Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Heart of the Matter: a sermon (Micah 6:6-8, Psalm 15, 1st Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12)

Familiar words: 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Like many familiar words, they sometimes lose their radical edge.  For some people, to “love kindness” may be pretty much what they used to call a “motherhood” statement.  We all love kindness, don’t we?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Like many familiar words, sometimes they even get twisted around.  The bit about “walk[ing] humbly with your God” can be used to promote a destructive low self-esteem in some people, a low self-esteen that’s particularly hard for some religious people to get rid of, because they can point to this verse (or the verse about the “poor in spirit” in our gospel lesson) and try to make the case that such low self-esteem is a spiritual virtue of sorts.    

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Familiar words.  And, in the midst of the familiar words, there are three questions that the prophet Micah puts to us:
  • What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
  • What does the Lord require of you but to love kindness?
  • What does the Lord require of you but to walk humbly with your God?

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?

This would be a very different passage if all we were asked was “what does the Lord require of you but to approve of justice”, ... or “to believe in justice”, or even “to advocate justice”.

But here, it’s not just our beliefs or our attitudes that are being called into service.  It’s our actions.  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?”  We are called here to live out our sense of social justice, and to put this justice into practice in our daily lives, so that it becomes part of us, almost second nature.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?

What does the Lord require of you but to love kindness?

We often use the word, “kindness” in a passive way, to speak of the absence of cruelty.  It’s a bit like the way we often use the word “peace” to speak of the absence of war.

In the Bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures, both words are more active and more dynamic.

Shalom, the word for peace, not only means the absence of war or violence.  Shalom also speaks of a dynamic wholeness, a profound sense of well-being.

Similarly, the word used for “kindness” in this passage is hesed.  Hesed means more than just the absence of cruelty.  Hesed speaks of the profound compassion that is found deep in the very being of God, yet even so it is a compassion in which we can participate.  AgapĂ©, the Greek word for “love” found in the New Testament, the profound, self-sacrificing love of God, is almost an exact equivalent of hesed. 

So, when Micah speaks of God requiring humanity to “love kindness”, it’s not just a passive absence of cruelty.  (Of course, though, we must avoid cruelty, both physical and emotional, in all we do.)  It’s also a call to participate in the profound compassion of the living God.

What does the Lord require of you but to love kindness?

What does the Lord require of you but to walk humbly with your God?

This isn’t about low self-esteem and breast-beating.  “I’m no good .... I’m no good ... I’m no good!”  Neither is the reference to the “poor in spirit” in our gospel lesson.

“Walking humbly with ... [our] God” is, I believe, a reference for our need to admit that, in matters of faith, we do not know all the truth. 

In a passage which was read in many churches last Sunday, Paul mentioned the faction in the Corinthian church who declared about themselves: “We belong to Christ!”, with the implication being “And the rest of you do not!”  This is an example of those who believe they know all the truth, of those who walk arrogantly with their God.

And so, among religious people of many faiths and traditions today,
  • Some believe that people of faiths other than their own are beyond the scope of God’s love.
  • Others believe that people of whose lifestyles they disapprove are beyond the scope of God’s love.
  • Still others believe that God’s love is limited to those whose faith is of a certain emotional intensity.
  • Some others believe that God's love is withheld from those who get their beliefs wrong.
  • Yet others hold in contempt those whose faith has not reached a certain intellectual standard.
All of these try to walk arrogantly with their God.

In contrast, God calls us to journey in faith with generosity toward those whose convictions differ from ours.

What does the Lord require of you but to walk humbly with your God?


He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
 
The other lessons we’ve heard today are, at least in part, an extension of this passage.

