Friday, 20 September 2013

Pope Francis: the first six months

Well, Pope Francis (formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio) has occupied the Chair of St. Peter for just about six months now. 

He's amazed us all, whether Catholic or otherwise.

Between paying his own hotel bills, living in a simple guesthouse, washing the feet of the residents of a facility for young offenders (one of whom was a female Muslim), visiting a community of Middle Eastern asylum seekers, driving himself around in an old used car, and making some strongly inclusive pastoral statements, the man hasn't put a foot wrong.  And this seems to be the reaction of people whether one happens to be Catholic, a member of another Christian denomination, a member of another faith, or any other person of good will.  The only seriously negative comments I've heard about Francis have come from incorrigibly anti-Catholic bigots and from ultra-conservative Catholics (two groups who share a rather similar set of values on many things, when you come to think of it).

My Catholic friends (most of them anyway) are walking around with much more of a spring in their step.  Comments like "It's become fun to be Catholic again," have been heard in various circles.  And, on the other end of the Catholic spectrum, I've read articles by a few conservative Catholics bravely trying to spin the various papal deeds and utterances.  (Curiously, the phrase "the Holy Father" as a polite reference to the Pope has re-entered the vocabulary of many liberal and middle-of-the-road Catholics while it is taking a break from the vocabulary of many conservative Catholics.)

From my perspective as an ecumenical staffer and a member of another denomination, my reaction is largely shaped by the comments made by the theologian Karl Barth as to how we should evaluate the statements and actions of any church leader.  Barth said, in effect, that we need to ask this question:  "Can we see Christ the Good Shepherd in this church leader's words and deeds?"

In terms of Pope Francis, I believe the answer so far is an unreserved and enthusiastic "Yes!"

(You may also want to see my post on the day of Pope Francis' election.)

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Some lessons from the recent election results in the seats of Denison and Indi (Australian Federal Election, 2013)

I've been waiting to comment on the results of the Australian Federal Election until the results of the count for the seat of Indi were completed.  I saw the results in the two seats of  Denison (where I live) and Indi as being related to each other.

In some ways, they are very different seats. 
  • Denison in Tasmania, is a city-based seat, including much of the urban and suburban areas of Hobart, and - in the last two-and-a-half decades - has become one of the more left-leaning seats in the country.  At the 2010 election, the independent candidate Andrew Wilkie was elected as the MP for Denison, and he was easily re-elected in this year's election.
  • Indi, in northeastern Victoria, is a traditionally conservative rural seat (although it does include some small cities such as Wangaratta and Wodonga).  Since 2001, the MP for Indi was Sophie Mirabella, a standard-bearer for the right-wing of the Coalition parties.  Today, it was confirmed that Ms. Mirabella was narrowly beaten in this year's election by a middle-of-the-road independent Cathy McGowan.
The results in these two seats say a few things about Australian politics today.
  • The results in both seats tell us that there is plenty of room in the Australian Parliament for independent members with a commitment to their local electorates and without party-related baggage.
  • The results in Denison tell us that there is plenty of room on the "progressive" side of Australian politics for politicians that occupy the political space between the ALP and the Greens (much like the Australian Democrats of blessed memory), i.e. for politicians who are more principled than the ALP but more pragmatic than the Greens.
  • The results in Indi tell us that politicians (whether on the "right" or on the "left") who are seen more as proponents of an ideology than as representatives of their electorate can be very, very vulnerable from a good challenger with a high level of local credibility.
In my opinion, these are some hopeful signs.  Congratulations, Ms. McGowan!  Congratulations, Mr. Wilkie!

Lessons from a con artist: a sermon (Luke 16: 1 - 13)

Jesus once told a story about a man who was a bit of a crook.  In fact, the man in the story was an out-and-out con artist

This man worked as the business manager for a wealthy man.  His boss found out that this man was cheating him, and he was sacked from his job, pending a full accounting of his boss’s finances.

