Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Focussing on "Core Business": a sermon for All Saints' Day (Matthew 5: 1 - 12)

More and more, organisations of all sorts are encouraged to concentrate on their “core business” and to shed all sorts of “non-core” activities.  For example, a publishing company that may also own a winery, a chain of travel agencies and a few shopping centres may decide to sell off any of their non-publishing enterprises, so they can concentrate on doing their core business - publishing books and newspapers - well.

In this light, we know that some people criticise the churches for not concentrating on our “core business”.  At times, these people may include politicians, journalists, talk-back radio presenters, and even letter-to- the-editor writers in church newspapers.  The churches and their leaders are called names such as “politically-correct” and “bleeding hearts”.  It begs the question of what is the “core business” of the church ... the “core business” of the life of faith. 

There have been many attempts to state the “core business” of the life of faith.

              In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Micah stated the “core business” of the life of faith as, “... what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

              There was an old Jewish story (a story I told in last week's sermon as well) about the Rabbi Hillel, who lived about a generation before the time of Jesus.  A Gentile made a bet with him:  “If you can teach me the whole of the Torah, the whole of the Law, while you stand on one leg, I will convert.”  Hillel thought for a few seconds, stood on one leg and replied:  “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your … [neighbour].  That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is commentary.  Now go and study.”  (According to the story, the bloke converted.)

              In our gospel lesson last week, Jesus was asked what was the “core business” of the life of faith.  He replied:  “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  On these two commandments, hang all the law and the prophets.”

So then, I personally think that the politicians, journalists, and letter-to-the-editor writers who criticise the churches for ignoring our “core business” are actually annoyed at us because - at least in terms of our neighbour - we are sticking to our “core business” a bit too well for comfort:
              “doing justice” a bit too enthusiastically;
              “loving kindness” a bit too practically;
              “loving our neighbour as ourselves” with a bit too inclusive a definition of “neighbour” to suit the tastes of some people.
We are at least trying to be the “politically-correct” bleeding hearts that Jesus wants us to be.

And another classic set of statements of the “core business” of the life of faith is the cluster of statements of blessing spoken by Jesus in today’s gospel lesson.  In these statements, an odd assortment of people are seen as being particularly blessed by God:
              the meek, the merciful, and the mourners;
              the persecuted and the peacemakers;
              those who, even if they are not financially poor, identify with the poor in their attitudes and values;
              those who hunger and thirst for justice in the world’s life;
              those whose commitment to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and mercy is so single-minded as to appear to the cynic to be naively innocent.

While they may appear to the movers and shakers of our culture to be slightly comical “losers”, these are called particularly blest by Jesus.

On All Saints’ Day, we give thanks to God for all those who have lived their lives in Christ’s light:
              centuries ago and recently,
              far away and in our midst,
              acclaimed and unknown;
and have demonstrated to us all the impact of lives focussed upon the “core business” of God’s kingdom.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

“The Law of Love: a sermon (Matthew 22: 34 – 46)

Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”
 
The nineteenth century English poet John Keats concluded one of his greatest poems with these words:
 
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” - that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
 
But, you know, perhaps it’s not quite as simple as that. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is a good thing to know. There are other things that are also good to know.  
 
Just to give two examples,
  • “Stop at red lights” is a good thing to know.   
  • “Know when to say please, thank you, and I’m sorry” is another good thing know.
 
To say that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is “all . . . [we] need to know” is a great oversimplification.
 
But, you know, it’s human nature to try to oversimplify things. People often feel the need to bring a complicated reality down to a few easily-remembered rules. Nevertheless, 
  • life is complicated; 
  • reality is complicated; 
  • truth is complicated.
 
As Oscar Wilde reminded us: “The truth is never pure, and rarely simple.”
 
Many people use our gospel lesson as a way of oversimplifying our faith. Often, when the church is trying to grapple with a complicated and uncomfortable issue, we hear people (with the greatest sincerity and honesty) say something like this: “Do we really need to worry about these things. Aren’t we just suppose to love God and love our neighbour?“ (And usually the discussion pauses for a moment or two.) 
 
Part of the problem boils down to the meaning of love in our culture. The word “love” is often used in our culture to mean anything from (on one hand) one person’s highly emotional response to another person to (on the other hand) one person’s vague sense of good will to another. Often, when we use the word in religious contexts, we tend to think of this vague sense of good will. Using this view of love, do we want to boil the essence of religion down to a combination of:
  • a vague sense of good will toward our neighbour (however exclusively or inclusively we define the word “neighbour” - we’ll return to that later); and 
  • an even more vague sense of good will toward God.
 