  • In our Psalm, we celebrate the individuals of integrity; the women and the men who “speak the truth from their heart”, who “do no evil to their friends”, and “who stand by their oath even to their hurt”.
  • In our gospel lesson, we hear Jesus pronounce his blessing upon those who live such a life of integrity: peacemakers and others who “do justice”, ... the merciful and others who “love kindness”, ... the meek and others who “walk humbly with ... [their] God.”
  • In our lesson from First Corinthians, Paul proclaimed the wisdom of God in the statement that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom”.  Many of the people whom our culture regards as movers-and-shakers would regard much of the statements we’ve heard in today’s lessons as foolishness.
But whether the movers-and-shakers like it or not, God’s call remains, nevertheless:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice (even if you’re called a “bleeding heart”),
and to love kindness (even if you’re called a “do-gooder”),
and to walk humbly with your God? (even if you’re called “politically correct”).

God’s foolishness remains much wiser than human wisdom. 

The peacemakers remain blessed.

The meek shall still inherit the earth.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Religious diversity in a democratic society: some different models

Historically, there are a few different ways in which democratic nations managed to balance two important social and cultural needs:
  • recognising the right of a variety of different religious communities to practice their faith as they see fit, and
  • recognising the right of each citizen to choose the pattern of beliefs and practice (whether religious or non-religious) she/he chooses.
In democratic western societies, there are at least four models of managing religious diversity of which I am aware.

Please note that I am looking here at countries in which two factors are at work:
  • The political and civic culture is democratic, to the extent that governments are chosen by free, fair, and non-violent elections and that, while the majority governs, the rights of minorities are respected and protected. 
  • The religious and philosophical culture is broadly western, in that it has been shaped principally by western traditions of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican, classical "Protestant", Friends, Evangelical, Latter-day Saints, Pentecostal, ...), by Ashkenazic Judaism, and by the secular philosophy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
  • In these countries, individuals are free to choose the faith they follow (if they choose to follow a faith), and the extent of their own personal involvement in the faith they follow.
Other models of managing religious diversity will exist in other societies. 
  • The models in this article may not work all that well to describe societies with an authoritarian political regime. 
  • Neither may these models work effectively to describe communities whose cultures were largely shaped by non-western traditions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or (for that matter) Eastern Orthodox Christianity. 
As a result, the models in this article have their limitations.  They'll be more useful in speaking of some countries than of others.

The first way of managing religious diversity in a democratic society, I call the British model.  It's found in the two larger component nations of the United Kingdom (England and Scotland), as well as in The Netherlands, Belgium, the various Nordic countries, the Republic of Ireland, a few other European countries, and some island nations of the Pacific.

In the British model, all faith communities are completely free to operate, without any state interference.  This freedom applies to communities of all religious traditions.  In all functional ways, the various faith communities operate on an equal footing to each other.  Each citizen has full rights to maintain his/her beliefs (or lack of beliefs), without any loss of ability to participate in the wider community as a result. 

However, in countries following the British model, one faith community will receive some formal privileges within the public space as representing the religious aspirations of the culture.  These formally recognised (or "established") faith communities would include the Church of England (Anglican), the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the Reformed Church in The Netherlands, Lutheran churches in the Nordic countries, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and Belgium, and Methodism in Tonga and Fiji.

The second model of managing religious diversity I call the American model.  As far as I can see, it's only found in the United States.

In the American model, all faiths are on an equal footing.  All faiths are free to operate without any official interference.  No faith is given an "established" status.

There is a general public affirmation that religion (by which I mean all religious communities) is good for the community.  While there are no legal sanctions against those who opt out of religious faith and practice, there is a suspicion in some circles toward a person who is openly non-religious.

In all of this, however, there are some strict "no-go areas" for religion under the American model:
  • One "no-go area" is public education.  Religious teaching and religious worship does not take place in schools provided by governmental bodies.
  • The other "no-go area" would be entertainment-oriented films and television.  While there are some notable exceptions ("The Simpsons", the Bartlet family in "The West Wing" ...), American movies, American TV dramas, and American TV comedies rarely depict their characters engaged in practicing a religious faith, even characters for whom religious practice would suit the character.

The third model is the French model.  In addition to France, versions of this model are found in a few other European countries and in some Latin American countries.  It's found in its most highly developed and most highly sustained form in France.  (Aspects of the French model were practiced in some countries in the Islamic world - such as Turkey - when officialdom was seeking to secularise and westernise their countries rapidly.)

