Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Hopes and Fears of all the Years (a sermon: Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44)

When I was serving my second ministry placement, in Westbury, in the mid-1980s, an elderly woman in the Westbury congregation told me about some of the goings-on in Westbury during her youth.  The lady was nearly a hundred when she told me this story, and she died at a hundred-and-three with all her faculties intact.  She lived all her life in the same town.

Her story happened at the time when the nineteenth century was becoming the twentieth.  A local minister, serving what was then the Westbury Wesleyan Methodist Church, which later became the Westbury Uniting Church, ... one of my predecessors, ... this minister developed some strong – and eccentric - views about the Second Coming, particularly about when this event was to take place.  (Essentially, he believed it would happen very soon.)    

He persuaded a few of the members of his congregation to share his views.  On the day they believed the event was to take place, they gathered on the top of a nearby mountain.  They wore white robes, made (so I’m told) from bed linen.  They waited ... and waited ... and waited for the Second Coming.  Then, after it was obvious that the Second Coming wasn’t going to happen that day, they went home.  Conference took a dim view of the proceedings and the pastoral relationship was quickly dissolved.

Having spent most of my ministry in Tasmania, a big part of me finds it very hard to imagine a group of sceptical, pragmatic Tasmanian Methodist farmers falling for this sort of thing, but the old lady who told me the story was definitely in possession of all her mental faculties.  I believe her story.  (The Westbury Church has a “rogues gallery” with photos of former ministers, along with their dates of service.  The fellow at the time when the nineteenth century became the twentieth had both a sufficiently brief tenure and a sufficiently wild look in the eyes to fit the bill.)

A few generations later, during the period of the Cold War, from the end of the Second World War until the fall of the Berlin Wall, again there was an increased obsession on the part of some Christians with looking for “signs of the end” in current events. 

This was a time when the whole world was facing destruction by a superpower nuclear exchange on a daily basis.  Many of us who grew up during the Cold War were convinced that such a superpower nuclear exchange would be how our own lives would end.  I believe that one reason many “Baby Boomers” – members of my own generation - did not make adequate financial provision for retirement was that many “Baby Boomers” as young adults believed that Mr. Reagan and Mr. Brezhnev would not allow us to survive to reach retirement age. 

And, in that whole climate of fear, a certain subculture within the Christian churches believed that the end of the world was at hand, and tried to demonstrate this by taking passages of Scriptures out of context and comparing them with current events.  In this bizarre worldview, such events as the establishment of the United Nations, the European Union, and the state of Israel (along with the development of product barcodes in shops and supermarkets) were all seen to be “signs of the end”.  Many best-selling books were written from the perspective of this worldview.  These books frightened many people, and made their authors very wealthy.

At the beginning of Advent, we always hear passages of scripture that focus on the climax of human history.  These passages are often rather problematic for preaching and teaching.  As they have been used so much as the playground of the religiously unstable, they are often ignored by those of us who try to present Christianity as a faith in which critically-minded people can believe with intelligence and integrity.  But then, if we abandon these texts to the wild-and-wacky religious fringe, we make these passages even more difficult for contemporary people to hear.

In our lessons, we are taught some important things:

We are taught not to become obsessive about the future.  Our gospel lesson begins with Jesus saying that the future is firmly in God’s hands.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”   Seeking to predict the future is something that Jesus has strongly discouraged. 

We are taught to live with hope and with integrity in uncertain times.  Earlier in this chapter, Jesus told the disciples not to be distracted from the task at hand by “wars and rumours of wars”.  In today’s lesson, Jesus tells us to “Keep awake”.  The opportunities for service in uncertain times are immense.  Don’t worry about the future, but wake up, and make a difference in the present. 

We are taught that God’s future is a future of hope, peace, and wholeness for all people.  Isaiah’s great vision of peace in our lesson has been an inspiration for many people.  Swords are beaten to ploughshares.  Spears become pruning hooks.  Weapons of death become tools for life. 

This vision inspired a statue which greets visitors to the United Nations building in New York.  A gift to the UN from the former Soviet Union, the statue shows a large, muscular bloke (possibly even one of Karl Marx’s “workers of the world”) making a good job of beating a rather menacing-looking sword into quite a useful-looking plough.

This vision also inspired the great Scots paraphrase which we’ll sing following this sermon:

No strife shall rage, nor hostile feuds
disturb those peaceful years;
to ploughshares nations beat their swords,
to pruning-hooks their spears.

No longer hosts encountering hosts
shall crowds of slain deplore;
they hang the trumpet in the hall
pursuing war no more.

Swords are beaten to ploughshares.  Spears become pruning hooks.  Weapons of death become tools for life. 

