Monday, 29 December 2014

Buying next year's Christmas cards at the post-Christmas sales.

I have a confession to make.

I buy my Christmas cards at the Boxing Day sales.

I do it almost every year.  I've done it this year.  Most of my Christmas cards for 2015 were purchased in the final week of 2014.  Less than ten days have passed between my posting the last of my 2014 cards and my purchasing the bulk of my 2015 cards.

There, I've said it.  And, as they say, confession is good for the soul. 

And, as a self-proclaimed "Christmas nerd", I'd like to reflect a bit on Christmas cards (assuming that many of my fellow "Christmas nerds" are also buying next years cards now, as well).

Christmas cards fall into two main categories:  religious cards and non-religious cards.   But, both religious cards and non-religious cards have a number of sub-categories as well.

First, there are the various types of religious Christmas cards.

  • There is the generic religious Christmas card.  As a clergy type, I buy, send, and receive a lot of these.  Essentially they feature artwork depicting various aspects of the Nativity stories in the Gospels:  Mary and Joseph riding a donkey, shepherds gathering by the manger, Magi giving their gifts, etc.   The artwork can be either traditional or contemporary, figurative or stylised.  The message is something that is spiritual, but not overly theological:  something simple such as "Christmas Blessings".

  • More upmarket is the "artistic" religious Christmas card.  They feature reproductions of classic paintings by well-known artists, with biblical themes such as The Annunciation, The Madonna and Child, The Adoration of the Magi, and The Adoration of the Shepherds, etc.  You can usually buy these only at the gift shops connected to major art museums.  They're usually pretty expensive ... too expensive for my Christmas card budget.

  • Then there are the "pious" Christmas cards, sent by the sort of Christians who are really, really, REALLY religious.  They may feature slogans such as "the reason for the season", or "Wise men still seek him", or "Keep Christ in Christmas".  They are sent by the more "religious" sort of Christian either to like-minded individuals or to those people they are targeting as possible converts.

  • Finally, there is the "cutesy" religious Christmas card.  It's like the generic religious Christmas card, except that the shepherds, Magi, angels, Mary, Joseph, etc., are all small children, as if they posed for the card during a kindergarten Nativity play.

Then, we have the various varieties of non-religious Christmas cards.

  • First of all there is the generic festive Christmas card.  The artwork features a Christmas tree, or a wreath on a door, or a poinsettia.  The message inside the card is something like "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year", or "Season's Greetings", or (if the sender doesn't mind risking the wrath of Fox News) "Happy Holidays".  For most people, this type of card constitutes the majority of the Christmas cards they send.

  • An upmarket version of the generic festive card is the Dickensian card.  The message and general tone of the card is similar to the generic card, except that the artwork depicts scenes that are definitely British and definitely 19th century, usually with a group of enthusiastic carollers in the foreground.  They're a bit more expensive than the generic card, but usually not as expensive as the "artistic" religious card.

  • Cards featuring Santa Claus also have their place.  They're particularly good for families with small children.  They're also a safe choice for people who, if they receive a religious card (of any variety) would complain that "the bloody churches are even trying to take over Christmas", but who would also engage in lengthy bouts of Anglophobic rage if they receive a Dickensian card.

  • Animal cards are popular, particularly cat cards.  Cat cards are more popular than dog cards, largely because cat people are generally enthusiasts for all types of cats, while many doggie people limit their enthusiasm to one or two breeds.

  • Then there's what I call the "Blue Christmas" card.  Most of us find we send more and more of these cards to people as we get older.  These are cards that recognise that the person receiving the card has had a bad year (because of bereavement, ill health, relationship troubles, problems in the employment area, etc.) and will not be expected to have all that "merry" a Christmas.  The sentiment to go for is something like "Have as nice a Christmas as possible under the circumstances, and I hope next year will be better for you than this one was."  Some religious cards work well in this regard (although definitely NOT a "pious" card), but each Christmas most of us need to send a few non-religious cards of the "Blue Christmas" variety.

  • Then there's the "Australiana" card.  This is usually a variety of the Santa card, and features the aforementioned Mr. Kringle in a t-shirt, shorts, and thongs* relaxing on a beach, or possibly even surfing.  The (highly profound) message here is "Here in Australia, we have Christmas in summer."**  Sometimes, you'll find one with St. Nick in his full regimentals on a sleigh being pulled by a team of kangaroos, rather than reindeer.  If you wish to send this sort of card, consider the following guidelines:  (a)  Only send them to friends and relatives who live overseas.  Sending this card to an Australian (other than one with a strong appreciation for kitsch) will lead to reports that you've taken leave of your senses.  (b)  Don't send them every year.  Most people get easily bored with this sort of card.  (c)  Only send them to people with a sense of humour.  These cards can be pretty funny (usually unintentionally so).