In the French model, all faiths are on an equal legal footing, individuals can generally practice their faith, but there is a general attitude of official contempt toward religion on the part of politicians, bureaucrats, other manifestations of officialdom, and the culture in general.  This contempt often takes the form of various nuisance restrictions on some outward expressions of religious practice.

While the worst contempt is frequently reserved for whichever faith was the nation's traditional majority faith, the French model tries to share the contempt around.  (For example, the recent ban in France on Muslim women wearing hijabs or Jewish men wearing yarmulkes in classrooms and government offices is not that dissimilar to some of the nuisance restrictions placed upon Catholicism by some elements of French officialdom over the years.)

There's a fourth model to use in managing religious diversity.  I call it the Australian model (although it could just as easily be called the Canadian model, the New Zealand model, or the Welsh model).

This model is very simple. 
  • All faith communities are free to operate. 
  • No faith community has an "established" status. 
  • While there are some bigoted individuals trying to make it otherwise, there is no stigma attached to an individual being either religious or non-religious. 
  • While there are some bigoted individuals trying to make it otherwise, there is no stigma attached to a religious individual being part of one faith community or another. 
  • All faith communities have equal access to the public space. 
  • No faith community has the right to claim a privilege not given to any other faith community.

There are some people in Australia who would prefer some other model to the Australian model.
  • There are some on the cultural "right" who'd like to see us revert to the British model, as long as their own faith community gets "establishment" status.
  • There are some on the cultural "left" who'd like to see us adopt some form of the French model, particularly if the most withering Gallic sneers are pointed in the direction of whichever faith community they grew up within - and later rejected.
  • There are some others who just assume - perhaps because of the influence of American television - that we already work from the American model anyway.
However, I believe the Australian model (or - to give it its full name - the Australian - Canadian - New Zealand - Welsh model) has a lot going for it.  It is far less limiting than either the British, American, or French models:  for faith communities, for individuals of faith, for non-religious individuals, and for the broader society. 

For countries that use this model, let's keep it.

For countries that use some other model, why not consider it?

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

And what shall we do with the 26th of January?

In Australia, we've had a problem with the 26th of January for a few years now.

Officially, the 26th of January is Australia Day, the anniversary of the first permanent British settlement in Australia in 1788.  Officially, it is Australia Day ... Australia's national day ... the equivalent of Independence Day in the US and Bastille Day in France.

But there are problems with this day for many Australians.

For many indigenous Australians, the 26th of January represents, not the beginning of a nation, but the anniversary of their people's catastrophic loss of a continent.  In this light, some indigenous Australians call 26th January Invasion Day.  Other indigenous Australians call this day Survival Day, and see it as a occasion to mark the fact that Aboriginal Australia has survived their encounters with a (frequently) hostile European presence.  (In many ways, expecting Aboriginal Australians to become enthusiastic over Australia Day would be the equivalent of expecting Catholics in Northern Ireland to celebrate Orangemen's Day.)

Some Australians call this day Bogan Awareness Day, using a term ("bogan") that is the Australian equivalent of the American "redneck" or the British "chav".  This phrase recognises the fact that, in Australia on the 26th of January, many less sophisticated younger people of Anglo background engage in crude behaviour in public places in the name of "patriotism".  It's a good day to avoid the beach (and similar gathering places) if you have a low tolerance for antisocial behaviour.

Positively, many local government bodies use Australia Day as a celebration of Australia's multicultural reality.  Citizenship ceremonies and public concerts provide evidence of the significantly creative racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of today's Australia.  (These are some of the best public events that take place in Australia on 26th January.)

Nevertheless, celebrating the first British settlement is Australia may not be the most obvious choice for Australia's national day.  For example, the Yanks don't have a celebration of any sort on the 24th of May, which is the anniversary of the first British settlement (Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607) in what became the United States.  (To show how low-key the Jamestown date is for Americans, I even had to Google "Jamestown, Virginia" to get the date.)