This image of radical wholeness is the message of hope in God’s future which we are called to proclaim as we begin Advent, not some eccentric message that is obsessed with ascribing hidden meanings – almost occult meanings - to world events.  Both in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the gospel, there is an equally strong message that the best days of our world are ahead of us, not behind us.

In Advent, as we prepare once again to share the good news of Christ’s birth in our midst, and in the midst of “the hopes and fears of all the years”, we share a word of hope with our community and with our world.  The best days of our world are ahead of us, not behind us.

May we be alert and awake as we do so:
·         alert to the dangers of corrupting our word of hope into a word of fear,
·         awake to the possibilities of God’s grace breaking in to our world in unexpected times and unexpected places.

(originally published on 25 November 2013, updated)

Friday, 22 November 2013

Christmas: a time of ethical transformation

One area where the Christian and secular dimensions of our Christmas celebrations come together in a profound way is in the theme of Christmas as a time of ethical transformation.  There is this notion that our celebrations of Christmas in and of themselves have the power to bring forth our better selves.

This idea began in Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Scrooge was a miser, and he was also a man who refused to celebrate Christmas.  (And those two facts were closely related.)  His response to Christmas, as well as to anything else that would encourage any spark of generosity in him, was always “Bah, Humbug!”

At the beginning of the story, we hear this about Scrooge:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

But, by the end of the story, he is described in these terms:

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town or borough, in the good old world.”

And, in short, the source of this amazing transformation, in which Scrooge’s best self was enabled to emerge, was in the exposure to the celebration of Christmas.  This story told how the Christmas celebration had the power to transform Scrooge from a self-centered miser to a person who exhibited a lively generosity in every aspect of his life.

We also see this theme, which I call “the Scrooge motif” in many other secular Christmas stories, such as Dr. Seuss’s children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the films It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, and just about any good “Christmas special” on TV.   Christmas is an occasion of ethical transformation, in which we are enabled to let our best selves emerge.  Our culture believes (or, at the very least, our culture wants to believe) that the season of Christmas transforms us.  It brings out our own better nature, just as it did for Scrooge, for the Grinch, or for many others.

For people of Christian faith, we need to recognise this factor in the Christmas celebrations of our wider community, and to affirm the fact that this season is a time of greater ethical sensitivity for many people, and a time when many of our neighbours are asking the deep questions of life.

Transformation is also a major theme in our Christian faith.  The Christian church has always believed in Christ’s ability to transform each of us into people who reflect the love of God in everything we do.  It is an easy leap for us – as Christians - to say that the entire Christ-event is an occasion of ethical transformation, enabling each of us to allow our best selves to emerge in response to God’s grace to humanity through the person of Christ Jesus. 

In many ways, it’s not all that big a mental leap from our culture’s sense of seasonal transformation to the more profound and radical transformation that is at the heart of our faith.  This Christmas, let’s assist our community to make this leap. 

And, as Mr. Dickens said of Scrooge after his transformation,

“… he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any … [one] alive possessed the knowledge.  May that truly be said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!”

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Sunday morning at St. Mungo's: the Musical

This is a brief comic musical (10-15 minutes) that is suitable as an item in a concert for a local congregation. 

It requires a narrator, a small choir, and an accompanist on piano or keyboard.  The choir doesn't need to be a professional choir, such as those who make world tours based from Vienna, Cambridge, or Salt Lake City.  A small group of people who can carry a tune, and who have a sense of humour would be excellent.  (Much of the humour in this is based on the choir making improvised visual responses to whatever is going on, as well as in occasionally miming the words to the hymn parodies.)

"St. Mungo's" is a fictional congregation.  (There really was a St. Mungo.  He's the patron saint of the city of Glasgow ... the one in Scotland, not the one in Montana.  The name is funny though.)  "St. Mungo's" is one of my collection of funny church names, along with "The First Corinthian Free-for-all Triple-Immersion Revival Church (Inc.)" and "Our Lady of Perpetual Fund-Raising". 

My permission is given for you to use this musical in your local setting.  Please make the following note in your programme "Copyright 2013, Bob Faser.  Used by permission."

By the way, any bits [in square brackets and italicised] are directions to the performers and should not be read.

And now, here it is  ...  "Sunday Morning at St. Mungo's:  the Musical".


NARRATOR:    Welcome to St. Mungo's Uniting Church in the community of Wobbly Bridge, Tasmania. (1)   Sunday morning worship is about to start.  The minister (2) is robing up.  The organist is having a quick pre-service cigarette out behind the vestry.  The Praise Band is warming up, and the people who stand in the foyer talking until the Praise Band has finished their gig are still catching up with each other.  Let's leave the crowds in the foyer and join in some of the singing with the Praise Band and their supporters.