And then, occupying a space between the "religious" and "non-religious" cards (almost as a quasi-Anglican via media) are the "ethical" Christmas cards.  Their message is neither overtly religious nor relentlessly festive.  These cards will concentrate on such sentiments from the biblical Christmas stories as "Peace on Earth".  The message of the card, in addition to the usual greetings of the season, will include an encouragement to all people of good will to promote peace on earth.  If you're able to organise a good supply of "ethical" cards, these will be able to satisfy almost everyone on your Christmas card list, even those needing a "blue Christmas" card (although you may still want a few Santa cards for families caring either for small children or for extreme right-wingers). 

One note of caution re the "ethical" cards:  make sure they're printed on recycled paper ... and that the back of the card says so.  Nothing says "ethically confused" quite as effectively as an "ethical" Christmas card printed on non-recycled paper.

The sales are still on.  Next year's Christmas cards are out there at attractive prices, waiting for you to buy them.  Let your inner "Christmas nerd" emerge.



*   In case you're wondering, by the word "thongs", I'm using it in the Australian sense of uncomfortable summer footwear with a tendency to fall apart at the worst possible times (called "flip-flops" in the US), rather than in any other sense.

**  This does not take into account, of course, the fact that people in New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, and numerous other countries can make the same claim.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Lost-Regained-Robert-Faser/dp/1518633420/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1478247054&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=christmas+lost+and+christmas+regained

Saturday, 27 December 2014

An example of inspiring graffiti: "Form One Planet"

Travelling around Tasmania, one often sees a sign such as this on the roadside:


With the addition of two simple letters, the direction to drivers to form one lane becomes a call to us all to form a single planet.

Perhaps the message of this inspiring piece of graffiti can become a New Year's Resolution for us all during 2015.

Form One Planet!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Good News for Tangmalangaloo: a Christmas sermon (Isaiah 9: 2 - 7, John 1: 1 - 14)

Jack Burton is a Methodist minister in Norwich, in the UK. For many years he earned his living as a bus driver, while serving in an unpaid, ecumenically-recognised ministry to people for whom churches – for whom any churches – are alien territory. One day, a few days before Christmas, he entered Norwich Cathedral with Tony, his bus conductor. Tony was just that sort of person for whom a church – any church – was alien territory. He was a secular, working-class bloke, possibly a bit like the shepherds in Luke’s version of the story of the Nativity.
 
Jack Burton tells the story:
 
Inside the great building – decorated for Christmas – : Tony looked round and said, ‘Is this for everyone?’ I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant: ‘Can anyone walk round here at any time?’ ‘Can anyone come to the services here?’ But I didn’t stop to ask – I answered immediately and emphatically, “Yes, of course.’ It was a good question.         (Jack Burton, Transport of Delights, SCM, 1976, p. 61.)

“Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
In the lessons from scripture we’ve heard in this service, we’ve heard about God embracing the whole of our human condition.
 
To us – to all of us – to an “us” so broad that it includes all humanity - to an “us” so broad that there no one outside of the “us” to constitute a “them” – to this radically inclusive “us” a child is born.
 
“Is this for everyone?”
 
 “Yes, of course.”
 
The “Word” – the eternal and creative “Wisdom” of the living God - became flesh. The radical nature of this statement is seen in the fact that the original Greek word used here for “flesh”, sarx, this was considered quite a crude word in the Greek language. The Word became flesh, so that the living God embraced all of our existence, not just the pretty bits.
 
"Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
The good news of Christmas is about God embracing the whole of our human condition. This is why the more rigidly “religious” type of Christians often just don’t get Christmas. The good news of Christmas is about God embracing the whole of our human condition:
  • people of all races and cultures,
  • people of all faiths and spiritualities,
  • people who are “religious” and people who are not,
  • people who are respected by their communities and people who are rejected by their communities.
 “Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
As Sir John Betjeman declared in the poem we've just heard, Christmas is about God becoming fully human and accessible to us all:
 
 … And is it true? And is it true,
 This most tremendous tale of all,
 Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
 A Baby in an ox’s stall?
 The Maker of the stars and sea
 Become a Child on earth for me?
  
 … No carolling in frosty air,
 Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
 Can with this simple Truth compare --
 That God was Man in Palestine
 And lives to-day in Bread and Wine
 
“Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
And, for many people in our community, Christmas is also about maintaining and renewing our human relationships. We hear this in John O'Brien's Australian bush poem "Tangmalangaloo", when the bishop asks the boy in the confirmation class:
 
Come tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?
How is it that around the world we celebrate that day
And send a name upon a card to those who’re far away?
Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?
 