To give this an Australian parallel:
  • Prior to 26th January 1788, there were people living here for thousands of years.
  • After 26th January 1788, Australia didn't become a nation in any real sense until Federation came into effect on 1st January 1901.
  • The only thing that was created on 26th January 1788 was the colony of New South Wales.  For those of us who live in Australia but outside NSW, this may be somewhat of a non-event.

Whether you regard 26th January as Australia Day, Invasion Day, Survival Day, Bogan Awareness Day, New South Wales Day, or merely the 26th of January, please do so gently, and with respect for your neighbour who chooses to regard the day differently to the way you do.  (Oh yes, and please drive carefully.)

Sunday, 19 January 2014

A joke for the 25th of January

When President Obama made his most recent State Visit to the UK, the Queen invited the Obamas to spend the week with herself and Prince Philip at Balmoral.

It was an enjoyable weekend both for the First Couple and for the Royals.  Saturday was spent fishing for salmon, which was enjoyably consumed that evening at dinner.

The Queen told the President that, after church the next morning, she and Prince Philip had a brief public engagement at the local hospital, but that the Obamas may join them if they wished.

"Of course, Your Majesty, we'd be honoured."

The next morning, the Obamas accompanied the Mountbatten-Windsors to the local Kirk, and then to the local hospital, where a new ward was to be formally opened."

At the hospital, the official opening was preceded by a "meet and greet", so the four dignitaries were given cups of tea while they mingled among the staff and patients. 

A young man approached the First Lady, kissed her hand, gave her a rose and began to declaim,

My love is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June ....

... until he was led away by a staff member.

An elderly man approached the President, handed him a large slice of cake, and declared,

A man's a man for a that and a that,
A man's a man for a that ...

... until he also was led away by a staffer.

An elderly woman approached the Queen and the Duke, smiled as if she was recognising a pair of old friends from her schooldays, and handed each of them a generous tumbler of whisky, saying,

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ...

... until she too was led away.

The President was moved by the event and remarked to the Queen, "Your Majesty, it's been an honour for Michelle and myself to be part of the opening of such a progressive and compassionate psychiatric ward."

"Thank you, Mr. President, but this isn't a psychiatric ward.  It's the Burns Unit."

***

For those who celebrate it, Happy Burns Night on the 25th!

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Why do we baptise people?: a sermon (Matthew 3:13-17)

Today’s gospel lesson is about Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan.  It gives us an opportunity to think a bit about why the Christian churches baptise people.  Sometimes it’s useful to do this at a time other than at a service when we actually have a wet baby in front of us.

We find the baptism of Jesus in three of the four gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  John’s gospel has Jesus turn up at an occasion when John was baptising, but doesn’t say that John actually baptised Jesus.

In todays lesson from Matthew’s gospel, an argument is recorded.  Jesus and John spent some time deferring to each other in terms of who should baptise whom.

In Luke and in Mark, no argument is recorded.  There is a report that John baptised Jesus.  This is followed by a voice from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I’d like to spend a few moments explaining the difference between John’s baptism and the baptism that the Christian churches practice.  After that, I’d like to reflect on two frequently-asked questions:
·        The first question is “Why do most Christian churches baptise not only adults, but also children?”
·        The second question is “Why do most of the Christian churches who do baptise children, baptise not only the children of ‘religious’ parents, but also children whose parents are not so ‘religious’?”

The gospels spoke of John’s baptism in terms of repentance.  Mark spoke of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.  The same phrase is found in Luke.  Matthew conveys the same idea, if not in so many words.  John’s baptism seemed to be similar in character to ritual baths that the Torah, the Jewish law, requires Jews to take at various occasions.  These baths convey a sense of repentance of sin and of the people being, in a sense, “washed” of their sins, as they were simultaneously washed in a literal sense.  By participating in such a public act of repentance, Jesus identified with the human condition in all its brokenness.

From the earliest years of the Christian faith, the Church baptised people to signify their entry into the Christian community.  While Christian baptism looked a lot like John’s baptism, it is different in significant ways.  

