Sunday, 25 November 2018

Celebrating the tangible over the intangible

In the very recent past the Australian public has followed with eager anticipation the doings of the young royals. Indeed if you have a news feed going I am fairly certain that almost every other piece under entertainment or social has a mention of royalty. We celebrate their existence, we speculate on their thoughts , we follow their fashion sense (or lack thereof), etc. That is even if we are not royal watchers, those whose every hour is intimately spent discovering what the royals are doing. Yet when it comes to our faith we need to be pc around the words we use, kings, princes, etc are non pc rather we must use words such as "Reign". Yes, this is correct when we refer to the basiliea but when we turn this around in our liturgy we are denying ourselves a purpose.

The purpose of celebration at the end of the year is to prepare for the coming of Christ and celebrate Christ's rule of our hearts. The last Sunday in the church's calendar has been known as "Christ the King" but we are now encouraged to deny the "king" and think of the "reign". Mayhap something to do with the concept of male authoritative figures. Hang on let us think this one a little deeper, the apocalyptic readings (Dan 7.9-10) and the acknowledgement of Christ at the end of the age in John's apocalypse (Revelation 1.8) point to male figures. Yes, perhaps it comes from a male dominated society, but hey Prince Harry is male. For us we celebrate Christ who was male as the authority over our lives. What is our purpose today if not a celebration of authority and our love of God's presence in the form of that authority? Even Christ in front of Pilate recognises the authority figure that the King reveals (Jn 18.33-37) even if it is a word in Pilates thoughts. This is the crux of Christ's thought here - the truth that is revealed in our hearts. We need to follow a tangible we cannot celebrate the intangible, at least very few of us can. What do I mean? Well a reign is a bit of a difficult concept to celebrate, unless the monarch is tangibly present, and a reign which is future based even more so.

The King we celebrate is on the margins in love 
(Icon of Christ on the margins, Br Robert Lentz OFM)

There is like all things a danger present as we open ourselves up to the truth of worship and the presence of God's Spirit as we celebrate the tangible presence of Christ our king, our Lord and our master. The danger is political as a celebration of our King is a political event and if we do not recognise the political we will allow ourselves to defer into what is pc rather than what is true. In celebrating the King we are sending a message to the powers of modern authority that we will be counter their rule of selfish reward and promote the rule of justice and relational love between all peoples. Unlike the leaders of nations those that follow and worship Christ do not rule by or celebrate kingly power as that is not what we celebrate but by granting respect to others and building the works of love to bring harmony and community into the world around us rather than division and anger. This is power but the power of love which we celebrate as personified by Christ our King. IF we see beyond the personalised power of the King we see into the hearts and minds of those who form relationship in love.

A further danger for those who follow Christ is that in misleading ourselves by celebrating Christ's reign (that is not yet) we are leaving ourselves open to a false high. Just like the wild celebrations of Saturnalia and the overpowering worship present in some Charismatic churches the experience becomes the need not the worship of God. In worshipping God we should be becoming more Christlike so that we can worship our King. This worship is not the high of the Saturnalia or the overload of the Charismatic but the joy that comes with knowing Christ is present. Only when we understand our own standing with God do we come to terms with the joy of worship in God's present that should be the celebration at the end of each year. We give thanks to God for God's presence in our lives. We give thanks to God for guiding and directing our lives so that we can bring joy, justice, peace and love into the hearts of our community. Only when we taste the joy of celebrating our King and Lord do we understand the gravitas of God's presence in our lives. It is this celebration of God's presence that should fill us with joy at this time of year. For in celebration we look forward to the incarnation.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Firm and steadfast...wasted hope

In today's age we are fully aware of the diminishing returns that are found in the pews. Not only are numbers falling drastically but when they do it is always the leaders responsibility and not the person who follows Christ. It is as if we void the responsibilities that are placed on us at baptism and confirmation or its equivalent in the denominations around us. We believe in Christ that is all there is to it, we do not have to do anything; it is the responsibility of others in faith to take that responsibility and lead us out of our present distress. At this time of year and as we approach the coming of Christ we actually need to face up to our own faith journey and the realities that this places on our selves as we bring Christ into the lives of those around us. We need to remember that it is not our personal tastes that are important but rather the tenants of our faith; love of neighbour and love of God. This love is overwhelming as it is for someone other then our own selves.

