth to ease pain; or a comforting touch to allow you to have compassion for yourself.   These are incredibly powerful techniques, and widely used across various caring and healing professions.

But what brought them to mind for me today is the way the author of Hebrews is doing a very similar thing.  He (or she, perhaps, since we don’t know who wrote Hebrews; but he for convenience) is using words to describe something none of his readers or listeners have ever seen, inviting them to explore and interpret that reality in relation to their own lives.

What I mean is this; the part of Hebrews we read this morning compares the system of sacrifice in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, with which the people who received this letter would have been familiar, with what Christ has accomplished in heaven; which these people would, of course, not have seen; but can imagine as the author builds a picture out of elements familiar to them.

So the author here compares Christ’s ascension to heaven to a priest going into the sanctuary of the temple; and says that Christ has accomplished everything the priests accomplished, only more perfectly, more fully, more completely, and more powerfully, than any merely human priest ever could.

The overcoming of sin?  Christ did it.  All enemies defeated?  Christ did it.  Emptying death of its power and terror?  Christ did it.  Destroying the powers of destruction?  Christ did it.  Human beings made holy and acceptable to God, able to enter into intimate and loving relationship with God?  Christ did it.  Allowing us to experience freedom, confidence, flourishing and hope?  Christ did it.  Christ has done what is needed, to stand in the place which makes all these things possible for us.

This is the image the author of Hebrews wants us to come back to: Christ eternally in heaven, in the very presence of the depths of God’s being, on our behalf.  Whenever we’re anxious or overwhelmed or feel defeated or worthless, this is what we’re supposed to hold onto as the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”  Christ is in heaven, and his presence there is sovereign and effective in our circumstances here and now.  Holding onto that, reminding ourselves of that, helps us keep all our struggles and concerns in the perspective of eternity.

Part of the interesting thing about the images here is that it seems the author has kind of mashed up different events to do with the Exodus and the giving of the law, and says that what Jesus has done expresses the ultimate meaning of all those things.  Because there’s no time in the Old Testament where Moses is described doing exactly what is described here; but there are lots of references to Moses and blood and hyssop and sprinkling, which each separately contribute something to our understanding of how God was present to and active in the ancient Israelite community.

From Moses escaping Pharoah’s edict to kill all the baby boys, to the river Nile being turned to blood, to the calves sacrificed for sin, to the goats sacrificed for protection from death at Passover, to the waters of the Red Sea parting, to the scarlet wool and hyssop that the law required for cleansing a leper… all of this incredibly rich imagery from Exodus and the law drives home one point: God is absolutely in control of the forces of life and death.

(As an aside, there are worse things you can do than to read over Exodus again, looking for how it connects with the gospel).

But the image of the tent – the primitive sanctuary – is central. To put it in really blunt terms, for ancient Israel, God was in the tent.  That was the place where people could know God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s glory.  And the author here says that that tent was not the real deal!  God was present there, but it was only like a shadow or a copy of being in God’s utter presence in heaven.  That’s where Jesus has gone.  Not to the pale imitation but to the place where God is utterly God, unveiled by anything created or human.

And it’s from that place that grace and mercy then flow to us.

So it’s one natural consequence of this that we don’t need the pale imitation any more, because anything it might have pointed to or accomplished is fulfilled in Christ.  But I don’t think the point is just to tell people they don’t need to go through the motions any more.  Deeper than that, the point is to give people a clear vision of how everything they could ever possibly need from God is freely available to them now.  Even the law, which governed all the sanctuary rituals (as well as so many other details of everyday life) wasn’t needed in the same way now that Christ had fulfilled the purposes for which it was given.

This is why, later in the letter, the author says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  None of the people to whom he is writing have seen Jesus enthroned in heaven.  But they live by the assurance that that event is real, and that the consequences of that event have meaning for their lives.  In fact, that event is the source of eternal life for them!

“Consider Christ,” the author writes, “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”  Remember who Christ is, and where Christ is, and on whose behalf Christ acts, as a way of resourcing yourself for life in a disheartened world.

The author of Hebrews has deliberately given his readers and hearers a mental picture of Christ in heaven, intended to deepen their resilience as they faced persecution and difficulty.  It’s well worth us taking that same reality, with all of its consequences, on board for our own lives, in our own difficulties, moments of hopelessness and grief.  There’s a great deal there to offer us strength.

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Spoilers

This is a sermon for All Saints’ Day. The Scripture it references is Revelation 21:1-6a.  (Apologies that this is posted a week late, it’s been… rather busy with one thing and another here!)