Christmas is also about maintaining and renewing our human relationships. 
 
“Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
And there is also an undeniable element of fun and festivity in this time of celebration. John O’Brien’s bishop was reminded of this when the boy asserted the significance of Christmas Day in terms of “It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.”
 
And Christmas is all of this. 
  • Yes, to us – to all of us – a child is born.
  • Yes, the Word has become flesh and dwells among us - among all of us.
  • Yes, “God was Man in Palestine / And lives to-day in Bread and Wine”.
  • Yes, “wandering ones return … [this day] …with smiles and greetings, too?”
  • And yes, “It … [is] … the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.”
Christmas is all of this.
 
“Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas: a sermon (Isaiah 40: 1 – 11, Mark 1: 1- 8)

John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas?  There’s an odd couple, if there ever was one.

On the one hand, there’s this figure of John the Baptist, of whom we hear a great deal in the scripture lessons read on these middle Sundays of Advent, today and next Sunday.  He’s this austere figure, with an austere lifestyle, and an austere message of judgement.  He was clothed with camel’s hair, eating a diet of locusts and wild honey.  He was depicted in Christian art (over the centuries) as this oddly dressed figure with wild hair and with a long, bony finger:  a finger that was always pointed at someone.  The finger was either pointed out in judgement at whoever was looking at the picture or pointed out in the direction of the Christ, as he declared “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

John was a voice crying out in the wilderness, a figure whom each of the four gospel writers found it easy to associate with the prophetic voice described by Isaiah as calling out:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert the highway of our God.

And it’s odd, though, that at roughly the same time as when we remember the role of John (with all his austerities) in the story of faith, we have a day (yesterday) when we remember that most un-austere of Christian saints, St. Nicholas,  patron saint of:
  • children,
  • sailors,
  • pawnbrokers,
  • people who have been unjustly imprisoned,
  • the nations of Greece, Russia, and the Netherlands,
  • as well as the cities of Aberdeen in Scotland, Galway in Ireland, and New York in the United States (sharing this last – fairly demanding – saintly gig with St. Patrick). 
I suppose in his later cultural manifestation as Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of last minute Christmas shoppers, reindeer drivers, employers of elf labour, bearded men, and overweight people who still think they look good in red.

Comparing St. Nicholas with John the Baptist, even if we disregard the way in which the fourth century Greek St. Nicholas morphed into the modern festive figure of Santa Claus (by an indirect route by way of the Netherlands and the United States), still there is a real lack of the austerity of John the Baptist in what we know of St. Nicholas.

One of the stories about St. Nicholas involved an argument in which he was involved at the Council of Nicaea, a council which was very significant in determining the shape of Christian belief.  Evidently, during the debates, he said something at which another member of the council took offense.  The other member threw a punch at Nicholas, and reportedly broke his nose, causing an all-in brawl to take place.  We don’t usually think of saints getting involved in dust-ups at church meetings, but it happened to Nicholas.

Of all the old legends about St. Nicholas, one which had a particular ring of truth about it involved a poor family with three daughters.  The family could not afford dowries to enable the daughters to marry, so they contemplated selling the daughters into slavery.

According to the story, on three separate occasions, Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins into the house, secretly, anonymously, and at night; with each bag of coins enabling a dowry.  (One version of the story had Nicholas using the chimney of the house as the point of entry for his bags of coins.  This helped the development of the legends of St. Nicholas, particularly in the later cultural process by which the fourth century saint became the contemporary Santa Claus.)

In any event, I think it’s a beautiful thing that one of our culture’s greatest symbols of generosity, joy, and festivity had its origin in a Christian saint.

And we have these two contrasting images before us at this time of year:
  • John with his funny clothing and long, bony figure pointing out at us, urging all people to repent of our sins.
  • Nicholas, at least in his modern guise, calling out to all people, wishing “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night”.
But, you know, both John and Nicholas point to the Christ.
  • John the Baptist points us to the figure of the demanding Christ: Jesus who calls all people to drop everything and follow him; the Christ whom we particularly meet in the pages of John’s gospel.
  • St. Nicholas points us to the figure of the inclusive Christ:  Jesus who touched lepers, who ate and drank with sinners, and who befriended those whom society rejected:  the Christ whom we see most clearly in the pages of Luke’s gospel.

Both the demanding Christ and the inclusive Christ are there in the New Testament.  To have a balanced picture of Christ, both are necessary. 

I believe most of us here (myself included) are far more “at home” with this more inclusive view of the Christ, the Christ of Luke’s gospel, the Christ to whom the joyful (and even jolly) Nicholas bore witness.  Most of us here find the more demanding Christ, the Christ to which the austere John bore witness, to be more than a bit confronting. 