In the Bible, love is not an emotional feeling. In the Bible, love is definitely not a vague sense of good will. Rather, love - in biblical terms - is always something active. Love is the active commitment to the well-being of the person or persons loved. The commitment is always put into action.
 
In our gospel lesson, when Jesus was asked this question by the Pharisee, it wasn’t a trick question. Jews had been asking each other the same question for centuries. “What is the core of the Torah; what is the heart of the law?” It was a good Jewish question. And Jesus gave the Pharisees a good Jewish answer. Jesus’ answer wasn’t all that different and revolutionary. Probably, the response of many of the Pharisees after Jesus’ answer was something like: “Well, that was a good answer. He annoys us in a lot of ways, but he gave a good, answer to our question: a good, mainstream Jewish answer.”
 
There were similar responses to the same questions. A famous example of one of these answers involved a rabbi named Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus. Hillel was teaching some of his students when a gentile came into the room and offered Hillel a bet: If Hillel could teach the gentile the whole Torah - all of the law - while Hillel stood on one leg, the gentile would become a Jew. Hillel thought a moment, stood on one leg, and said:
 
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. 
That is the whole Torah.
The rest is commentary.
Go and study.
 
Jesus’ answer followed in the tradition of such responses. Jesus told the Pharisee: “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  
 
Love of God involves an active commitment to God, a commitment that involves the whole being. It’s not a vague feeling of good will.  
 
The part about loving God with “all your mind” is particularly important, particularly today. Lately, there’s been a lot of mindless religion in our society. Mindless religion can be very dangerous. Mindless religion can be found within any faith tradition. No faith is immune from it. The one common feature of mindless religion in all faith is its destructiveness. In loving God with our whole being, it’s important to include loving God with all our minds.
 
Jesus also told the Pharisee: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
 
Love of neighbour involves an active commitment to the neighbour’s well-being, not just a vague feeling of good will. The important thing here is how inclusive a view we have of who is our neighbour. In Luke’s gospel, we also find this passage where Jesus speaks of the heart of the law as loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbour as ourselves. In Luke’s gospel, this passage leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan. We need to remember that, when Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, he gives us an incredibly inclusive definition of neighbour. Our neighbour is anyone who needs us at the moment.
 
As well, Jesus taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves. The “as ourselves” bit is also very important. Many religious people have not been taught to love themselves properly. Many have learned to think: “I’m a sinner; I’m a sinner; I’m worthless; I’m worthless;” without any real sense of self-worth as a child of God.  
 
Many Christian believers have taken the Christian teachings about our constant need for God’s grace to be a mandate for low self-esteem. This is a real problem, which has been noted both among pastoral counsellors in the churches and among the mental health profession in the broader community. It’s a problem both for men and women, but it’s often more severe among women. As Christians, we affirm that we are created by God in God’s image. God doesn’t make junk. You’re not junk.
 
Jesus challenged the people of his day - and he challenges us as well - to:
  • a loving commitment to following in God’s ways;
  • a loving commitment to the well-being of our neighbour (defined as inclusively as possible); and
  • a healthy self-esteem, knowing that we are made in the image of the loving God.
 
Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ Ths is the greatest and first commandment, And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”

Monday, 20 October 2014

In search of the historical Bonhoeffer

In the past few months, I purchased two recent biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that are high on my to-be-read list, and which I've glanced at so far to preview them.

Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010) is a standard biography, which some reviewers have criticised as bordering on hagiography.  Metaxas writes from an evangelical viewpoint and many evangelicals, and other conservative Christians, have seen Bonhoeffer as somewhat of an icon of faith in recent years.

Charles Marsh's Strange Glory (2014) is no hagiography but, if anything, goes to the other extreme (as far as the reviewers are concerned) with details on the foibles of Bonhoeffer's personal life such as his taste for luxury in his food, drink, clothing, and creature comforts, and his capacity, even in his thirties, for unconsummated adolescent romantic "crushes" toward individuals of both genders. 

As I said, I haven't really read either book yet, but I'll let y'all know if I find either book any less tedious than I expect them both to be on the basis of the reviews.

