Monday, 19 August 2013

A Question of Priorities: a sermon (Luke 13:10-17)

Some of you may remember, from when you were small, visiting a relative found in many extended families, a lady - often a spinster or a widow - known as “the religious auntie”.  Now, this lady was formidable.  She had strong views on just about everything, including which other denominations were within the pale and which were beyond the pale.  She led a fairly austere life, by choice, all week. 

But then, on Sundays (or Saturdays if she happened to be a Seventh-Day Adventist) her regular weekday austerities seemed vaguely libertine by comparison.  And, if you were a child whose family was visiting this aunt, you knew that your afternoon would not be spent in play, but in sitting in your good clothing on a hard-backed chair, being seen but not heard.  Meanwhile, your aunt told the other adults about the deficiencies in her minister’s view of the doctrine of the Atonement. 

And, for this aunt, she felt that spending the day in such a joyless way was the most appropriate way to spend Sunday.  As you can probably tell, I dare to disagree with this formidable spinster, strongly.  (Please keep her in mind, though, as we think about our lesson.)

Jesus was teaching in a synagogue.  It was the Sabbath.  While he was teaching, he noticed a woman who was painfully bent over.  He said to her, quite simply, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”, and laid hands on her.  She “stood up straight and began praising God.” 

And it was just after that when all hell broke loose.
One man watching all this got his proverbials in a knot.  Both in the original Greek and in the Latin Vulgate, this man was called the archisynagogus.  In the King James Version, he’s called “the ruler of the synagogue”.  In the version I normally use for preparing sermons, the New RSV, this man is called “the leader of the synagogue”.  Another recent version called him “the man in charge of the meeting place”.  This man wouldn’t have been a rabbi or anyone with a mainly religious role in the congregation.  Essentially, this man was a leading lay member of the congregation, possibly the leading lay member of the congregation. 

Many small churches today have this sort of person, one member who has a lot more say in what goes on than any other member … effectively someone with a “veto power” over what goes on.  They are particularly found in really small churches, churches with fewer than, say, twenty-five people at worship on a typical Sunday.     

Many writers about the work of ministry today call this person a “gatekeeper”.  Whatever you call them, given half a chance, they eat ministers for breakfast.  For most ministers, the way we survived our encounters with the “gatekeepers” in our early placements determined much of the shape of our later ministries, and even whether we continued in ministry or not. 
These “gatekeepers” have an important role in terms of keeping small churches small.  A new worshipper turns up a few times, and it’s often their encounters with the local “gatekeeper” that lead them to think, “No, this church isn’t really for me.”  These “gatekeepers” have an important role in terms of keeping small churches small, and frequently in making small churches candidates for closure. 

Anyway, in today’s gospel, Jesus encountered the “gatekeeper” in this local synagogue.  This man got his proverbials in a knot because Jesus healed the woman on the Sabbath, and began tearing strips off Jesus:  “There are six days on which work ought to be done;” he said, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
In other words, the “gatekeeper” of that little synagogue had a very literal view of the command about the Sabbath.  He believed that nothing that could be defined as work should be done on the Sabbath, whether it was essential or not, whether it was an act of mercy or not.  He believed that following the letter of the Law, strictly and literally, was more important than adhering to the spirit of the Law.  

One very important thing to note is that this man’s legalistic attitude was never the mainstream view that Jews held toward the Sabbath. 
First of all, Jews regarded the Sabbath as a day to be enjoyed.  It was a day when, in addition to attending worship, families enjoyed good meals with plenty of wine, children played, couples made love, scholars engaged in robust debates with each other, and everyone had a decent night’s sleep.  The Jewish Sabbath was very different from the austere, joyless, Puritan Sunday, as observed by the lady in my opening story.

But, nevertheless, there was always the understanding that essential acts of mercy were to take priority over observing the Sabbath.  If a doctor, for example, had the choice between observing the Sabbath and saving a life, there was no choice:  saving a life was the clear priority.  It was self-evident, what we’d today call a “no-brainer”.
As well, people were expected to make sure their animals were appropriately fed and watered on the Sabbath.  This was also self-evident, another “no-brainer”.  In his reply to the synagogue gatekeeper, Jesus referred to this fact and he continued by saying that taking the time and effort to show mercy to people also took priority over the strict and literal observance of the Sabbath commandment, however joyful this obligation was in practice.

The whole incident presents us with the question of how the way we practice our faith enables us to reflect God’s love.
  • For most people of faith, the way they put their faith into practice is a great advertisement for their faith. 
  • There are other people of faith, however well-meaning (and most are well-meaning), for whom the way they put their faith into practice is frankly repellent. 