But then there are other Christians who find themselves more at home with the demanding Christ, and with the austerities of John.  Many Christians find the more inclusive, welcoming Christ that many of us have experienced to be as confronting as most of us find the more austere Christ of John. 

Both the austerities of John the Baptist and the joyful, hospitable, inclusive generosity typified by St. Nicholas bear witness to the Christ.  The sacrament which we will celebrate in a few minutes bears witness both to Christ’s inclusive welcome to us all and to Christ’s demanding call to us all. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Advent in Miniature: a sermon (Isaiah 64: 1 - 9)

In many ways, there is frequently a certain confusion to our celebrations of Advent within the Christian church.
  • For some of us, caught up in the frantic pre-Christmas busyness of our wider community, our faith life mirrors this busyness. Advent becomes merely a series of carol services and nativity plays.
  • For others of us, some churches try to make Advent so austere, so solemn, so penitential, … almost so Lenten … that there is no sense that the joy of Christmas will soon follow. For example, there are some congregations where you’ll never hear a single Christmas carol until Christmas Eve.
Given that these two conflicting tendencies – and the resulting confusion - co-exist within denominations, congregations, families, and even within some individuals. I believe that Advent can well be regarded as a season in search of a theology.

But there is a rhythm to Advent, a rhythm that we see in the pattern of our four Sundays of Advent. This pattern is seen in our lesson from Isaiah. From the 64th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, verses one through nine, we read:
 
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.  (Isaiah 64:1-9, NRSV)
 
Now, I have to make a brief note of caution here. Whenever we read a Christian meaning into an Old Testament text, we need to remember that these writings were first written in a Jewish context, rather than a Christian one. 
  • The Christian meaning of any Old Testament text is not the only meaning of the text.
  • Neither is the Christian meaning of an Old Testament text the original meaning of the text.
  • The Jewish meaning of any Old Testament text must always be regarded as the text’s original meaning. 
  • Christians have no right to impose the Christian meaning of any Old Testament text upon Jewish people.
  • While it is legitimate for Christians to read a Christian meaning into an Old Testament text, it must always be seen as a creative re-interpretation of the text, sitting alongside the text’s original – and primary - Jewish meaning. 
Nevertheless, this text reflects the rhythm of Advent as the Christian church observes Advent. Thus, it’s a good text for us in our Advent celebrations.

1.   The reading begins with the words:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down
so that the mountains would quake at your presence …
… so that the nations might tremble at your presence.
(Isaiah 64:1, 2b, NRSV)

This expresses the profound hope – held by many people of faith – that God will sometime intervene decisively and dramatically in human history.
  • For Jews at the time of Jesus – and for Orthodox Jews since then – this was a hope for a Messiah.
  • For many Christians, this hope was traditionally expressed in a hope for the second coming of Jesus.
For many other people of faith:
  • for many Christians who do not take the Second Coming literally,
  • for Jews outside the Orthodox communities,
  • and for others;
for many people of faith this hope can be seen as an expectation of the reign of God -- as the profound hope for that time (in God’s good time) when God’s values of peace and justice, of love and mercy; of generosity, hospitality, and integrity will become the governing principles of human life. 

Traditionally, Christians have called this inbreaking reign of God the “Kingdom of God”. Some Jews have called this reign the “Messianic Era”. Throughout the gospels, this inbreaking reign of God – this “Kingdom of God” – was the great governing theme of Jesus’ own teaching.

This profound hope – however we express it – this profound hope of God’s decisive intervention in human history is the theme of the First Sunday of Advent.

2.   But then, on the Second and Third Sundays of Advent, we move from this sense of expectation and hope and we encounter John the Baptist and his austere message of repentance. John’s austere message echoes much of what we hear in this passage:

We have all become like one who is unclean …
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name …
(Isaiah 64:6a, 6c-7a, NRSV)

And this in-your-face message of confrontation was the same message adopted by John the Baptist. And for the two weeks in the middle of Advent, this is also the message of Advent. 

Perhaps the fact that we spend the middle two weeks of Advent on the receiving end of John the Baptist may well be one reason why these weeks are also the prime time for many churches to have carol services and children’s nativity plays. (It’s very easy to feel that we've overdosed on John the Baptist.)

3.   And then, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we move away from confrontation and hear of examples of hope-building. Mary and Joseph step out in faith and in radical obedience to be God’s hope-bearers in the midst of the world, allowing themselves to be shaped and re-shaped by God.

And this radical obedience and this willingness to be re-shaped by God also echoes language from this lesson:

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
We are the clay, and you are our potter;
We are all the work of your hand.
(Isaiah 64:8, NRSV)

And it in is this willingness to be shaped and re-shaped by God, in which we find Mary and Joseph enabling the arrival of the infant Jesus into the midst of the world.

