Sunday, 29 March 2015

On choosing a team to follow in the football (if you don't happen to have one already)

Well, it's football season again here in Australia.

Now there are six ... or seven ... or six-and-a-half codes of football played around the world.  Each is known simply as "football" among its enthusiasts, and within the area where it's the prevalent code.  The various codes are: 
  • Association Football, or Soccer, the world's most popular football code, played in most countries of the world, either as the main football code, or alongside other football codes,
  • American Football, or Gridiron, the main professional code played in the United States and Canada,
  • Gaelic Football, the main code played in the Republic of Ireland and also played socially by Irish expats elsewhere,
  • Rugby Union, the main code in Wales, South Africa, New Zealand, and many Pacific nations, also played alongside other codes in many other countries,
  • Rugby League, not as popular globally as Rugby Union, but the main professional code in parts of Australia (New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory), and
  • Australian Rules Football, the main professional code played in the rest of Australia.
There's also International Rules, a hybrid of Gaelic and Australian Rules, developed so that top Irish and Australian players can play each other as national teams every two or three years or so, when the promoters can organise a tour.

Here in Australia, we play almost every code (except for Gridiron and Gaelic) at a high level.  And it's getting to the time of year when Australia's two main professional codes (Australian Rules and Rugby League) are beginning their seasons for this year.

Now, for people who live in Australia (and particularly in those parts of Australia where Australian Rules is the main football code), it's essential to have a team, even if you're not all that interested in footy.  (While all the football codes can be called "football", the term "footy" only properly applies to Australian Rules.)  

The rest of this post is about Australian Rules (Aussie Rules, AFL,
"footy", ...) rather than about the whole range of football codes.

Developing an attachment to a team is a important rite of passage in Australia. 
  • For a young person, having a team of your own choice - preferably one that's not the same as the team(s) followed by one's parents - is a sign of having grown up. 
  • For a recent migrant, choosing a team to support is a sign of having confidently become at home in your new land. 
If you declare yourself to be "not all that interested in football", you're bound to find yourself involved in long conversations about football with footy enthusiasts trying to convert you. 

This is similar to a person who calls her/himself either an atheist or an agnostic and finds him/herself involved in many long religious discussions.  For example, it's easier (if you're not really all that religious but don't want to talk about it) to describe yourself as "Church of England" (unless you live in England), or as "Methodist" (unless you live somewhere - i.e., anywhere other than Australia or Canada - where there actually is a Methodist Church), or merely as "Protestant" (but without naming an actual denomination).  Each of these descriptions carries the notion of "not all that religious", but is less likely to invite unwanted discussions with the intent of proselytisation than the more provocative labels of "atheist" or "agnostic".    

Similarly, re football, rather than being openly uninterested in football, it's better to "bite the bullet" and choose one of the teams in the league as your team to support.  But, if you don't want to be involved in too many footy-related conversations, choose a team that doesn't invite too much attention. 

Now, you don't actually have to watch a game to do this.  The important thing - particularly in the areas that follow Aussie Rules - is to identify with a team.  And the fact that you want the team to win doesn't mean you actually have to watch their matches.  (Occasionally watching the final 10 to 15 minutes of a game may help.) 

Here's a few hints in choosing a team to follow.

Don't choose a team that's been among the top three or four teams in the AFL in the last few years, and expects to perform similarly this year.  Whether they do well or poorly this year, it will involve you in more football-related conversations than you'd want.

Similarly, and for the same reasons, don't choose a team that's been consistently among the two or three worst teams.

Also, don't pick a team that's been involved in a scandal (sex, drugs, gambling, stupid comments by players that were picked up in the media, etc., etc.) in the last few years.  You'll be called on to defend your team, even if you haven't a clue what the scandal's about.

If you live in Tasmania or Victoria, choose one of the Victorian teams, or a team that used to be a Victorian team.  Otherwise, you'll get a lot of "And why do you support the Dockers?"

Finally, don't choose a team with a lot of anti-fans.  If a team has a lot of people who say about them, "I don't care who wins, as long as X loses", don't choose X as your team.  It's usually less about the team's players than about the attitude problems of the team's fans.  If you can help it, you definitely don't want to be seen as a X fan, with all the implications this has in terms of your character.  You particularly don't want to be seen as an X fan if you want to avoid long, drawn-out discussions of football during breaks at work, with either passionate X fans or passionate X anti-fans.  (OK, OK, I'm talking about Collingwood, Carlton, and Hawthorn here.)