The great Asian Christian theologian and ecumenist D.T. Niles told a story about a friend of his, a Hindu, who once attended a Christian worship service.  The person preaching the sermon used the occasion to express every racial, religious, and political prejudice that he had.  He expressed high levels of condemnation toward people of whose lifestyles he disapproved.  In all of it, there was an overwhelming sense of joylessness in his whole approach to life.  D.T. Niles said that his Hindu friend told him, “If that is what being a Christian will make of me, I will never be a Christian!”
Our gospel lesson today presents all of us - and all people of faith, whether the faith is Christianity or any other faith – it presents all of us with a question of priorities:  “Does the way we practice our faith make us a better person – or not?”
  • “Does the way we practice our faith make us more accepting of other people and their differences – or not?”
  • “Does the way we practice our faith make us more tolerant of human weakness – or not?”
  • “Does the way we practice our faith enable us to express God’s mercy and inclusivity to others – or not?
“Does the way we practice our faith make us a better person – or not?”

Whether the question is addressed to:
  • the “religious auntie” in my opening story,
  • the “gatekeeper” who tried to tear strips off Jesus in our gospel lesson,
  • the incompetent preacher whom D.T. Niles’s friend went to hear,
  • or you,
  • or me,
we still hear this question of priorities:  “Does the way we practice our faith make us a better person – or not?”

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Generous Christianity

Many terms and labels are being tossed around these days to describe those of us who identify ourselves as Christians, but who do not wish to identify with a conservative style of Christian faith.

Traditionally, “liberal” was used to describe Christians with a non-conservative approach to our faith.  This term has been rendered useless for a number of reasons, including:
  • the various contradictory and confusing ways the word “liberal” is used outside the area of theological discussion, particularly in politics,
  • the fact that the term “liberal” in Christian theology is a technical term used to describe a theological movement which flourished within the “Protestant” churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but which has not really existed as a vital contemporary theological movement since the middle of the 20th century, and
  • the fact that some evangelicals use “liberal” as a generalised term of abuse for any Christian who happens to be a “Protestant” but not an evangelical, regardless of the details of their theology.
In many “Protestant” churches, those of us who are non-conservative in our faith are sometimes called “mainstream” or “ecumenical”.  This does not do justice to the fact that many conservative Christians (particularly conservatives found within the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and Lutheran traditions) are well and truly members of the Christian mainstream and enthusiastic participants in the ecumenical movement.

In recent years, “progressive” has been used to describe Christians with a non-conservative approach to Christianity.  This has become problematic given the way that “progressive” has increasingly been used in some circles by people who identify with the Christian faith, but in a "minimalist" way (non-Incarnational, non-Trinitarian, and even - in some cases - non-theistic).  Many people who once may have described ourselves as "progressive Christians" now find ourselves ceasing to use this description so as to avoid confusion with those who take an overly minimalist approach to their faith.  (I've personally stopped using the P-word a few years ago to describe myself.)

I think the phrase “generous Christianity” would be better language to express the alternative to a conservative approach to the Christian faith.  (And in adopting this usage, I express my appreciation of Brian McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy.)

By “generous Christianity”, I do not wish to imply that Christians with a non-conservative faith stance are, in any way, more personally generous as individuals or communities than Christians of a conservative approach to their faith (or, for that matter, any other individuals or communities).  I merely express the viewpoint that the alternative to a conservative theology is “generous theology”. 

I see a number of dimensions as being aspects of “generous Christianity”, with the following dimensions being crucial:

A.      Generous Christianity includes a critical approach to the study of the scriptures, including the recognition that many of the stories which we read in scripture (i.e., the Creation, the Great Flood, the story of Jonah, the Second Coming, etc.) make far greater sense if we read them metaphorically rather than literally, and if we read them within the historical context in which they were written rather than as infallible oracles for today.

B.      Generous Christianity includes a belief that the Christian faith today would be far better off without:
  • any notion that human beings are born in “total depravity”,
  • any notion of “predestination”,
  • any notion that the crucifixion was a substitutionary blood sacrifice, and
  • any notion that God will reject any person on the grounds of their beliefs (or the lack thereof).

C.      Generous Christianity includes a belief that Christians need to regard people of other living faiths (Jews, Muslims, and many others) not as potential Christians in need of conversion, but as people who are already in a positive relationship with the living God in their present faith communities.

D.      Generous Christianity includes a belief that the Christian Church, in all its ecumenical manifestations, is called by Christ to be a deliberately inclusive community in terms of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, etc.

E.      Generous Christianity sees itself as being part of the same Christian faith as those with whom we differ on important issues relating to Christian faith, including conservative evangelicals, or other conservatives, or "progressive" minimalists. 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Voting "below-the-line" in elections for the Australian Senate ... in five easy steps

Whatever party (or independent candidates) you prefer, please vote below-the-line when you cast your vote for the Senate. 