4.   And that arrival is profound good news for all people. In Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, we hear the angel telling the shepherds that this birth was “good news of great joy to all the people” – not “good news of great joy to some of the people” but “good news of great joy to all the people”:
  • not just “good news of great joy to particularly religious people”,
  • not just “good news of great joy to particularly moral people”,
  • not just “good news of great joy to particularly intelligent people”,
  • not just “good news of great joy to particularly nice people”,
  • not just “good news of great joy to people of a particular racial, national, cultural, socio-economic, political, or denominational demographic”,
but “good news of great joy to all the people”. 

And this message is also an echo of words from this passage. As we hear the writer address God: “Now consider, we are all your people.” (Isaiah 64:9b, NRSV).

So, in this single passage, we have a quick overview, perhaps a quick tour, of the whole of our Advent pilgrimage. In a sense, we have Advent in miniature, moving from the general hope of all people of faith for God to dramatically intervene in human history to the celebration of “good news of great joy to all the people” that we find in the story of Jesus’ birth.

And may this Advent pilgrimage be a time for us all to experience God’s closer presence, now and always.

Friday, 21 November 2014

"... You did it to me....": a sermon for Christ the King / the Reign of Christ (Matthew 25: 31 - 46)

St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral in Dublin has a stained glass window honouring the Guinness family, a family known throughout the world as master brewers and throughout Ireland as generous philanthropists.  Given both the brewing and the philanthropic activities of the Guinnesses, the appropriate scripture text to put on the window was rather obvious.  It comes from today’s gospel lesson:  “I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

In our gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a powerful and poetic image of the climax of human history.  And many of us may find it more helpful to treat this material in Jesus’ teachings as being poetic in nature, rather than something we must necessarily interpret literally.  In today’s lesson, Jesus tells about a great scene of judgement, a great sorting-out of humanity.  And this scene can speak to us about all the little judgements we face every day of our lives as well as it can to any great future event. 

Let’s enter the scene as set by Jesus.  The ruler of the universe is about to pronounce judgement.   A rag-tag group is asked to move forward.  As they shuffle to the front, a few sneering remarks can be heard:
  • “A bunch of bleeding heart leftie do-gooders,” one voice snarls.
  • “Heretics. Theologically unsound.” intones another voice.
  • “Hoi polloi.  Not our sort at all,” a third voice brays.
A shocked silence results, both from the scoffers and from the rag-tag company, as the verdict is read out:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for:
  • I was hungry and you gave me food,
  • I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
  • I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
  • I was naked and you gave me clothing,
  • I was sick and you took care of me,
  • I was in prison and you visited me.
And the response from the rag-tag group to the verdict was a stunned “Did we? . . . Did we really?”

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

As the next group is called up, many observers have their fingers crossed.  If the first group was given great joy because of their active generosity and hospitality, perhaps the next lot would be condemned because of their active evil.  Perhaps the active “bleeding-heart do-gooders” would be followed by some active “do-badders”.  Perhaps many waited to hear something like this:
  • I was hungry and you stole my food.
  • I was thirsty and you polluted my water.
  • I was a stranger and you tried to ban my headscarf.
  • I was naked and you paid money to stare at me.
  • I was sick and you made my medication too expensive.
  • I was a prisoner and you said, “Throw away the key!”
But the prosecution case was not focused only on the active do-badders.  Of course, they were there, and they were there in droves.  And they got theirs. 

But there were also many ... ordinary people brought up to answer the charges alongside the Pontius Pilates and the Neros; alongside the Hitlers and the Stalins, alongside the Pol Pots and the Idi Amins.  These people were “ordinary’ in two of the ways we use the word “ordinary”.
  • They were “ordinary” in the sense that some politicians and talk-back radio personalities use the word “ordinary”, as in the sentence “I represent the views of many ordinary people in the community.”
  • They were also “ordinary” in the sarcastic sense that many Australian sports commentators use the word “ordinary”, as in the sentence “Both sides played some really ordinary football this afternoon.”
Alongside the Pontius Pilates and the Neros; alongside the Hitlers and the Stalins, alongside the Pol Pots and the Idi Amins were many ordinary people.... And the case against them was based on some really ordinary behaviour:
  • I was hungry and you ... did nothing.
  • I was thirsty and you ... did nothing.
  • I was a stranger and you ... did nothing.
  • I was naked and you ... did nothing.
  • I was sick and you ... did nothing.
  • I was a prisoner and you ... did nothing.
And that was the case for the prosecution. ... And it was enough.