So basically, choose a team that's been playing neither too well nor too badly, with a present or past base in Victoria, with no recent scandals, not too many offensive fans, and almost no anti-fans.  Let all and sundry know that you're a proud supporter of said nondescript team, and you won't be plagued by lengthy lunch-hour discussions of the weekend's matches.  (Unless you're really unlucky, and your team starts doing well.)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

“From little things, big things grow”: a sermon (John 12:20-33)

"From little things, big things grow.”

John tells us of a group of Greeks who came to Jerusalem for Passover, and who wanted to see Jesus.  At, first, we may think it’s a bit odd that, being Greeks and not Jews, they were in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. 

Actually, we don’t know if these Greeks were Jewish or not.  There are three possibilities here.

Firstly, these “Greeks” could have been Jews whose families lived for so long in a Greek context that these people now spoke Greek as their first language and had some Greek cultural habits.  Religiously, however, they were still Jews.

Secondly, these “Greeks” may have been Greek gentiles who converted to the Jewish faith.  Even though the Jewish faith today makes it very hard for people to convert to Judaism, and most rabbis today usually tell any prospective converts to give their own faith more of a fair go before asking about conversion, the Jewish faith in those days was much more apt to encourage gentiles to convert.

Or finally, these “Greeks” may have been members of the group called “God-fearers” in the Book of Acts:  gentiles who were attracted by the faith and by the ethics of the Jews.  They worshipped in the local synagogues with the Jews and tried to live as Jewishly as possible, but never formally converted to Judaism, largely because the formal conversion involved a rather painful procedure for the blokes.  Many of Paul’s first gentile converts in any Greek city were from this group of “God-fearers”.   

We’re not really sure who these “Greeks” were, but there they were in Jerusalem for the Passover. 

And they wanted to meet Jesus.

They told one of Jesus’ disciples.  Being Greeks, it was interesting they first went up to one of the disciples with a Greek name, Philip.  (Perhaps they thought that someone with a Greek name would be sympathetic to them.)  They said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. 

Philip consulted with Andrew (or, as he was called in Greek, Andreas).  Interestingly, here was another disciple with a Greek-sounding name brought into the scene.  Together they went to see Jesus with the request.

John’s gospel doesn’t tell us what happened when Jesus met the Greeks.  John doesn’t even tell us whether Jesus met the Greeks or not.  I assume that Jesus met the Greeks, but John doesn’t actually tell us.

John does tell us about Jesus’ reaction.  He spoke about how it was the time for him to draw all people to himself.  His message was making its first step from one little corner of the world to a much broader, global stage.

But just before he said that, Jesus used an image from farming to speak of his work.  A bit of grain looks pretty lifeless; but ... if it is planted in the ground and “dies”, it becomes a plant with much more grain on it.  It’s like the song by Paul Kelly, “From little things, big things grow.”

It is interesting that Jesus compared himself to the grain being planted and growing.  The piece of grain lost its own separate identity as a piece of grain to become the source of a new plant, bearing much more grain ... much more food ... many more grains that would be planted and be the source of even more grain ... and so it goes on.  “From little things, big things grow.”

Jesus used this idea to explain what was about to happen to him.  He would die.  He would be raised from death.  In his dying and in his being raised, he would be the source of renewed life for humanity, and for creation. “From little things, big things grow.”

In Australia and elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter take place during autumn.  The springtime images we find in so many Easter hymns and Easter songs from Europe or North America don’t make sense here.  We can’t easily use images of spring flowers for the risen Christ when leaves are changing colours, and dropping from the trees.

Instead, we live in a place where Lent, Holy Week, and Easter are in autumn, during the time of harvest, at a time when the earth produces food.  Thus, we can speak of:

·         the crucified-and-risen Christ who nourishes his people in the sacrament of Holy Communion,

·         the crucified-and-risen Christ who becomes the source of life for all life.

We begin Holy Week next Sunday.   At this time, we give thanks to the Living God that the crucified-and-risen Christ continues to give himself as the first fruits of God’s harvest of humanity, God’s harvest for all life to enjoy.

“From little things, big things grow.”

Friday, 6 March 2015

The time Jesus got really annoyed: a sermon (John 2:13-22)

In the temple … [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 
 
This passage of scripture, which we find in all four gospels, in one way or another, shows us that Jesus was not afraid to show his anger, at least if there was something worth getting angry about. The event we traditionally call “The Cleansing of the Temple” is found in all four gospels. Not many incidents in Jesus’ life are included in all four gospels. For the most part, the events that were included in all four gospels were particularly important ones, important enough for four different writers to include them in gospels written for very different audiences.