I may not know what the future holds, but I do know – and trust – the One who holds the future.

This holds true on a number of levels; the future as in what will happen to me in my life; the future as in what I will experience after death, and the future as in what the ultimate end of everything will be like.  I may not be able to anticipate any of my experiences in that, but I can know that I am safe with the God who will hold all of those circumstances under his sovereignty.

But, sometimes, God gives us spoilers.  And God did just that in our reading from Revelation this morning.

Now I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice.

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

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality.  In particular, by this bit of Revelation – when we’re getting very close to the end of the book – John is sharing with us his vision of the ultimate future; the reality towards which everything we know now is progressing.

And it’s important, because this vision of the ultimate future is shared with us, to give us hope.  It’s shared with us to encourage us to live now in accordance with the vision of how things will ultimately be.  It’s shared with us so that we will press on towards bringing a foretaste of that future into the here and now.  We don’t just get spoilers, we’re meant to let them shape our lives and decisions so that through us, everyone else also gets a glimpse

So what do we see?

New creation.  The end of all that currently exists is not the end; not a descent into darkness, silence, and absolute zero.  It’s a new beginning!  A new heavens, a new earth, and a new city.  This is a vision of reality as we know it reimagined; remade to be whole and perfect and without any flaw or blemish.

The people who first received the book of Revelation were all city dwellers.  And they weren’t powerful or privileged within those cities; they were excluded, illegal, persecuted.  The power and wealth and culture of those cities was all brought to bear to oppress them.  The city they might once have looked to, to be something different – Jerusalem, God’s holy city – lay in ruins; temple and palaces and all that it was, torn to rubble.  But in this text, those earliest Christians – and we – are   promised a different kind of city.  A city of inclusiveness.  A city of human flourishing.  A city where power is only ever used to uplift and uphold each person, never to advance one person at another person’s expense.

And this city comes down out of heaven.  This is important.  The city of the future is not our doing; not something we will build of our good intentions (in fact, Scripture is full of stories where we tried to build perfection of our good intentions, and none of those stories ended well…).  But this new city is God’s creation.  It is beyond us to conceive or build; it comes to us as a gift of God’s grace.

It’s worth noting that some things are absent from this new, perfect creation.

There’s no sea, for example.  This isn’t literally about large bodies of salty water, because Revelation’s not that kind of book.  Rather, as with other places in Scripture, the sea represents the forces of chaos and destruction.  The fact that the new creation has no sea means that it is safe; there is nothing threatening to suck the land back under the water, drowning us in overwhelming waves.  There’s nothing here to threaten or harm or destroy.

There are also no tears, death, mourning, crying or pain.  I don’t know, to be honest, that I can really imagine what that will be like.  These are so much a part of what it means to be human as we know it, that to have a new creation where nothing will make you cry, nothing will make you hurt, nothing will rob us of life… it’s life, but as they say, not as we know it.  Life radically re-imagined in its very depths.

So those are things which are not there, in the new city.  But then, there are things which are there.  More important than anything else, God is there!  “The home of God is among mortals, and he will dwell with them.”  This is the ultimate fulfilment of the promise made to us over and over again in Scripture; God will make his home among us.  Later in this chapter John tells us that he sees no temple in this city, and that’s because the whole city is itself the temple; the whole city is the place where God dwells among God’s people.  The saints no longer gather before God, but God totally encompasses every aspect of their existence.  In every moment they are engulfed in God’s splendour and holiness and healing and love.

And who else is there?  The peoples of God.  Not people; not only one group or tribe or ethnicity.  But peoples.  This is a very cosmopolitan city, where people different races and cultures and languages all dwell with God and with one another.  Becoming a citizen of this city doesn’t eradicate our diversity; rather the citizens of this city are a riotous celebration of everything good in humanity.

There’s a lot more packed into this and the next chapter of Revelation, and I do encourage you to read over it for yourselves.

But for now, let me just reiterate that this isn’t some sort of fantasy of John’s.  This is the glimpse God gives John of what is to come.  God’s spoiler, if you like, on eternity.  “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.”  God holds this future in trust for us.  God holds this future out to us to inspire us to hope and courage.  God lifts the curtain to show us what’s in store for all the saints, and to invite us into that unimaginable new, recreated, perfect creation.

We know and trust God as the one who holds the future; so let us take hold of the future he offers us, and let it seep into our present in ways which create hope and joy through our lives.

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.

Investing in relationships: Part II

This is the second in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is 1 Peter 4:7-11.