For those of us who are heirs of the Protestant Reformation, this passage of scripture sits uncomfortably with much of our religious upbringing. 
  • We were taught in Sunday School, in confirmation class, in some hymns, and in far too many sermons that our good works ultimately mean nothing in terms of our status before God.  
  • We were taught that our status before God is a matter of “by grace we are saved through faith”, which for far too many Christians merely means “getting our theology right”. 
As a result, there are those who believe that people who “get their theology right" are OK with God whatever they do and that those who "get their theology wrong” are in eternal trouble, however actively they reflect God’s love in their lives.

For some Christians, this is the sort of passage that there is great pressure to “explain away”, almost as if Jesus had said something like this to those who were blessed by God:
  • I was hungry and you preached to me about the bread of life, even if you forgot to offer me any bread to eat. 
  • I was thirsty and you lectured me on my drinking habits,
  • I was a stranger and you examined me on my theology of the atonement, biblical inspiration, infant baptism, and sexual ethics before allowing me to become a church member,
  • I was naked and you expressed your disapproval of my appearance,
  • I was sick and you told me that my illness was a sign of a lack of faith,
  • I was in prison and you debated the shortcomings of liberation theology.
Of course, we need to affirm the importance of God’s radical grace over and above our religious busy-work.  It’s not a question of how many hours we clock up in our prayer time.  It’s not a question of how many “justwannas” a minute we can pack into our prayers.  We are called to trust God’s radical grace rather than our religious busy-work.  This is what Paul, and Luther, and the Wesleys, and Karl Barth were all really getting at.  And, in this light, we need to continually emphasise the importance of God’s radical grace in contrast to our religious busy-work.

The problem is that many Christians take this emphasis on grace to mean that “getting our theology right” is more important to God than the ethical quality of our lives.  Neither Paul, nor Luther, nor the Wesleys, nor Karl Barth ever said that.  And let’s be honest here:  any people who believe that “getting our theology right” is more important to God than the ethical quality of our lives have really got their theology wrong … dead wrong.
 
Here, in this climactic passage in Matthew’s gospel, we hear a challenging message
  • that our good works actually mean a lot in God’s sight;
  • that our reflecting God’s mercy, hospitality and generosity is far more important to God than  “getting our theology right”.

This is a challenging message we hear in many other places in the scriptures:
  • in the Sermon on the Mount,
  • in the Parable of the Good Samaritan,
  • in the Letter of James,
  • in many sections of the Hebrew Prophets,
  • and, very dramatically, here in Jesus’ poetic vision of the climax of human history.
As Sydney Carter’s hymn, which we’ll sing in a moment, asks:

When I needed a neighbour, were you there? ...
... the creed and the colour and the name won’t matter, were you there?

“... just as you did it to the least of these ..., you did it to me.”

A talk given at an ecumenical service of prayer for peace in the Middle East

This homily was given by the Rev. Dr. Bob Faser at an ecumenical service of prayer for peace in the Middle East, on Thursday, 20th November 2014, at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Launceston, Tasmania.

***

We’ve gathered today to pray for peace in the Middle East, and to affirm our conviction that the people of that frequently-troubled region where Asia, Africa, and Europe meet have the same right as we do to live their lives
·        free from violence,
·        free from oppression, and
·        free from fear,

We gather in the commitment that the God whom we worship is passionately concerned for the well-being of all the people of that region, as this same God is passionately concerned for the well-being of all of us.

And that region is a region where people of many faiths live, and a region where many faith communities see the origins of the life together of their community. 
·        In many places, people of the different faiths live together in peace.
·        In other places, there are serious tensions - including active violence - between the faiths.
·        In yet other places, the tensions within any single faith far overshadow any tensions between the faiths.

And we pray for peace for all in this region.

We are advised in the Psalms to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”, and we do so.  And, as we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, we also:
·        pray for the peace of Tel Aviv and for the peace of Ramallah,
·        pray for the peace of Haifa and for the peace of Gaza,
·        pray for the peace of Bethlehem and for the peace of Mecca,
·        pray for the peace of Nazareth and for the peace of Medina,
·        pray for the peace of Damascus and for the peace of Beirut,
·        pray for the peace of Baghdad and for the peace of Mosul,
·        pray for the peace of Cairo and for the peace of Teheran.

And, as we do so, we hear words from scripture calling us to be people who practice peace and who live love. 

In our lesson from the First Letter of John, we’ve heard a simple statement which, for many people, may have been the first words of scripture they learned as a child, those three brief words:   “God is love.”  It’s an excellent Christian statement. 

But as well, I also know that, in its ideas if not in its origins, it’s:
·        equally an excellent Jewish statement,
·        equally an excellent Muslim statement, and
·        equally an excellent Baha’i statement.
And I also suspect that it’s probably also equally an excellent statement for members of the other communities of faith in that region:  for the Mandaeans, the Druze, and the Yazidis.