There are two main differences between John’s version of this event and the other gospels.

While the other gospels have the Cleansing of the Temple take place in week before the crucifixion, John has it take place at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, just after the wedding at Cana and just before his midnight conversation with Nicodemus.   
  • For the other gospel writers, this event is an element in the growing conflict between Jesus and the establishment.  
  • For John, the Cleansing of the Temple is an event that sets the tone for Jesus’ public life. Perhaps, if we were using current management jargon, we’d say the Cleansing of the Temple was part of Jesus’ “mission statement”.
 
The other difference is in a detail that John mentions and the other gospel writers do not: Not only does Jesus overturn the tables of the moneychangers, but he also chases the animals out of the Temple.  The question then needs to be put: “Why did Jesus cause a cattle stampede in the midst of a place of public worship?”
 
And I believe there were two reasons why:
  • One reason was because of Jesus did not see animal sacrifice as an appropriate way to worship God.
  • The second reason was because Jesus did not want to stop the poor from worshipping God.
Jesus and the animals
 
On the one hand, Jesus did not see animal sacrifice as an appropriate way to worship God.
 
Like many places of worship in the ancient world, the worship at the Temple in Jerusalem was centered on animal sacrifice. This wasn’t just a Jewish thing. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, all did the same thing. When they worshipped their gods, they all sacrificed animals as a major part of the worship.
 
Interestingly, we hear strong criticisms of the practice of animal sacrifice by many of the Old Testament prophets, centuries before the time of Jesus. For example, we hear in one passage from Micah:
 
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil? …
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?
 
Centuries later, by the time of Jesus, this debate was still actively going on among the Jews. The question was: “Should religion focus on sacrifice, or should it focus on prayer, study, and ethical living?” The two main factions of Pharisees and Saduccees took opposing views in this question. The Saduccees advocated sacrfices, while the Pharisees promoted a religion of prayer, study, and ethical living.
 
The question was pretty much settled after the Romans destroyed the Temple a few decades after the time of Jesus. While the Jews lamented the destruction of the Temple itself (and still do), the end of the actual sacrifices occasioned very little regret. They were ready to move on from a religion focused on sacrifice to one focused on prayer, study, and ethical living.
 
And there’s no prizes for guessing which side of this debate Jesus was on. Throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated the overflowing compassion of God, and the slaughter of animals as part of an act of worship would have clearly disgusted him. And so he chased the animals out of the Temple. At least these animals would not have their lives wasted.
 
Jesus and the poor
 
And also, on the other hand, Jesus did not want to stop the poor from worshipping God.
 
Buying the animals for the sacrifices was expensive. Many poor people could not afford to buy the sacrificial animals. Even without the cruelty involved in animal sacrifice, Jesus would have been offended by the injustice of any attitude that implied that any person’s standing before God was based on their ability to pay.
 
Jesus expressed his concern that poor should have the same access to God as the wealthy in another incident in the Temple, told both by Mark and by Luke, the story of the “Widow’s Mite”. People – mostly wealthy people - were queueing up to give cash offerings to the Temple. A poor widow put two little copper coins into the offering box. Jesus then said:
 
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
 
Now, I don’t believe that Jesus saw this as a good thing, that the widow gave all she had to the offering box. There was no “Go and do likewise” or anything like that. I believe that Jesus spoke these words with a profound sadness, a sadness that the widow felt the need to give her week’s food money to the Temple:
 
“ … she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
 
Those were sad-sounding words. They weren’t words that said “OK, people, everyone should imitate that. Go and do likewise.”
 
The sadness in Jesus’ words also implied a strong criticism of anyone who encouraged any poor person to think she needed to give so excessively. I like to think that Jesus also sent one of the disciples to follow her and give her some money with the instructions “That’s not for the Temple. That’s so you can eat.” 
 
Perhaps the sombre sadness that Jesus seems to have felt when confronted by the Widow’s Mite was also expressed by much more turbulent emotions on that day when Jesus’ concern for the poor and his revulsion over animal sacrifice collided. On that day, the day of the Cleansing of the Temple, Jesus got really annoyed and caused a cattle stampede in the midst of a place of public worship.
 
May we be enabled to share his compassion for all God’s creatures, his commitment to social justice for all people, and his conviction that no one shall be made to feel “second-class” in God’s presence.