Firstly, the baptism of John was a very individualistic act.  The individuals being baptised did so in repentance of the sins of their own lives.  The baptism practiced by the churches is not an individualistic act.  In fact, it is a radically anti-individualistic act.  The sacrament of baptism practiced by the Christian churches is about being received into a community of faith.  It is about receiving the community’s story as one’s own story.  It is about receiving the community’s values as one’s own values.

Secondly, the baptism of John was past-oriented, focusing on the individual’s past behaviour.  Christian baptism is future-oriented, focusing on the on-going pilgrimage of faith by the community, including its newest member.

As well, the Christian churches baptise in the name of God-as-Trinity, “... in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  This language, and the theology behind it, would have been unknown to John.

So, there is a real difference between the baptism of John and the sacrament of Baptism practiced by the Christian churches. 

This, then leads to the first question:

“Why do most Christian churches baptise not only adults, but also children?”

Of course, not all Christian churches baptise children.  Some churches have a tradition of only baptising those who are old enough to speak for themselves. 

As well, those of us in the churches that do baptise children increasingly see more occasions when adults, who had not been previously baptised as children, seek baptism.  Increasingly, we have a diversity of baptismal practice.

Looking at the practice of only baptising those who are old enough to speak for themselves, those of us in the churches that do baptise children respect this alternate form of Christian practice, even if we do disagree with it.  In many ways, this practice has a link with the baptism practiced by John, a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.  The question then can be raised, and often has been, “What does a baby have to repent of?”  And it’s a good question.

And the key to the answer is that Christian baptism is not principally an individual act of repentance, as John’s baptism was.  Christian baptism is about a community of faith receiving and welcoming a new member into its midst, at whatever age that newest member would be.

Parents want their child to share their communities:
·        Parents who are Australian citizens will not normally seek French citizenship for their child.
·        Parents who support Collingwood will not normally buy a Carlton scarf for their newborn baby.

And, similarly, parents who identify with the Christian faith and community – however actively or inactively – will want their child also to develop an identification with the Christian faith and community.

Over the years, most Christian churches have agreed on a way to promote such a handing-down of the faith from generation to generation.  This is by including children in the single most decisive act of welcome into the Christian church, the sacrament of baptism.

As well, the act of baptising a child is also a profound statement of God’s love for all people, a love that always precedes our love for God.  We can do nothing to earn God’s love.  God’s love is already there for each of us. 

One of the most profound images of this love which is there for each of us is found in the act of baptising a small baby, a baby who is only marginally aware of what is going on.  Still, that child is:
·        just as baptised as John Wesley was;
·        just as baptised as Martin Luther King was;
·        just as baptised as Mother Theresa was.

The child could grow up to do great things, but it wouldn’t earn her a bigger share of God’s love. 

The child could grow up to do terrible things, but it wouldn’t leave him with a smaller share of God’s love.

This, then, leads to the second question:

“Why do most of the Christian churches who do baptise children, baptise not only the children of ‘religious’ parents, but also children whose parents are not so ‘religious’?”

In the past few decades, there has been a fashion in some churches to be more restrictive in terms of whose babies are baptised.  I am aware of some congregations in the Uniting Church (and in other denominations) where the minister makes it very difficult for parents who are not frequent worshippers to present their child for baptism (and this fashion is normally minister-driven in most cases).

I have real problems with this fashion.  A few minutes ago, I spoke about God’s love being seen profoundly in the act of baptising a small child who is only marginally aware of what is going on. 

That’s important in this context.  A church that really believes that God’s love for us always precedes our love for God would not really feel the need to “vet” a child’s parents in terms of their own level of practice before the child is baptised.

There is another important factor in all this.  Since this fashion of restrictive baptism began, there has been one big change in our society.  Civil marriage celebrants now actively offer “naming ceremonies” for babies.  These “naming ceremonies” have been well accepted in the community.  (I discovered the actual level of acceptance in a dramatic way once a few years ago when I was trying to buy a gift for a child’s baptism.  A lot of the relevant gift items now have a phrase such as “For your Naming Day” on the item.  The selection of items with the word “Baptism” or even “Christening” on them is much smaller.)  Today, there are plenty of opportunities for families to celebrate the birth of a child other than Christian baptism.  