I want to start this morning with the story of a saint you’ve probably never heard of; St. Tarcisius.  He was a young man – an acolyte or perhaps a deacon, we’re not sure – in the church in Rome in the third century (not long before St. Faith lived, in fact); and he was given the job of taking communion to Christians in prison.  This was particularly significant, because of course, those Christians were in prison for their faith, and many of them were killed; this errand may well have been their last chance to receive communion.

Anyway.  One day as he was doing this, Tarcisius was set upon by a mob who demanded that he hand over the sacrament so they could destroy it.  He refused, and was beaten to death.

Another one of the grim stories of the early Church, I’m afraid.  But what put me in mind of it was the phrase we heard in the reading from 1 Peter today: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God…”

We’re in the second of our three weeks of focussing on stewardship, and here Peter picks out the key thing for us so beautifully; we are stewards, ultimately, not just of our time, talents, and treasure – although each of those things has their place – but of the manifold grace of God.

God makes known to us, and entrusts to us, God’s good desire for the flourishing of all of creation; and makes available to us the means to further that flourishing.  And our giving of our time, talents, and treasure, ought to be oriented to that end.

I said last week that we ought to think of our stewardship as being about investing in relationships, and this is really one dimension of that; the dimension that’s about our own community.  Last week I talked about our relationships with God, and next week I’ll talk about our relationships beyond the parish, but this week I wanted to put the focus on our relationships with each other.

And here Peter has told us what those relationships are meant to be like.  We are each, every single one of us, stewards of the grace of God; and that means that our job is to administer that grace to one another.

Sometimes that happens in very concrete, even ritualised ways; as it does in our services (or indeed, as it did when St. Tarcisius visited the condemned in prison).  But grace is so much bigger than the formal words of forgiveness and blessing, so much bigger than the moments of sacramental presence which we experience once or twice a week in worship.

We administer God’s grace to one another any time our words and actions offer comfort, encouragement, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation.  Any time we let people know that they are not alone.  Any time we identify and affirm the goodness of one another.  Any time we are hospitable, patient, kind, or gentle.  Any time we do anything which helps another person to experience something of God’s good will for them, and God’s power to bring that good will about, we administer grace.

Earlier in this letter Peter had written that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”  It’s the same sort of idea; by proclaiming the mighty acts of the God who calls us out of darkness into light, we become the people chosen to administer grace wherever we go.

As a side note, there’s something important about Peter’s notion of a priesthood here.  There are two very different sorts of ideas in the early church which we talk about as priesthood; there’s the kind of priest that clergy are, and laity are not; and actually, that’s the idea of being an “elder” in the congregation; a person with the wisdom and experience and training to be recognised as a leader and teacher of the community.

But that’s not the kind of priesthood Peter’s talking about here.  This is the kind of priesthood that’s about responsibilities in worship which connect the people with their God.  In the New Testament, this kind of priesthood is only ever used of the whole church; it is never used of one group with a specialised role.  All of us share in and exercise the priestly ministry of prayer and reconciliation.  All of us administer grace to one another.  That’s an inescapable part of what it means to be Christian.

No wonder, then, that Peter goes on to say, “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies.”  There’s no such thing as meaningless speech between Christians; every word either builds the other person up, or it doesn’t.  Every action either serves the good of others, or it doesn’t. Peter tells us that our role as stewards of God’s grace means we must be mindful of the impact of what we say and do, because it has enormous significance, now and into eternity.

Having just been through some fairly spirited debate in synod, I’m forced to add that this doesn’t mean we must always agree on everything, or pretend to agree.  But it is profoundly about how we treat one another even when we disagree.  If we can’t disagree, but still uphold the other person’s worth, dignity and value… we have not learned to administer the grace of God.

So what I’m encouraging you to think about, in reflecting on this with you, is what is achieved by what you give.  If you give of your time to do something, who is comforted, encouraged, affirmed by what you give your time to do?  If you give of your money to the parish, what does that money fund, and does it help people to know the grace of God?  (I encourage you, in due course, to actually read the budget papers before the annual meeting; because while I know they can be dry, beyond the numbers are – or at least, we hope there are – real people encountering the grace of God).  And if you put your talents at the service of the parish, do they contribute to this being a community of hospitality, gentleness, and kindness?  Are there things we ought to be thinking about in that regard, that we’re currently overlooking?

Fortunately for us, unlike St. Tarcisius, we are not likely to face martyrdom as we go about our lives administering the incredible, life-changing grace of God.  All the more reason for us then to take seriously that in our words, actions, and in our giving, careful and loving stewardship of that grace ought to be always our aim.

Investing in relationships: Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. 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.