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.

Book review: Dangerous Prayer

This is a review of the book Dangerous Prayer: Discovering a Missional Spirituality in the Lord’s Prayer by Darren Cronshaw (2017, Paternoster: Milton Keynes).

Dangerous?  Why?

Because it comes with risk.  It invites God – all-sovereign and entirely unpredictable – into our human lives.  It shapes our hearts and minds to be more like those of God, in the process stripping us of our delusions, our disordered attachments, and our excuses.  And in this way it fits us to be part of the mission of God to our broken world.

That, at least, is Darren Cronshaw’s take on the Lord’s Prayer.  He is someone who lives a life in mission (as a Baptist pastor and missiologist), and here he brings the fruit of his reflection on his work and his prayer (two sides of the same coin) to share with the wider Church.

Dangerous Prayer opens with Leunig’s prayer, “God help us to change.  To change ourselves and to change our world.  To know the need for it.  To deal with the pain of it.  To feel the joy of it.  To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.  The art of gentle revolution.  Amen.”  And Dangerous Prayer aims to equip us to do just that; to be provoked to change, ourselves and the world.  To open our eyes to the necessity of change.  To inspire us to transcend the grief of it.  And to have a hope which points us firmly to joy, even while experiencing a work in progress.

Working through the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase, Cronshaw invites us to look at it with fresh eyes; to see the implications of this prayer for how we understand God’s character and mission, and our place within that mission.  The chapter on “The Subversive Justice of ‘Your kingdom come,’“ in particular, offers an inspiring vision of transformation.

He quotes Buechner: “ ‘Thy kingdom come…on earth’ is what we are saying.  And if that were suddenly to happen, what then?  What would stand and what would fall?  Who would be welcome and who would be thrown the Hell out?  Which if any of our most precious visions of what God is and of what human beings are would prove to be more or less on the mark, and which would turn out to be phony as three-dollar bills?…To speak these words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.”

The only reason we can invite the tiger out of the cage is because we can trust its purpose; its mission.  We can trust the intention of the power that we ask be unleashed on the world; a purpose and intention that has the good of all creation in view.  This vision of cosmic good is being furthered by the reign of God, or as Cronshaw (not a monarchist) would have it, the dream of God, which we are invited to dream (and work for) with God.

“This is no longer the Lord’s Prayer,” Cronshaw writes.  “They were Jesus’ words, but he handed them over to his disciples, and the prayer became ‘the disciples’ prayer.’ But it has become ‘your prayer’ as Jesus’ body and the church prays it.  It is also ‘the missional prayer’ to pray in radical ways that change our world.”  Liturgists might wish that Cronshaw had expanded on his work to consider the missional implications of the Lord’s Prayer in its liturgical contexts, but perhaps that work can be taken up by another author.

The value of this book is as an integrative work; the insights presented are largely not original to Cronshaw, but rather, drawing heavily on a wide variety of sources – from personal anecdotes, theological works, and pop culture – he presents a clear and consistent take on what the Lord’s Prayer is and does (or at least could be and do, if we pray it with that intention).  In that sense, the work feels very authentic; its plea for a “missional spirituality” is heartfelt and clearly the result of many years of praying, working and reading with particular driving questions in mind.

The book is easy to read, and the discussion questions at the end of each chapter are particularly helpful.  This would be good material for a study group, perhaps as a way of introducing these concepts about mission to a congregation for the first time through a familiar approach; a prayer already well-known and well-loved.  For those who already have a well-established foundation in understanding mission, the extensive references and bibliography invite deeper exploration of particular concepts.

All wisdom’s children

This is a sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 3:1-12.

“Wise men from the east” came to show their respect and reverence for the child Jesus.

Wisdom’s a funny thing.  We tend to think of it as being a bit elusive; a bit difficult to pin down.  A little bit mystical, maybe, or the preserve of people who are able to spend decades devoted to spiritual practices.  (Just think of those two great icons of wisdom in popular culture; I refer, of course, to Master Yoda and the Dalai Lama).

This was the sort of wise man who came to visit Jesus.  The word used to describe them, magos, referred to priests of the Zoroastrian (Persian) religion; educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astrology, and the occult.  They were widely noted for their honesty and integrity.  These men were powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas.

And I suspect that for most ordinary people, they kind of feel that wisdom is for people like these; that is, for other people.  As long as there are holy men on mountaintops or mystics in monasteries, you and I don’t need to worry too much about acquiring wisdom.