There now is no longer the social pressure to have a child baptised that there once was.  The sense of social obligation to have the baby “done” is now being met by civil celebrants, and the celebrants (for the most part) do it very nicely!  (I also suspect that the fashion of selective baptism in some churches was a factor which contributed to the popularity of civil naming ceremonies for babies.)  In any event, social and family pressure on a couple to celebrate their child’s birth specifically through a service of Christian baptism is a thing of the past. 

Today we can safely say that parents who present their child for Christian baptism do so out of a sense of Christian spirituality rather than out of a sense of social obligation.  However uninformed the parents’ Christian spirituality may be, there is something there:  something to build upon, something to celebrate.  It is our privilege to celebrate the occasion of their child’s Baptism. 

As a result, let us never betray that privilege by speaking snidely to or about any parents presenting a child for baptism.

I personally believe that, whenever a congregation refuses to baptise a child, or whenever a congregation baptises a child grudgingly or ungraciously, the congregation brings the day of its closure that much closer.

Let us always celebrate the high privilege that God gives us whenever we are asked to baptise a child. 

***

Christian baptism is not the individualistic, past-oriented baptism of John.  Instead, Christian baptism is community-oriented and future-oriented.  This is the same baptism whether the person being baptised is
·        an adult who has come to a personal faith,
·        a child being presented by parents who are actively practicing  worshippers, or
·        a child whose parents’ faith is known to God alone.

It is the same baptism in each case, because each baptism starts from the same love of the living God, the love which is celebrated in every baptism.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Wisdom, power, and vulnerability: a sermon for Epiphany (Isaiah 60:1–6, Matthew 2:1-12)

Wisdom, power, and vulnerability:  In today’s gospel lesson for Epiphany, we see all these factors interacting

First there is wisdom.

The wise men came from Persia, present-day Iran.  Matthew called them magi.  It was originally a Perisan word (magus in the singular, magi in the plural).  It referred to people who were partly religious scholars and partly astrologers.  By the time of the New Testament, the term magi also acquired an overtone of sorcery, so we get our words magic and magician from these Persian scholars.

Most English translations of the New Testament translate Matthew’s magi as “wise men”.  We really know very little about them.  Matthew doesn’t tell us how many wise men made the trip from Persia to Bethlehem.  Some of the older Christian traditions have anywhere up to twelve wise men.  Because of the three gifts, a tradition soon developed in the church that there were three wise men.

One thing we know is that, despite the words of some old carols, the wise men were not kings.  The part about their being kings came from a Christian legend from a bit later time than when the New Testament was written, partly because of the reference to kings in a passage from Isaiah which, by then, had become associated with the visit of the magi.

Being good first century Persians, the wise men were Zoroastrians, followers of an ancient religion that is still found among the Parsee community in India.   As far as we can tell, they continued to be Zoroastrians when they returned to Persia.  There is nothing in the gospel that gives any indication to the contrary.

So, Matthew’s gospel tells us of a group of exotic foreign intellectuals coming to pay their homage and give their exotic gifts to the child Jesus.  And then they went home,
  • back to Persia,
  • back to their star charts,
  • back to their Zoroastrian faith.

While remaining people of their own culture and their own traditions, they were drawn to this birth, and to this child.  The wisdom tradition that illuminated their religion and culture was one that led them to appreciate the traditions, the faith, and the wisdom of other peoples.  But still, they went home:  home to their own traditions, their own faith, and their own wisdom.

Wisdom was confronted by the child of Bethlehem.  Wisdom came and paid its homage.

Then there is power.

The wise men made a big mistake when they visited the palace on their way to Bethlehem.  But of course, even the wisest wisdom is never infallible.  The king panicked.  The panic was for good reasons if you shared his logic.

Herod was king over the Jews but he wasn’t a Jew himself.   By the standards of the day, he was an old man, getting close to the end of his life.