But, there's a great deal of interest in Bonhoeffer these days and, surprisingly, much of it comes from evangelicals and other conservative Christians.  There is a strand of thought among many conservative Christians today that declares that Christians in western societies are facing a period of future persecution, largely because we are losing the religious monopoly we once had.   Candida Moss's recent book The Myth of Persecution (2013), while focussing on the extent of persecution against Christians in the early centuries of Christianity, was at least partly a response to the (at times) hysterical comments about persecution among some Christians in western societies.

The events of Bonhoeffer's execution by the Nazi regime fits into this mind-set, even if it does create difficulties for many right-wing evangelicals thinking of an iconic 20th century Christian martyr being executed by a government, not of the political far "Left" but one of the far "Right".

In all this, however, Bonhoeffer's early death also means that he never had the chance to synthesise his work.  He never wrote a systematic theology like his contemporaries Barth or Tillich, or like Calvin or Aquinas in previous centuries.  Bonhoeffer wrote his theology "on the run", at times literally.

As a result, Bonhoeffer enthusiasts are often enthusiastic about some aspects of Bonhoeffer's writing, but not other aspects.
  • For example, many evangelicals and other conservative Christians are very enthusiastic about the Bonhoeffer of The Cost of Discipleship.  In this work, Bonhoeffer argued forcefully against what he called "cheap grace".  This appeals to many conservative Christians who get uncomfortable with the idea of grace, preferring instead to call people to rely on holding the "proper" set of beliefs or maintaining the "proper" lifestyle to enjoy God's favour.
  • But then, many people who hold to a "minimalist" Christian faith (whether they call it "progressive", "radical", "liberal", or anything else) prefer the Bonhoeffer of the Letters and Papers from Prison.  Here, Bonhoeffer speaks of "religionless Christianity", "a world come of age", and other ideas that suit the sort of Christians who seek a "minimalist" approach to their faith.
  • Then, there's the Bonhoeffer of Life Together.  This suits those of us (and this is definitely my own "tribe" of which I'm speaking here) who are of a more ecumenical bent in our approach to faith, worship, and spirituality.  This is a Bonhoeffer for those of us who believe that the future health of the churches of the Reformation is based on our being able to embrace a range of more "Catholic" and "Orthodox" practices in our own life of worship and spirituality.
In a sense, there's a Bonhoeffer for almost everyone, and that may well be why he's been so popular lately.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Ever-expanding circles: a sermon (Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14)

There is a wealth of material in today’s lessons.  I had a wide range of choices from which to draw.

For example, if I focused only on our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, there are numerous choices just in that reading:

·        The call to “Rejoice in the Lord always” is one that has been frequently set to music.  It was the basis of one of the greatest anthems by the English composer Henry Purcell, and it was also the source of one of the more popular Sunday-School “choruses” of recent decades.

·        The reference to the “peace of God, which passes all understanding” has found its way into one of the best-loved traditional blessings in the church’s worship life, a blessing which will conclude today’s service.

·        The call to the reader to note “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure …” etc. and to “think about these things” is a healthy corrective to the sort of Christians who are far more concerned about the things they are against than the things they are for, and who, as a result, have frequently allowed themselves to develop very dirty minds, and (sadly) have wallowed in this mental gutter in the name of their faith.

Then, if I focused only on our gospel lesson from Matthew, I could have mentioned that Jesus’ parable of The Great Banquet is found both in Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel.  While it’s obviously the same story in both gospels, there are real differences in the detail.  Matthew shares the story in more detail than Luke, and Matthew’s details are mostly what we’d call “gory details”.  Matthew passes the story on in a much darker, and a much more violent, way than Luke. 

And that’s typical.  Frequently, if Matthew and Luke tell the same story, or similar stories, Matthew’s version of the story is much darker – and much more violent - than Luke’s version.  The best-known example of this contrast is in their different accounts of the birth of Jesus.

But, with that all, we remember that a parable is not an allegory.  In an allegory, every part of the story has a meaning beyond itself.  In a parable, there is a single core meaning to be drawn out of the whole story. 

In both versions of this parable, this core meaning is that God continually expands the circle of God’s hospitality, fellowship, and love; just as the host of the banquet eventually extended the invitation list far beyond the original “A-list” of preferred guests.