But the problem with this, for us, is that in Christianity, wisdom is an important part of the life of faith, and so the idea that we can kind of hand over responsibility for wisdom to other people – even if those people are our leaders and teachers – is a problem.  Each of us has our own life to work through.

But it’s also the case that wisdom – in Christian terms – is not the same thing as mysticism or esoteric scholarship.  Put very simply, what we mean by “wisdom” is the ability to work out what God wants us to do, and to do it.  And while that’s not always as straightforward as we would like, it’s also not beyond the reach of even the most ordinary people.

It is, however, a big topic; too big for one morning.  So today I want to focus on just one aspect of wisdom, and what it means for us.

And I want to pick up on what Paul said in our reading from the letter to the Ephesians, where he described the wisdom of God as having “rich variety.”  I take this to mean that, if wisdom is doing what God wants us to do, and there is “rich variety” of wisdom, this means that God doesn’t want us to be all the same.  I am me, and each of you is an individual person, and we are created to be different in our relationships with God.

I think Jesus brought this out very clearly when people criticised him and his cousin, John the Baptist, for being different; as if this meant that somehow one or the other (or perhaps both!) of them had to be wrong.  But instead Jesus answered that wisdom is vindicated by all her children.  It was okay for John the Baptist and Jesus to be different, because each was doing what God wanted, in his own unique way.

And this is part of what it means the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known.  And that has several implications for us.  It means first that I can allow others to be different to me.  It doesn’t make me wrong, it doesn’t make someone else wrong, if in genuine good conscience and sincere attempts to please God we end up doing different things.  It means that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is being made known.

It also works on the level of team ministry.  One thing I miss, in this parish, compared to others, is that I’m the only priest in active ministry here; I don’t have another ordained person to bring different  perspectives, experiences or – indeed – wisdom to what we do and how we teach.  It does strike me, though, that we have some very capable and wise lay people; and one of the things I want to explore in the future is the possibility of equipping and licensing some people here to be lay preachers.  That would be part of the rich variety of the wisdom of God being made known in this place.

I also hope, in a year or two, to be ready to offer this parish again as a placement for a student preparing for ordination.  At this stage I’m still settling in and we have a lot of work to do together on future planning; but once that’s under way, it would be good for us to share in the rich variety of the wider church in having a student here, and good for a student to have their experience of the rich variety of the church enriched by being in a parish which is – in my experience – somewhat unique, at least in Melbourne.

This principle is also important on a slightly bigger scale.  The Anglican church in Melbourne is very diverse, and sometimes that brings with it tension and conflict over areas where different traditions and spiritualities collide.  But the fact that we have those different traditions and spiritualities is a good thing!  As we seek to reach out to the broader community around us, the more we are able to offer the fullest possible range of the rich variety of the Anglican church, the more likely it is that different people are going to find something in our worship and teaching worth exploring.  Denying the wisdom of God in those who differ from us isn’t just petty, it borders on blasphemy.

And, on an even bigger scale again, this is important ecumenically.  The full breadth of the Church – from the Copts and the Orthodox on one extreme to the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends (Quakers) on the other; each contributes something to the rich variety of the wisdom of God.  I might not want to be a Copt or a Quaker, I might even have areas in which I am critical of them, but if I think I have nothing to learn from their differences, I am limiting the wisdom of God.  And that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

Recently I’ve been doing some reading on the close link between our worship and our mission as a church.  Our worship has many different components; it includes praise, acknowledging our own wrongs and committing to change, thoughtful reflection, asking God to intervene in the brokenness of the world, and so on.  Our worship itself reflects the rich variety of the wisdom of God.  And the author I was reading posed some sharp questions.  What does our worship do in us?  If we find ourselves in communities of worship week after week, has it made a difference in our lives?  Has it changed us?  Has it made us see the world differently?  Has all our worship had any lasting transformative effect, or does worship comfort us in ways that are misleading?  Does our worship actually extend beyond an hour or so on Sunday morning, to be part of the fabric of our thinking and acting day by day?

The author I was reading was not, at that point, explicitly considering the question of diversity in the Christian life, but it seems to me that making room for expressing that diversity is one way to work towards ensuring that our worship is all that it should be.

So what do we do with that?  We celebrate diversity in the Christian life.  We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others.  We welcome people with different backgrounds, life experiences, and personalities to be part of our community.  We look to actively include diversity in our various ministries, and we work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past.  That’s how we are going to get the most benefit from the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and be most well equipped to make it known to the world around us, inviting them, like the wise men of long ago, to meet with Jesus with respect and reverence.