Herod ruled as king in Jerusalem because he was Rome’s man in Jerusalem. One writer said that Herod was no worse than other puppet kings put in place by the Romans in his day, but “he was fully as bad as” the others.  He ruled with an iron hand, feared and hated by the mass of people.  His policy was to keep the locals terrorised while he practised an appropriate level of obsequiousness to his patrons in Rome.

Herod had three sons who divided his puppet kingdom after his death.  When the wise men visited and spoke of new-born king, Herod was already anxious to the point of paranoia about matters of succession.  The wise men threw him into a panic.  A potentially popular claimant to the throne ... one who was a Jew himself ... a descendant of the great David no less ... such a person would be a threat to Herod’s plan to set up a new dynasty.  So, baby or no baby, the rival claimant must die.

And when the wise men returned to Persia without a final courtesy call at the palace, Herod’s plan for an assassination became a plan for a massacre.  “Collateral damage” is what the military boffins and political spin-doctors call it these days.  The real word is murder.

Power was confronted by the child of Bethlehem.  Power panicked and ordered a massacre.

And then, finally, there is vulnerability.   And the couple and their newborn child who sheltered in Bethlehem’s stable were vulnerable to the extreme.

Jesus, as a baby, would have been vulnerable by definition.  Herod’s murderous plans magnified the danger.

Then there was Mary, a young woman whose pregnancy would have been the occasion for gossip and harsh remarks – and the possibility of violence - in her community.  It happens today, in the twenty-first century, even in a supposedly tolerant nation such as Australia.  How much worse would it have been two thousand years ago. 

Then there was Joseph, he probably caught a lot of flak from people for going ahead with the marriage.  Exactly how welcome either Mary or Joseph would have been among their families and friends would have been anyone’s guess.  Perhaps that was why Mary and Joseph needed to look for an inn in their own home town.

The vulnerability continued, as Herod’s plot unfolded and the family sought sanctuary in Egypt.  In recent years, we have all become aware of the vulnerability experienced by refugees and asylum seekers, and this was the experience of the child Jesus and his parents.  

But then, there were also those Persian scholars.  They came, paying homage and bringing gifts.  In addition to Matthew’s visitors from the East, Luke told of some local wise people, Simeon and Anna, who also paid tribute to the child Jesus. 

Vulnerability was personified by the child of Bethlehem and his family.

Then as now, vulnerability brings out the worst from those who those who seek to acquire power for its own sake.

Then as now, vulnerability brings out the best from those who seek to live according to wisdom.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

"... Just as you did it ...": a sermon (Matthew 25:31-46)

On the day for which I prepared this sermon (5th January 2014), using the version of the Revised Common Lectionary we use in the Uniting Church, I have a choice of four sets of lessons from Scripture for the service:
  • There were the lessons for the Second Sunday after Christmas.
  • There were the lessons for the following day, Monday, 6th January, the Day of Epiphany.
  • Also there were two sets of lessons for the preceding Wednesday, 1st January.  One set of lessons was for the celebration of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.
  • As well, the other set of lessons was for 1st January as New Year's Day.
In this service, I'll include the Gospel lesson for the Day of Epiphany, I'll select most of the hymns with Epiphany in mind, and I'll prepare most of the prayers with Epiphany in mind. 

I'll also include the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel lesson for New Year's Day, and I'll preach on the Gospel for New Year's, 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 (and as faithful Anglicans). 

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 also 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 upon humanity.   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 … you did it to me.

As the next group is called up, many in the crowd 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 leftie 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 said “Stop the boats.”.
·        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 Bashir al-Assads and the Kim Jong-Uns.  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 Bashir al-Assads and the Kim Jong-Uns were many ordinary people ... and I mean really ordinary.

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.
As I said, it was some really ordinary behaviour.

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 wrong” are in eternal trouble, however actively they reflect God’s love in their lives.

As a result, 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 didn’t bother to offer me anything 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 moral 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 much prayer time we clock up each day.  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.  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.  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 – a message that very much is “in-your-face” to those of us who are heirs of the Protestant Reformation.  It’s a message we hear in many 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.

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