And then we come to our lesson from Exodus.  It reflects an important moment in our understanding of God, both within the Hebrew Scriptures, and within the whole story of the peoples of God.

The story begins when Moses has been up the mountain talking with God for a long time.  The people at the foot of the mountain were getting impatient.  Many assumed that Moses had died up there on the mountain.  They asked Aaron to make them something to worship.  So Aaron, … Aaron the brother of Moses, … Aaron the priest, … Aaron gave in and organised the making of a golden calf as a focus for the people’s devotion.

The rest of the story is about God getting seriously annoyed at this action, and about Moses talking God out of taking action from his annoyance.

In a real way, this story is about a crucial turning point in the history of the peoples of God, a crucial change in our understanding of what the One God is like.  Prior to this, the people who followed the One God understood this One God as a god of wrath, a god primarily to be feared.  This story moves this understanding of the One God much more in the direction of a God of grace, a God primarily to be loved, and to be thanked.

But, you know, this issue did not resolve itself in the time of Moses.  Today, there are still people – people who are worshippers in Christian churches – people who are worshippers in other faith communities – people who emphasise a belief in a small-g god of wrath and who declare that those of us who worship a big-G God of grace and mercy are somehow less than faithful.  This issue did not resolve itself in the time of Moses.  It is still with us today. 

As people of mainstream faith, we are still called to struggle with those who would limit the goodness of God, with those who would substitute a petty little small-g god of wrath for the real God, the universal big-G God of grace and mercy.  The struggle is unending.  But I believe the struggle is worth it. 

And, as we struggle, we continue to hear Paul’s words of hope, that 

" the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Fans and anti-fans: in sport and in religion

For those who follow a team in any sport, it's obvious that all teams have their fans, and many teams also have their anti-fans.

A fan of a team is someone who supports the team on a regular and loyal basis ... over an extended period of time.

An anti-fan of a team is someone who ... on an equally regular and equally loyal basis ... over an equally extended period of time ... supports whichever team is playing against the team.

All teams have their actively loyal fans.  Only some teams have a core of equally loyal anti-fans.  Some of those teams with an active core of anti-fans include the New York Yankees in US baseball, the Dallas Cowboys in US football, Manchester United in English soccer, and the Collingwood and Hawthorn clubs in Australian football.

Now, a person who's an anti-fan of a sports team usually has nothing against the team's actual players, past or present.  An anti-fan of the New York Yankees, for example, has nothing against such iconic players of the game as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Alex Rodriguez, or Derek Jeter.  The thing that makes an anti-fan a true anti-fan is their reaction to the attitudes and the behaviour of some of the team's fans.  Normally, the reason a true anti-fan can't stand a team is because they can't stand the arrogance and the swagger of many of the team's fans.

Now, I'll make a jump in concepts here.  I think this idea of fans and anti-fans applies to religion as well.  There are some people who are positively enthusiastic for a particular faith community.  There are other people whose enthusiasm in the area of religious faith is mainly centred on expressing their prejudices against a particular faith community.  Like the New York Yankees, Manchester United, or Hawthorn, faith communities have both their fans and their anti-fans.

And, like anti-fans of sports teams, anti-fans of faith communities (and I nearly wrote "anti-fans of faith teams") ground their antipathy toward the team not in their attitudes towards the team's "players", but in their attitudes toward the team's "fans".  We rarely find this to be an antipathy against a faith's founder, against its saints and martyrs, against its scholars and thinkers, or against the many everyday people who find their faith to be a way to live with compassion and integrity.

Usually if a person is an "anti-fan" of a faith community, it's normally a reaction to the faith's more aggressive "fans", people who don't really understand the spirit of the "game", but who are, nevertheless, zealously one-eyed supporters of a faith's team
  • ostentatiously pious politicians,
  • aggressively politicised clerics,
  • culture warriors within the media,
  • violent "redneck" types who use the faith to give a veneer of respectability to their destructive urges,
  • dirty-minded puritanical types who can be found in most faith communities,
  • and so on.
As it is with sporting teams, if a person is an "anti-fan" of any faith community, the reason is far more likely to be a hostility, not toward those members of the faith community who actually play the "game", but against a faith's more obnoxious "fans".

And, may I also suggest that, if you find yourself to be (or find yourself becoming) an "anti-fan" of any faith community, focus less on the faith's more objectionable "fans" but spend some time getting to know people within the faith who actually play the "game".