For all people of faith, and for all people of good will, God is love. ... And, whatever a person’s formal religious identity, if their focus of worship is not love, neither is it God.  For God is love.

And now may
·        the Shalom,
·        the Salaam,
·        the peace
of the Eternal One keep us ... and all people ... in peace,
now and forever.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Secret Bridesmaids' Business: a sermon (Matthew 25: 1 - 13)

There was an Australian play that toured a number of cities a few years ago, with the title “Secret Bridesmaids’ Business”.  Today’s lesson from Matthew’s gospel is also about some “secret bridesmaids’ business”. 

Jesus told a story about a wedding.  It must have been a big wedding because there were ten bridesmaids. 

It was at a time when bridesmaids had different tasks than they have today, because one of their jobs was to wait for the bridegroom at the head of the path to the bride’s house.  When the bridegroom and his entourage arrived, the bridesmaids would greet the groom and his mates and lead them along the path from the road to the house, singing and (if it was at night) carrying brightly-lit oil lamps.

Night fell and there was still no bridegroom.

At midnight, word came that the bridegroom and his mates were nearby, but the oil was giving out in the lamps of five of the ten bridesmaids.  They tried to borrow some from the other bridesmaids, but were told to go and buy some.  On their way back with the extra oil, the bridegroom and his entourage arrived, to be led into the wedding feast by five bridesmaids, rather than ten.  By the time the other five had returned from their oil run, the doors of the bride’s home were tightly locked.

Now, looking at all the aspects of the story, there are a lot of people who could have been criticised.
  • If this were primarily a story about consideration for the well-being of others, we could criticise the bridegroom and his friends for arriving at such an inconsiderate hour.
  • If this were primarily a story about generosity, we could criticise the five bridesmaids with plenty of oil for not sharing their oil supplies with their friends.
  • If this were primarily a story about hospitality, we could tear strips off the brides’ family for locking up the house when it was obvious that five bridesmaids – five vulnerable young women – five vulnerable young women in a culture that was very much “a man’s world” - were still outside, in the middle of the night.
Of course, Jesus told many other stories, and he made strong points about compassion, generosity, and hospitality in his stories.  But, this is a different story.
  • It is not primarily a story about consideration for the well-being of others.
  • It is not primarily a story about generosity.
  • It is not primarily a story about hospitality.
This story is a story about preparation.  “Be Prepared,” as the Scouting movement says.
  • In many ways, this story is about preparation for the realities of life in a world where individuals, let alone nations, do not regard the well-being of others as a factor in their decision-making ... but where we are called to be the people of God in that situation, nevertheless.
  • In many ways, this story is about preparation for the realities of life in a world where individuals, let alone nations, are not prepared to share their plenty with those who live with scarcity ... but where we are called to be the people of God in that situation, nevertheless.
  • In many ways, this story is about preparation for the realities of life in a world where individuals, let alone nations, are compelled by fear to tightly lock their doors, their gates, their borders ... but where we are called to be the people of God in that situation, nevertheless.
  • In many ways, this story is about preparation for the realities of life in a world all too similar to our own ... but where we are called to be the people of God in our world, nevertheless.
Jesus said, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  While this passage has been traditionally interpreted by the Christian Church as referring to Christ’s appearance at the end of human history, this passage is also relevant to those of us for whom the “Second Coming” isn’t really a theme within our beliefs.  I believe this passage can also refer to the many times we find Christ appearing to us in the needs of our neighbour.
  • We know neither the day nor the hour when we will be challenged to exercise our own gifts of compassion, generosity or hospitality.
  • We know neither the day nor the hour when we will be challenged to exercise these gifts in a setting when the movers and shakers of the community around us will regard these ancient virtues of compassion, generosity or hospitality as suspect and outdated civic vices.
This passage can also refer to the many times we find Christ appearing to us in the needs of our neighbour.

“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Advent is not Lent. (I'll repeat that. It's important.) Advent is NOT Lent!

If I said one thing to you about worship in Advent, it would be this:  

Advent is not Lent.

I’ll repeat this.  It’s important.

Advent is NOT Lent.

During Advent, the Christian church progressively “grows into” the brightness of the Christmas celebration.  The trajectory of Advent moves in the direction of Christmas.  The visual image here is the Advent wreath, on which an additional candle is lit each Sunday of Advent:  one on the first Sunday, two on the second, ... and so on.  The light of Advent grows, until it is absorbed into the light of Christmas.