 

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.

Living in the gap

This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Micah 3:5-12.

When I was accepted as a candidate for ordination, the diocese supplied me – amongst other reams of paperwork – with a document headed “Indicators of Readiness for Ordained Ministry.”  It ran to eight pages of dot points, including such gems as “I understand how people outside the church think,” and “I know how to send and receive emails.”  I’m not sure I found it entirely useful.  But there was one dot point in particular which I’ve often found myself reflecting on.

It said, “I have learned something of my own reactions to living in the gap between vision and reality.”

This is such an important aspect of our experience as Christians, and yet we seldom talk about it.  We live in the gap between vision and reality.  And that’s often not a very comfortable place to live, at all.

I mean, on the one hand, there’s the vision.  The ideal; the ideal for our society, of justice and peace and reconciliation.  The ideal for our church, of holy worship and loving service.  The ideal for our families, of safety and faithfulness and joy.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the gritty side of reality.  Of a society plagued by injustice and a propensity to hatred of the other.  Of a church which is corrupt and a theatre for the egos of the powerful.  Of families in which abuse and selfishness and despair are all too common.

Not every family, of course.  Not every moment in church, or every government decision, either.  But more than enough to make us painfully conscious of the gap between the vision, and the reality.

And the question then becomes, what is our reaction to living in that gap?

We can look at the Scriptures as offering us some models.  People who have gone before us, who have caught the vision that God offered them, but have been painfully conscious of their own lived reality, have reacted by producing documents which attempted to address that gap, and which the Church has come to recognise as Scripture.

And in particular, this morning, our reading from Micah speaks powerfully into that gap.  Micah lived in a time when his nation’s rulers were weak – politically and personally – and his society was corrupt and oppressive.  The gap between vision and reality was stark.  And Micah described it:

5 Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry ‘Peace’
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths…

and so on.

If we take Micah, then, as an example we can follow, here’s what I take from this passage:

  • Living in the gap between vision and reality doesn’t mean passively accepting that gap. It means pointing it out; constantly proclaiming the vision back into the reality, and stretching reality towards the vision.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means choosing leaders who recognise that gap and are committed to narrowing it; and holding them accountable to their responsibilities.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means paying attention to the experience of the most vulnerable and the most powerless, and making any injustice towards them a priority for change.
  • Living in the gap between vision and reality means taking up the roles of prophet and teacher, defining the work that needs to be done, and equipping our community to do that work.

A Church that isn’t filled with the Spirit of God, that isn’t bold enough to talk about justice and sin, that is unwilling to walk and weep with those who are broken, that loves its own power and status more than it loves the God it professes to worship; that’s a church that’s denying the gap, and in the end, denying the vision altogether.

Many people have told me, since I’ve been here, that this parish is a social justice focussed church.  But it’s startling to me, then, that as a church, we don’t do much about social justice.  I mean, individual people here do significant work, but we don’t take up the challenge or get involved together.  It’s almost as if, somehow, we’ve forgotten how.

We need to rediscover how.  We need to look around and ask ourselves what issues of justice are urgent and compelling around us.  We need to work out how we can be effectively involved in those issues; how we can bring our own vision of God’s justice back to shape our reality.

And we need to do it, not just because it’s who we are as a people gripped by a vision of God’s reign, but because if we want people to be attracted to us – if we want people to want to be part of our community – we need to give them a reason.  There is a whole generation of people coming into their prime now who don’t particularly care about institutions, but do care about making a difference; and who might well put up with the baggage of institutional church, if we give them a significant enough opportunity to be part of a community that makes a difference.  But why would they want to be here, if they see us as part of the problem, instead of part of the solution?

We do live in the gap between vision and reality.  What we need to do is get beyond just reacting to that, and start responding to it.  We know that, in the end, our efforts won’t fail.  We know that the story of humanity ends with evil judged and humanity restored.  What we have is an opportunity to bring that just a little bit closer to our lived experience today.

Micah’s voice cries out over the centuries, recalling his vision of justice and peace and prosperity, and calling us to participate in it.  So how shall we respond?

To be blessed

This is a sermon for the feast of All Saints.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 5:1-12.