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

When God allows people to get things wrong: a sermon (Matthew 21: 33 - 46)

Listening to any financial commentators in the media, we hear that one particularly risky investment strategy is real estate. There are just too many volatile factors, or so they say. One of these factors is the risk of the “horror tenant”.
 
My mother used to work as the manager of an apartment building. I got to know all about horror tenants. There was one man who had the habit, when inebriated, of falling asleep in the foyer, without a stitch of clothing. Once when my mother rang the police to complain about this man sleeping drunkenly and unclad in the foyer, the policeman at the station advised her to assume (at least for the constabulary’s benefit) that the naked man was neither sleeping nor drunk but, in fact, dead. The police were more interested in dead bodies than sleeping drunks, however incompletely attired. 
 
In our gospel lesson, Jesus told a story about horror tenants that made any story of a naked sleeping drunk seem tame in comparison. (It should be noted that Jesus told this story to a hostile audience, a group of various members of the temple establishment who had come to argue with Jesus.)

Anyway, to the story.  A landowner planted a vineyard and made all the appropriate improvements. Then, before travelling to another country, he leased it to some tenants as a going concern. These tenants were the horror tenants of all time. 
 
At the time of harvest, the landlord sent his rent collectors around to the tenants.
  • Some rent collectors were beaten.
  • Others were killed.
  • The landlord even sent his son, but the tenants killed the son.  
Jesus asked his listeners, the chief priests and their associates, what they thought the landlord should do. They replied that the time had come for the landlord to take tough action. Jesus agreed, but moved from the story to a criticism of the temple establishment.
 
Now in previous centuries, this passage was interpreted in a way that not only criticised the temple establishment in Jesus’ day, but condemned all Jews - both in that day and in all the time since then. 
 
The Christian Church has come a long way in its attitudes toward Jews in recent decades. The churches have learned to appreciate the Jewish faith, not merely as the historical background to Christianity, but as a continuing community of faith existing alongside Christianity through the centuries to our own day.
 
But what do we make of such scripture passages as today’s gospel: passages that have often been used by Christians to imply that the Jewish faith is in the past tense? 
  • Do we continue to read the passages with their traditional interpretations?  
  • Do we ignore these passages?  
  • Or do we look for more meaning ... more light ... more truth ... within them?
 
In many ways, this passage can also be seen in terms of what happens, as in the title of this sermon, “when God allows people to get things wrong”.
 
Let’s assume that the landlord is, as was usually understood, an image of God.  

The horror tenants can represent humanity as a whole.
 
God has given us the gift of freedom. God has entrusted humanity with a good world, a world that was intended to more than fully meet the needs of all life. God gave us the task of caring for the world as God’s stewards.
 
But humanity has abused this freedom. We have refused to pay the rent. We have let the vineyard go to rack and ruin, both through our neglect and through our deliberate violence.
 
Nevertheless, God has given us the gift of trust. Generation after generation, both before the time of Jesus and in the centuries since, there are those who have sought, in God’s name, to call humanity to take our stewardship of God’s good world seriously. God has shown trust in us by continually seeking to appeal to our better nature. And, at the hinge of human history, this is why God became human in Jesus. God has given us the gift of trust.  
 
But humanity has abused this trust. History has shown that, like Jesus, those who actively advocate peace and compassion in human life have often become the victims of the worst violence.
 
But God still shows trust in us. Even when we abuse God’s trust, God continually seeks to appeal to our better nature. While doing so, God continues to “allow people to get things wrong”.
 
As we celebrate Holy Communion, we realise that those who shared Jesus’ final meal included some people who got things wrong ... who got important things wrong.
  • There was Thomas. He was overcome by despair at first and couldn’t accept the good news of Jesus’ new life. Thomas was at the table.
  • There was Peter. He lost his courage when it came to the crunch. He denied - three times - ever having met Jesus. Peter was at the table.
  • Matthew the collaborator ... Simon the terrorist ... James and John, the “Sons of Thunder” jockeying for position. They all were at the table.
  • There was Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Even Judas was at the table.
All got things wrong ... important things. All were there at the table with Jesus. Jesus welcomes us to his table, even when we get things wrong ... important things.  
 
“When God allows people to get things wrong”:  
  • God still gives us the gift of freedom.
  • God still gives us the gift of trust.
  • In Jesus, God still gives us the gift of Godself.