While the parties - whether major or minor - want to make it easy for you to vote above-the-line, a below-the-line vote means that you determine how your vote is distributed after your first choice on the ballot, while an above-the-line vote means that your vote is distributed according to the preferences of your first choice party.  (This may be not always be the same way you'd like your vote to be distributed.)

Anyone who passed 3rd grade maths is able to competently vote below the line.  As long as you keep a careful count, your vote will be valid. 

There are five easy steps:

(1) If there are any independents or minor parties that reflect your views better than either of the two major parties, vote for these candidates first, numbering each of these candidates in order, in whatever order you choose, beginning with the number 1.

(2) Then, after you've numbered your preferred independents and preferred minor party candidates (if there are any), continue to number the candidates from whichever major party you prefer (in comparison to the other one).  Number them in whatever order you choose, which may be different from the way their party has numbered them. 

(3)   Now immediately after you've numbered the candidates for your preferred major party, continue to number the candidates from the other major party.  (By doing this, your vote is highly unlikely to leak past your preferred major party.)  Again, number these candidates in whatever order you choose.

(4) Then, number the remaining candidates for whom you haven't voted yet, in whatever order you choose.  

 (5) Finally, double-check your numbering.   Remember that, to cast a valid below-the-line vote, you need to number each candidate in order from 1 to whatever the number of candidates on the ballot paper is, without either skipping or repeating any numbers.  If you find you've made a mistake, go to the AEC staffer on duty and ask for a fresh ballot paper.

 Voila! A valid below-the-line Senate vote. 

A below-the-line vote is a good thing, regardless of the candidate or party for whom you choose to vote.  A below-the-line vote means that you as a voter are using your intelligence as you cast your vote.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Change is God’s way.: a sermon (Psalm 50)

Sometimes, we hear complaints from people that the churches’ beliefs and practices are changing.
  • Sometimes the complaints are from people inside the churches;
  • sometimes the complaints are from those outside.
Here, by the way, I’m not particularly interested in changes to the churches in terms of music, or the use of buildings, or similar things. 
  • Of course, there always will be changes in the styles of music that different congregations use as we worship God, as there always have been.  Of course, there will be occasional disagreements over music in worship.
  • Of course, there always will be changes in the way we use some church buildings, as there always have been.  Of course, there will be occasional disagreements over the way church buildings are used.
I’m not really talking about these sorts of changes.  (And I guess I need to say that I'm a person who like church music to be reasonably traditional and "classical", and who likes to attend worship in a church that looks like a church.)

I’m really more interested in substantial changes in beliefs, practices, and attitudes.  I want to talk today about changes in the big things, rather than changes in the little things.

Sometimes the complaints are about the churches changing in the way we express our beliefs.  There are times when the media gives great attention to conflicts within churches, such as when some clergy seek to express Christian beliefs in a way that tries to communicate more effectively in the contemporary world.  But, complaints or no complaints, the churches are changing in the way we express our beliefs.

At other times, the complaints have been about churches changing long-standing church practices.  For example, even though the issue was sorted out decades ago in the Uniting Church, there are still major arguments in some denominations on the issue of ordaining women.  But, complaints or no complaints, the churches are changing in many long-standing church practices.

At other times, the complaints have been over issues of personal lifestyle.  For example, in a previous parish, almost thirty years ago, I caught a great of flak when I baptised a child whose parents were not married.  Thankfully, that’s not an issue anymore.  There are other life-style related issues that churches have been arguing about in recent years.  But, complaints or no complaints, the churches are changing in many of our attitudes toward issues of personal lifestyle. 

Some people complain about these changes.  Sometimes those who complain loudest are people outside the churches.  You see, there are some people outside the churches who want the churches to remain as conservative and as out-of-touch as possible.  When the church changes, and becomes less conservative, it is inconvenient for some because it removes many of their excuses for remaining outside the church. 

In response to many of these changes, some would ask:  “Why does the church need to change?”

And the answer, quite simply, is “Change is God’s way.”

God has this annoying habit of never being content with things as they are.  God always has a new and better idea.  God always calls humanity to share in the new and better idea.  God is a change agent who never lets us alone. 

Sometimes, God  challenges - and even actively confronts - our preconceived ideas.  We see this in our Psalm.  The writer of the Psalm imagines the way God would challenge the religious practices that were current in the time the Psalm was written:

 I will not accept a bull from your house,
or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and pay your vows to the Most High.

The writer is parodying the practice of animal sacrifice, and telling his listeners that God does not want people to make these sacrifices:

Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?

Instead, the worship that God calls people to make is one of gratitude and one that results in lives of integrity:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and pay your vows to the Most High.