The author of the Hebrews text lays it out quite succinctly (Heb. 10. 23-25). It is our joint responsibility if we are "firm and unswerving in our faith" but we are so unaware of each other that this becomes an impossibility. The times have changed from when these words were written but if the author was having trouble then with people unable to come to worship then it does not bode well for us, unless we take these words seriously (Heb 10.24-25). We are all aware of the concerted programmes such as "Back to Church Sunday" or "bring a Friend to Church Sunday", which are there to assist faith groups to bring recalcitrant and ex-church goers as well as a few non-churched into pews (hardly ever to be seen again). Is this the reality that Christ dreams of outside the Temple (Mk 13.1-11)? or is it something profounder, something more tangible in the hearts of those who follow God? Christ speaks of persecution, of destruction, of devastation in the presence of the Temple, is this perhaps what we see happening in these programmes to sustain our lowering viability?  The destruction of our own faith, the persecution of what we stand for and thus our shame for bending away from it, and denying our journey.

Do we look to far in advance and not acknowledge our journey in faith?

The sins of the past have a habit of catching up to us especially when we align ourselves with a faith journey that is about justice, love and humility. These are goals which we find so hard to maintain for ourselves let alone the world around us. These are the virtues that are on display in the story of Hannah (1 Sam 1.4-20) which she proclaims in the inspiration for the more famous Magnificat. A song that we need to align ourselves to in all that we do so that when we have the courage and fortitude of our faith convictions we can bring others into God's light and love in such a manner that we can in all honesty of life and action praise God in the continuing and ongoing company of strangers. To bring the other closer to God through all that we espouse and hope in this is the goal and challenge of our life together.  Yet it is not smooth sailing it is not filled with joy. If we just focus on Hannah for a little while longer we remember that she is the one that is bullied and has suffered. She is the one that is condemned for her faith in God's presence, even Eli has a problem, thinking it is drink not faith.

This soul wrenching journey is what it means to be baptised and each time we come to worship we need to affirm our faith in God. We need to remind ourselves each and every week as we come to the table of Christ's offering that it was offered for us and we are committing ourselves once more for our faith. We need to bring others with us on our journey to show Christ in our worship. This is not something that we wish to hear, we want to hear the beauty, the hope, the love but unless we are able to see that in the other there will be no stories. Unless we ourselves can see the hope of faith in the other, the love that shines out of the eyes of the stranger and the hope that is found in the despair of the disenfranchised we will not find those things for ourselves. God reverses all our expectations.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Widow's might

The year's roll round one after the other and history is constantly being written by those who survive the turmoils of everyday life. One of the continuing anchors of our yearly round is the knowledge that we will celebrate the heroes and the fallen in silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Indeed in Australia we have two days for this act of remembrance, yes each has a slightly different theme but each points to and remembers a past that is described by the winners. I do not in anyway demean or dis-honour those who have fought and died in violence that sundered countries and indeed the world. Yet, as a Christian I must ask myself a simple question, which I have on a number of public occasions, If Christ died in violence for us to bring God's kingdom and God's peace, why do we continually remember the violent sacrifices on the war zones of the world and not the life of peace? A simple question which is yet to be answered.

Is it the sea of blood or is it the widow's might that we need to remember?

The Christian call has always been to care for the widow and the orphan, those who have been disenfranchised through violence and death. Ruth the widow and her daughter Naomi, a widow, both struggle (Ruth 1-4) until the justice of the gate is administered and they are brought once more into the community (Ruth 4). Our focus here is on the justice that is meted out to the two of them not on the misfortunes of the past, not on death per se but on life. The injustices of the past are remedied by looking past the forming history towards a future that is calling in justice and peace. Christ's observations regarding the narrow focus of the ruling caste who bring about the injustice that is seen in the widow (Mk. 12.38-44) remind us again of where our focus should be. Injustice, because in the life of the world it is the widow who should be the focus of the rulers not the insistence on the finances of the Kingdom. The mite that she gives is her food and ability to live which she should be receiving from the wealth of the Temple. Yet, it is her might and the might of the widows Ruth and Naomi that are examples for our future not the disasters that created the situations. It is their perseverance and good will that is remembered in history. It is there courage and sacrifice that becomes our guide into the future as we celebrate God's presence in our lives.