I must admit, I have a terrible mental image to go with our gospel reading today.  In my head, I can see Jesus – a sort of 1970s, anachronistically hippie version drawn from movies that were on TV when I was very little – addressing the crowd in a way that suggests he’s slightly spaced out and that what they see is a guru of transcendental spirituality.  Only become poor in spirit, meek, and merciful – this mental image seems to suggest – and you too can know karmic bliss.

I’m sure you know the kind of version of Jesus that I’m talking about.

The trouble is that that image has very little to do with what Jesus was on about when he said these words.  So despite their familiarity, we might have to work hard to get past our own assumptions, to let them speak to us on their own terms.

And today I want to try to do that by starting here: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus says this twice in this passage; blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Those statements almost bookend his teaching, and so say something important about all of the people he is describing here as “blessed.”

Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  But what does that mean?

Here are some things that it doesn’t mean:

  • It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven when they die. (I mean, they might, but that’s not the point being made here).
  • It doesn’t mean they experience heaven as a kind of internal spiritual state. (This is not about personal subjective and emotional experience).
  • And it doesn’t mean that they’re morally superior, or holier, than those around them. (Again, they might be, but that’s not the point).

What it means is that they have a radical understanding of the reign of God, and their own relationship to God as ruler over everything that exists.  They are conscious citizens of heaven, who acknowledge no authority, no power, no claim on them, more important or more enduring than that of God.

This vision of the reign of God rests on three key truths.

First, the truth that God is creator.  When you know that God has the imagination, the creativity and the wisdom to envision all that exists, and the power, the awesome force and intensity of desire to cause matter and energy to exist and interact by sheer will; and when you know that everything that exists, only continues to exist moment-by-moment, only continues to operate according to laws of nature, because God wills it; when you know that your life is sustained from one breath to another only because God allows it; when you really get that, then anything which might try to make a competing claim on you is seen for the pale imitation that it is.

Second, the truth that God is active in the world today.  Even though Jesus said this before the resurrection, when most people didn’t know who he was, his disciples were beginning to grasp this.  In a world of evil, of darkness, oppression, suffering, and so on, God is not absent, uninvolved or uncaring, but at work.  This is the point of the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus’ ministry; this is the point of the incarnation, with God coming to live as one of us.  When you know that God hasn’t abandoned us but is at work in your life and in the world around you, then you know that you can participate in what God is up to, and experience God’s rule directly in your own life.

Third, the truth that this current reality will end.  There will be a last day; there will be a judgement, there will be an end to evil and a renewal of all that is good.  There will be a time when the reign of God will not be obscured or marred by anything which would seek to contradict it.  When you really know that, you can walk forward into the future with confidence and hope and joy, knowing that what is coming is going to be so much better than what has been before.

These three truths – that God is creator, that God is active in creation now, and that there will be a time of new and perfect beginning – are the keys which let us understand God’s total and absolute reign, and give ourselves to it.

That’s why the poor in spirit are blessed; they know that despite their own limitations, they belong utterly to, and are able to participate in the work of, a God who holds together everything that is and will be.

That’s why those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed; in their righteousness they know and experience more of God than those who are persecuting them ever will.

And this is the kingdom of heaven which has gripped all the saints through the ages.  The martyrs died for it, the missionaries and pastors laboured for it, the apostles and bishops and theologians helped us put words to it, the prophets proclaimed it and the monastics prayed for it; but all of them knew, deep in their very being, that these key truths of the reign of God define our existence more deeply than anything else.

It’s no coincidence that it’s just a bit further along in this sermon that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come.”  Not because God isn’t ruling now, but because as we understand the reign of God, we place ourselves within it, and our whole being becomes aligned with the will of God.  We become people who labour to see the world be what God would have it be; who find the words to tell those who don’t yet know, who don’t yet understand, how all of creation is held in the hands of a loving God.

The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who do God’s will.  Or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say that those who do God’s will, belong to the kingdom of heaven.  It’s really that simple.

We are called to do God’s will because we are part of creation; called into being for relationship with God.  We are called to do God’s will because in this world’s suffering, darkness and despair, God is at work, bringing healing, light and hope.  We are called to do God’s will because we know that God holds in trust a perfect future, and invites us to be part of that future by our own choice and commitment.

That’s what it means to belong to the kingdom of heaven.  That’s what it means to be a saint, in the truest sense of the word.  As we celebrate today all the rich variety of saints who have gone before us, let’s not miss the choice that always stands in front of us: to do God’s will.  To claim the kingdom of heaven for our own.  To place ourselves amongst that great cloud of witnesses to it.

To be truly blessed.