Some would have criticised such an idea.  The Jews had a tradition of animal sacrifices, as did every other nation in the region.  But eventually, the practice began to meet with resistance. 
  • By the time of Jesus, there were still some people, members of the group called Sadducees, who thought the sacrifices were important. 
  • However, the often-maligned Pharisees gave much less emphasis to these sacrifices.  Instead, the Pharisees emphasised a religion based on study, prayer, lifestyle, and personal ethics. 
Within a little more than a generation after the time of Jesus, the practice of animal sacrifice had completely disappeared among the Jews. 

This is just one example among many of religious beliefs and practices that have changed over the years: 
  • not only among Jews,
  • but also among Christians,
  • and, indeed, among people of all faiths. 

Throughout history, religious practices that once were sacrosanct later seem a bit silly.   And, through it all, God has been a part of the process of change.  I’ll give a few examples.

I’ll start with a fairly trivial example.  There was a time when women used to be expected to wear a hat to go to church, and when it was considered quite daring for women to attend church bare-headed.  Thankfully, that has changed.  And I believe God was part of that change, for change is God’s way. 

To give a few more substantial examples, there was a time, even here in Australia, when the particular branch of the Christian faith you were part of determined such unrelated things as the political party for whom you voted, the jobs for which you applied, the football club for whom you barracked, and even the families with which your family socialised.  Thankfully, that has changed.  And I believe God was part of that change, for change is God’s way. 

There was a time - and, for some, there still is - when people thought the only role Christians had in relation to other faiths was for us to try to convert the “heathen”.  Thankfully, that is changing.  Today, a growing number of Christians see members of other faiths – Jews, Muslims, and others – not as “heathen” to convert but as partners in serving the one Living God.  And I believe God is part of that change, for change is God’s way. 

There were those who criticised such changes, people who were very comfortable with a time when life was much more restricted for many people, and when God was to blame for the restrictions.  But that isn’t God’s way.  God was in on these changes, and many others, just as God was inspiring the change away from sacrificing animals many centuries ago.

God’s will for humanity is wholeness of life, not a life characterised by artificial restrictions.  God challenges anything that would seek to restrict this wholeness of life, just as God challenged the old practice of sacrificing animals.  God inspires us to be agents of change in our world as well, for change is God’s way.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

A work in progress ...

Some years ago, when I was beginning my D.Min. through the Melbourne College of Divinity, I had an assignment (for a unit in Ministry and Culture taught by Fr. Pat Negri) to write a theological reflection on a work of Australian art.  I chose this painting "The bridge in-curve" (1930) by Grace Cossington-Smith, depicting the Sydney Harbour Bridge while it was under construction.  While I can't find a copy of my original reflection, here's some of what I remember writing.

I chose this picture for a number of reasons.
  • One reason is that it is an urban landscape.  Landscape painting was always important in Australian art (Glover, Roberts, McCubbin, Namatjira, ...) but, for the most part, Australian landscape painting depicted rural scenes rather than urban ones, even thought the vast majority of Australia's people have always lived in or near cities.  This painting, thus, is a rare Australian landscape, focussing on Australia's urban reality rather than Australia's rural myth.
  • Another reason is that it is a link with my life before I lived in Australia.  The Sydney Harbour Bridge was completed within a year of the Bayonne Bridge, linking Bayonne, New Jersey, with Staten Island, New York.  The two bridges are of the same type and look very similar to each other.  For decades, one was the highest and the other the longest bridges of their type in the world.  Many of the same engineers worked on both bridges.  I grew up in Bayonne.  The Bayonne Bridge is "my" bridge.  For many people in Australia, the task of relating their life in Australia to their life pre-Australia is a significant cultural task.  This picture speaks to me as an Australian-by-choice who grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey.
But, most importantly, I chose this picture because it showed a work-in-progress, i.e. Sydney's iconic "coathanger" before the roadway was put down, and even before the arch was completed.  The idea of "a work in progress" speaks to the Australian reality.  The relationship of most Australians with Australia's indigenous people, ... the relationship between Anglo-Celtic Australians and those who have come to this land in more recent decades,  ... our relationship with neighbouring countries, ... our constitutional arrangements vis a vis the UK:  all of these aspects of Australian life are very much "works in progress".  The notion of "a work in progress" richly expresses the Australian reality.

As well, "a work in progress" is an important note of any spirituality - Christian or otherwise - that has integrity.  Most people in the community have a healthy mistrust of any religious leader - Christian or otherwise - who has their beliefs, spirituality, ethics, etc., all neatly packaged up with no room for change, growth, or doubt. 

On the other hand, a spirituality - Christian or otherwise - that has an authentic sense of being "a work in progress" has the potential to engage the community in an lively exploration of life's meaning.  Developing this sense of being part of "a work in progress" is an important challenge for churches and other faith communities today.

 (The Bayonne Bridge)