The reason for remembrance day, "lest we forget", is forgotten in the triviality of the spectacle; for we have in reality forgotten. The day has become a ritual of pride in service and sacrifice occurring in zones of violence that are not diminished but rather re-created every generation. Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, the Balkans, the Falklands, Syria, Iraq...and so on it goes. Let alone, Nauru, Border walls, etc. The creation of more widows and more orphans rather than the peace that God brings. In our remembrance, "lest we forget", we are reminded of the perseverance of the widows in adversity, the damage to the orphans and the re-living of the violence within our own communities as a result of the lack that we have in showing God's love to the other. It is these forgotten "heroes" that we need to remember and care for in our remembrances of violence and not the heroes of violence perpetrated in history told by those who survived. Yes, remember their sacrifice but also, "lest we forget", the Christian message that is to bring peace to the consequential survivors who suffer as a result of our neglect in remembering the message of peace.

Christ overturns the traditions of power, pride and honour that lead to violence to bring dialogue, peace and service that lead to a better life and community. Everything Christ does overturns the ruling histories of the age by imposing a different perspective that lowers the self to humility that seeks friendship and not authority. Just as Naomi, the real hero of Ruth, seeks to accompany her friend and mother towards an unknown future that reveals her strength and might we to need to seek the other in friendship and service to build the trust that is embodied in community.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The saints rejoice while we fear death

The gloom and doom brigade is present all over the world. The whiners who can find nothing right unless they look to the past. "The church is dying". "Bring back the joy we used to have." "We used to be filled with joy. We are no longer". All to often familiar words from the mouths of congregants in many parishes and faith centres as they struggle with falling attendance and a lack of financial wherewithal. A need to look to new celebrations and old sources of joy fail to enliven tired and old people with a lack of their own faith in God's presence. It is always a job for someone else, as if it is an SEP (someone else's problem, a well known Douglas Adams field effect) the 'leadership' or the 'boss', to lead like Moses towards a promised land flowing with milk and honey. But even that community had their golden calf and failed to live up to the promise until they understood the fact that God was with them. At the beginning of November every year we celebrate the 'Saints' and 'All Souls' who have gone before. In doing so we glorify and remember their deeds as we have them in the hagiographies and histories that are extant. We celebrate their lives and all that they did but like all good histories that are written, in the end, by the survivors, remembrance is selective. In creating this joy and this celebration without understanding the fullness of each life we fall into a trap. This trap is one that says "The past was always bright and filled with joy."

Only when we rip away the bindings of the old life do we find the new life in Christ

Not all of those that we celebrate in November had lives that were filled with joy every single moment as we seem to think. They all struggled and had crises of faith. Many faced horrendous deaths, just think of Cecilia who apparently continued to survive after being bashed, cut with blades and unsuccessfully had her head chopped off (I think three times). In fact looking at the Saints that we celebrate it is their deaths that are remarkable for the cruelty imposed or the poverty in which they died. Yet, this was not what they feared. Death was not something that they were terrified of, perhaps the means but not the end, for they had a strong understanding of Christ in their lives and God's presence surrounding them. It is this that we celebrate each year. The barbarity of their deaths is in complete contrast to their acceptance of death in Christ. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon puts it neatly "in the sight of men (sic) they may suffer punishment, (but) they have a sure hope of immortality...Those who put their trust in him will understand that he is true" (Wisdom 3.1-9). It is in this hope that we place ourselves in Christ irrespective of our hopes and dreams for only then will we see the end of death as God dwells with(in) us (Rev 21.3-4).

It is in death on the cross and in the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11.32-44) that we become aware of the glory of God. Mary weeps and rails about what could have been (the past) she does not see the future in Christ's presence. Unlike Martha, who is specifically asked about the Messiah, Mary is trapped within the past and cannot or refuses to see past this moment when Jesus could have saved her beloved brother. Christ must reveal the future as being physically present in Lazarus' return from the tomb, shambling and bound to be freed to new life from the trappings of the old. In celebrating the saints we must not lose sight of both life and death for we cannot have the one without the other. In the struggle to bring forth new life we need to remind ourselves that this only occurs when we are prepared to accept death and turn our attention to a future which calls us into the present. This is sacrifice, just as the Saints have sacrificed their lives for new life in the propagation of the gospel so must we understand that we are called to live as the saints of the present day.