Facing the possibility of unemployment, the con artist needed to find a new job quickly.  He knew that he was far more suited to “white collar” work than to “blue collar” work, and so he realised that he needed to get on the good side of a few people, particularly a few people who had desk jobs on offer, and to do so very quickly. 

So the con artist called in a few people who owed money to his boss and, together, they cooked the books in a spectacular fashion.  They falsified the account books, … they created dodgy receipts, … the lot.

The con artist’s boss heard about it and, rather than suing his former business manager for all he was worth, decided that this bloke was very, very smart.

The story was followed by a few ironic comments about using your money to make friends.  These comments were followed, in turn, by some more direct and straightforward comments about living lives of integrity in the midst of a frequently dishonest world.

Now, when Jesus told this story, it wasn’t to encourage us to be con artists.  Jesus wants us to be honest with each other in everything we do.

The heart of this passage is found in a comment right at the end of Jesus’ story:  “… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

What Jesus was teaching us in these words was that we need to use the brains that God gives us when we seek to express love, compassion, and mercy to others.  We need to use our intelligence actively when we seek to do good things and to be good people, and sometimes that does not always happen:  “… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

People who try to hurt other people – or who try to be cruel to other people - sometimes are very clever, and very shrewd, in what they do. 

Con artists are usually very, very believable people.  They are frequently far more believable than honest people.  That’s what makes them successful con artists.  They are living proof of the old saying that a fool and his money are soon parted.

“… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

People who sexually abuse children and young people are classic con artists.  They usually come across (at least at first)  as very caring, concerned people who want to help the children and young people in their communities.  In the process of harming the children and young people, they also con the children’s families, and the schools, churches, scout troops, and various other groups which work with young people into trusting them.  As the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse continues its public hearings, we’ll hear much more about this.  (We’ll probably all need rather strong stomachs by the time it’s over.)

“… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

The challenge in this passage is that the “children of light”, those of us who try to help other people, and who try to show God’s love to other people, we need to be just as clever as those who are nasty to other people … even a bit more clever … and even a lot more clever. 

One of the great tragic facts of our society is the fact that the phrase “do-gooder” has become a term of abuse, as if it’s somehow bad to try to do good things for people … as if it’s somehow bad to try to do good things for the community … as if it’s somehow bad to try to do good things for God.  Any culture in which “do-gooder” is an insult is a culture in deep ethical trouble.

The problem is that, frequently, those who seek to help others – those who seek to do some good in the world - do so with a certain naivete about the reality of the problems we seek to overcome, a certain naivete about the realities of human nature.

“… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

In this passage, Jesus is challenging us to be enthusiastic “do-gooders” and never to be ashamed of the fact, but … but … to be “do-gooders” with brains … and to be “do-gooders” with guts.  And this, I believe, is what Jesus was telling us in this story about the con artist.

“… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” 

Monday, 2 September 2013

When tact leads to confusion : a sermon on the Letter to Philemon

My sermon today has the title “When tact leads to confusion”.  As Paul writes at an early point in his letter to Philemon,

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Amen.

One of our lessons today is the entire letter to Philemon.  This letter is one of a handful of letters bearing Paul’s name for which New Testament scholars have very little doubt that Paul actually wrote them.  New Testament scholars argue over whether or not Paul wrote some the letters bearing his name, the letters to Timothy and Titus for example.  But then there are other letters for which there is no real argument among scholars, such as Romans, Galatians, and the two letters to the Corinthians.  This group of letters includes this very short letter to Philemon.

Paul begins by praising Philemon’s faith and the way he expressed God’s love to others in very practical ways.  He wrote:

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God  because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.  I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.  I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

After beginning on this positive note, Paul gets to the point of his letter.  Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus.  Evidently Onesimus had encountered Paul and the two had become friends. 

This brings up the whole question of slavery.  The early Christian movement developed in a Jewish context.  Jesus was Jewish, as were his disciples, as was Paul. 