In contrast, Lent moves in the direction, not of Easter, but of Good Friday.  Throughout Lent, we move deeper and deeper into the shadow of the Cross.  Easter comes afterwards, not as part of the basic trajectory of Lent, but as God’s great reversal of the pain of the Cross.  The basic inner logic of Lent leads to Good Friday, with Easter following as God’s great Reversal, as God’s great vindication of the Crucified One.  There is a marked discontinuity between Lent and Easter.

The relationship of Advent with Christmas is radically different from the relationship of Lent with Easter.  The discontinuity is not there.  Advent flows organically into Christmas.

As a result, any attempt to remake Advent as a penitential season in the image of Lent is incompetent liturgy.

Some things which make perfect liturgical sense in Lent which, when transposed into Advent, become faintly ridiculous.

For example, the hymns of Lent/Holy Week and the hymns of Easter do not overlap.  It makes no sense liturgically to sing Resurrection-related hymns on Good Friday (or earlier in Lent/Holy Week).  Neither does it make sense to sing Crucifixion-related hymns on Easter Day (or later in the Easter season).  When we begin to sing “Christ the Lord is risen today” or “Yours be the glory”, we’ve already put “O sacred head sore wounded” and “When I survey the wondrous cross” to rest at least until the following Lent.

My “liturgical fundamentalist” friends will not be happy when I say this, but I believe that one of the ways the Church “grows into” Christmas during Advent is in our music during worship.  The hymns of Advent and the hymns of Christmas should be able to co-exist for much of Advent, with a growing use of specifically Christmas music each Sunday, just as we light more candles on our Advent wreaths.

For example, in a congregation that sings four hymns in worship on a typical Sunday,
·        On the First Sunday of Advent, it’s appropriate to sing four Advent hymns and no Christmas hymns.
·        On the Second Sunday of Advent, it’s appropriate to sing three Advent hymns and one Christmas hymn.
·        On the Third Sunday of Advent, it’s appropriate to sing two Advent hymns and two Christmas hymns.
·        On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, it’s appropriate to sing one Advent hymn and three Christmas hymns.

Of course, this pattern may be interrupted in some congregations because, on one or more of the Sundays in Advent, the worship service is taken over for a children’s Christmas pageant, a youth group musical, or the Sunday School’s annual extravaganza.  Nevertheless, the idea of Advent being a time of “growing into” Christmas is still useful in a congregation whose Advent involves only three functional worshipping Sundays.

And, in the words with which I began this post, if I said one thing to you about worship in Advent, it would be this:  

Advent is NOT Lent.


And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Lost-Regained-Robert-Faser/dp/1518633420/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1478247054&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=christmas+lost+and+christmas+regained

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Santa's Snubbing Bigots This Year: a song parody

(to the tune of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”)

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.

Verse:
If you’re into bigotry,
your Christmas Day will flop.
And if you holler “Stop the Boats!”,
the reindeer just won’t stop.

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.


Verse:
If you yield to prejudice,
Santa's no one's stooge.
He'll subcontract your presents
to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.

Verse:
The lists of “nice” and “naughty”
are getting rather thick
But bigots should prepare to get
bupkiss from Saint Nick.

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.


Verse:
Headscarf-banning’s not OK
way up at the North Pole,
and Mister Kringle has prepared
some stocking-loads of coal.

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.
 


Verse:
Santa can’t stand prejudice.
He thinks it isn’t funny.
He's even sold his blacklist
to his friend the Easter Bunny.

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.


Verses:
Don’t think that port and biscuits
will make dear Santa linger.
If you're an antisemite,
you’re sure to get the finger.

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.


Verses:
There's gifts for ABBA tribute bands
and Elvis impersonators.
But this year, you just have to know
there ain't no gifts for haters.

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.


Verse:
I'm told he even has some gifts
for hookers, pimps, and madames.
But racist, sexist, homophobes
will get "sweet Fanny Adams".
 
Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.


Verse:
Unless you want to have a home
where reindeer dare not go,
if you dream of a "White Christmas",
I hope you're thinking snow.

Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.


Verse:
There’s no way he can change his mind.
It isn’t just to tease us.
The order came straight from his Boss,
direct from Baby Jesus.
 
Chorus
It’s time to accept some Christmas advice.
You’d better make sure your attitude’s nice,
for Santa’s snubbing bigots ...
(I hope that you can dig it!)
Santa’s snubbing bigots this year.


***

Notes (from 2014)

I wrote this song parody when I was reflecting on the increased prominence this year of those whom I call "professional bigots" in politics, the media, and other forms of public life here in Australia.  In the midst of these reflections, I somehow couldn't get the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" out of my head.  I thought WWTLD ("What would Tom Lehrer do?") and wrote this song. 



And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Lost-Regained-Robert-Faser/dp/1518633420/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1478247054&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=christmas+lost+and+christmas+regained