For Jews, slavery was evil, … full stop, … with no ifs, ands, or buts.  There was nothing good that a Jew could ever say about slavery.  The Jewish faith really began when the people were freed from slavery in Egypt, and (as a result) the Living God was always seen (first-and-foremost) as the God who frees slaves.  The first generation of Christians was made up mostly of Jews, who continued this Jewish attitude of complete opposition to slavery.

However, largely through the efforts of Paul, the Christian faith was spreading among gentiles in the Graeco-Roman world, among people who accepted slavery as a fact of life.  So, this letter reflected a culture clash that was going on within the Christian community at this time.  While this letter was sent from one Christian to another, it was sent between Christians of different world views and radically different attitudes toward slavery.
  • Paul, who wrote the letter, was a Jew who hated slavery.
  • Philemon, who received the letter, was a gentile who accepted slavery as a fact of life, and who even was a slave-owner.
Onesimus, the runaway slave, was to be the messenger bearing Paul’s letter.  In this letter, Paul tactfully requested Philemon to free Onesimus.  Examples of this tactful approach included statements like these:

… though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,  yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love …

… I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. …

… you might have him back forever,  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother …

… Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. …

Paul even used a bit of humour to get Philemon on side.  Onesimus was a Greek name that meant “useful” or “beneficial”.  To make his point, Paul made a few puns on Onesimus’s name: 

“… Formerly he was useless to you [as a slave, that is], but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me [as a free person, that is].…” [Now, Onesimus by name can also be Onesimus by nature!]

and, a few paragraphs later

“… Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!…” [I’ll send you this Onesimus (or “benefit”) and you, by freeing him, can send me another benefit (or another ‘Onesimus’, if you will).]

Using this sort of humour, an intellectual word-play of the sort that one educated person would use with another educated person, Paul was obviously trying to get Philemon on side, so that he would grant Onesimus his freedom.

One problem here is that tact is not a quality that we associate all that often with Paul.  Typically, when Paul was involved in an argument with anyone, he would get pretty robust – and, at times, pretty personal - in the argument.

Paul’s uncharacteristic tact in writing to Philemon provided problems for later generations.  The fact that Paul didn’t simply direct Philemon to free Onesimus has been used by some people to make the rather bizarre point that the Christian faith tolerated slavery.
  • When Christians in the nineteenth century (both in Britain and in the United States) were organising active opposition to slavery, some people who favoured slavery used Paul’s tactful language to Philemon to give some biblical support to their pro-slavery position.
  • Today, many aggressive public critics of Christianity refer to Paul’s matter-of-fact references to slavery as something that discredits all Christians today, as if William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King never existed.
Paul’s tactful language to Philemon has provided a great deal of confusion.

But the whole point that underscores this letter is that Christ creates a new human community, a new human community in which former slaves and former masters can sit at the same table as friends and equals.  In a later century, Martin Luther King referred to this new reality as “The Beloved Community”.  We participate in this Beloved Community whenever we share in Holy Communion. 

I believe that Paul realised that, if he obtained Onesimus’s freedom by bullying Philemon into freeing him, this would have been a flat denial of the Beloved Community created by Christ.  So Paul chose a more difficult way, a way that ran the risk of serious misunderstanding in later centuries.

Paul wrote tactfully to Philemon, seeking to obtain Onesimus’s freedom in a way that respected the dignity both of Onesimus and of Philemon.

And we really know nothing about Philemon’s response to Paul’s request, whether or not he freed Onesimus.  A few decades later, the Christians of Ephesus had a bishop named Onesimus, but we have no idea whether that Onesimus was the same as this one.

Nevertheless, Paul’s brief letter here challenges us to promote the new human community created by Christ, the Beloved Community we celebrate whenever we share this sacrament.

And, as Paul concludes his letter:

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”  Amen.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind ...

Note:  This post consciously follows two earlier posts in my blog.

One was posted in April of this year, and is on the topic of how the Protestant Reformation has reached its "use-by date" as an historical movement, and why those of us in churches who have our heritage in the Reformation need to be looking toward developing a "post-Protestant" future for our churches in terms of our theology, worship, and spirituality.

Another post was from March of this year, and concerns the reasons why I normally put the word "Protestant" in quotation marks, particularly when I speak of the classically mainstream "Protestant" churches today.


When I think of the Christian church today when it is at its ecumenical best, I sometimes refer to it as a church with a Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind. 

For those of you within the Anglican Communion, this idea of a Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind may not be far from your perception of your own style of Christian faith at present.  However, I see this idea as relevant not only to Anglicans, but to all of us.

Some important dimensions of "a Catholic heart" include these:
  • Sacramental worship: - Worship needs to be more than mere "teaching".  It definitely needs to be more than mere "entertainment".  People who participate in public worship do so because they want to encounter the Sacred, not learn some information about religion.  People who find that they do not encounter the Sacred in worship tend to stop making the effort to attend worship.  Sacramental worship encourages this sense of an encounter between God and the worshipper in a way that is much more than a cerebral exercise in receiving information about religion.
  • A sense of history:  In some churches, "tradition" has become a dirty word, and everything we do in our church life needs to be an exercise in reinventing the wheel.  A big part of a church having "a Catholic heart" is rediscovering its sense of being part of something that historically is bigger than ourselves, so that an increased sense of being part of a great Tradition has the effect of liberating us from the tyranny of the immediate, of the perceived need to perpetually "reinvent the wheel" in our faith and spirituality.
  • Ministry to all, not just the "religious":   The Christian Church is not only in ministry with its active, committed members, with those who show up at worship most weeks, with those who make a generous contribution in the offering plate.  For a church to have "a Catholic heart" means that we affirm that those who only show up to what we're doing just a few times a year (or even just a few times a lifetime) are also valued members of the community of faith.
  • The worshipping congregations is a microcosm of humanity:  For a church to have "a Catholic heart" means that the people who gather together for worship are an inclusive gathering.  Given the local area, it's as much as microcosm of the human race as is possible in the particular area.  It tries hard not to be an exclusive group of just "our sort of people", whether this exclusivity is in terms of ethnicity, class, bank balance, educational levels, or any other sort of divisive factor.
As well, here are some of the important aspects of "a 'Protestant' mind":
  • The absolute primacy of grace:  The first dimension of "a 'Protestant' mind" is a strong affirmation of God's grace.  At its best, the Reformation was about rediscovering God's grace as the most important fact regarding our relationship with God.  It's about God's initiative, not ours ... and it's for everybody.  In this context, I like to speak of "radical grace".  This grace is far more important in our relationship with God than either religious busy-work or getting our theology right.
  • An engagement with the biblical text:  The next key aspect of "a 'Protestant' mind" is an engagement with the scriptures.  It's not about taking the Bible literally; it's about taking the Bible seriously.  While the Scriptures are not the only source for our thought and reflection as Christians, they are a crucial reminder of our beginnings in faith.  It's important that we are aware of their content.
  • A respect for critical scholarship:  Another aspect of "a 'Protestant' mind" is a respect for critical scholarship.  It's no accident that the Reformation began in the universities of Europe, as scholars engaged in robust debate about the nature of Christian faith.  The vocation of the scholar should never be despised by the church.
  • The realisation that Truth is complex:  The search for deeper truth should never be limited to professional academics, however.  The playwright Oscar Wilde made a profound theological statement when he wrote (in The Importance of Being Earnest):  "The truth is never pure and rarely simple."  Sometimes, when we hear a simple answer to an important question, the simple answer is profoundly misleading.  Truth is complex, including theological truth.  The implication here is that diversity in our theological and ethical reflection is a healthy thing as it respects the profound complexity of God's truth.
Regardless of the tradition of Christian faith to which we relate, I believe this combination of a Catholic heart and a "Protestant" mind is something to which all Christians can (and should) aspire, both as worshipping congregations and as individuals.