CHOIR:  (singing, to the tune of MAJESTY, by Jack Hayford):

Choruses!  They're singing choruses.
They are senseless, repetitious, and a bore.
Choruses, we can't stand choruses.
Humour our whims.  Let's sing some hymns once more.
It's time for alarm when I see an arm
waving near my head.
Song leader says, "Stand.  Let's all join hands."
I turn bright red.
Choruses!  Please no more choruses.
Humour our whims.  Let's sing some hymns once more.

NARRATOR:   And, of course, whenever you sing a chorus like this, you're required to sing it through at least twice.


Choruses!  They're singing choruses.
They are senseless, repetitious, and a bore.
Choruses, we can't stand choruses.
Humour our whims.  Let's sing some hymns once more.
It's time for alarm when I see an arm
waving near my head.
Song leader says, "Stand.  Let's all join hands."
I turn bright red.
Choruses!  Please no more choruses.
Humour our whims.  Let's sing some hymns once more.

NARRATOR:    And, in addition to these "choruses" and "worship songs", there may be one or two songs tossed in for the sake of those worshippers who may be "Baby Boomers".  They're called "folk hymns".  These were the songs that emerged in the Catholic Church in the years after the Second Vatican Council.  These songs were pretty good.  The only problem was that some copyright issues developed with some of these songs, and there were some messy lawsuits.  Ironically, the messiest lawsuit involved a song with the title "And they'll know we are Christians by our love".

CHOIR:  (Singing, to the tune of "And they'll know we are Christians by our love", by Peter Scholtes)

Oh, Saint Pat's has a folk Mass every Saturday night.
The homily's short and the singing is bright.
A lawyer in the back row's taking notes with delight.
So be sure that you get the copyright right.
Oh be sure that you get the copyright right.

NARRATOR:   And now a few things are changing. 

The organist arrives in the organ loft after his pre-service cigarette. 

The minister is robed up and arrives in the chancel. 

And as far as the people who were hanging around in the foyer waiting for the Praise Band to stop are concerned, they wind up their conversations and enter the service. 

The organist begins the prelude.  [Accompanist plays a few bars of Bach's Sheep shall safely graze.] 

And the Praise Band decides to head off to the service at the Assembly of God to check out the band there.  ...

For the early part of the service, the minister has chosen a Taize chant to go with the prayers.  ... Now, a Taize chant is a bit like a chorus, only using music. Occasionally, Taize chants are in Latin, which presents a few issues. 

People who don't like Taize chants say things such as "It's in Latin, isn't that [horrified] Catholic?"  ... or "It's in Latin, isn't that [horrified] New Age?" ... or "It's in Latin; aren't we supposed to dumb things down for the sake of [solemnly and with reverence] OUTREACH?"  ...

Meanwhile, those who like Taize chants will say things like "It's in Latin [rubbing hands together with enthusiasm]; aren't we intelligent, aren't we sophisticated; aren't we ecumenical?"  ...

This Taize chant was written by a new member of the Taize community.  His high school Latin was a bit rusty, but he was very enthusiastic.  His superiors at Taize decided to publish it to encourage him and thought that no congregation would ever really use it.  But they don't know St. Mungo's.

CHOIR:  (Singing, to the tune of "Ubi Caritas", by the Taize Community):

Bona fide.  De facto.
Et cetera.  Ad nauseam.

[Repeat this multiple times, in the way a Taize chant is repeated multiple times.  Members of the choir should start to look tired.  Some should yawn and sit down, and drop off to sleep, with the accompanist and narrator seeming oblivious to this.  Eventually, only one choir member is awake and singing a solo, while the other choir members are snoring.  This choir member is trying to catch the attention of the accompanist so that the music can cease.  Eventually, the accompanist notices this, and brings the music to a close.]

NARRATOR:      And then, the children's talk takes place, and the minister fields a few thorny questions about "Who made God?"  The kids go off to their activities.  [Accompanist plays a few bars of "Jesus loves me, this I know."]

After this we have some lessons from scripture.  [Accompanist plays a few bars of Gershwin's "It ain't necessarily so."]

The lessons are followed by the sermon.  [Accompanist plays a few bars of Brahms's Lullaby.]

Associated with the sermon, there will be a few traditional-style hymns.  Traditional-style hymns are what gives the music of the service its theological bite and, of course, one person's "theological bite" is the next person's "heresy".

If, for example, the minister uses the sermon to give the congregation a guilt trip about something, "God gives us a future" is the preferred hymn to sing with the sermon.  [Accompanist plays a few bars of "God gives us a future".]

If, on the other hand, the minister is trying to apologise for the previous week's guilt trip, the hymn associated with the sermon could be "God is love, let heaven adore him", "There's a wideness in God's mercy", or "Come as you are".  [Accompanist plays a few bars of one of these.]

But then, if the minister's sermon indicates some level of disagreement with one of the Scripture lessons, whether it's a more "progressive" minister disagreeing with something Paul said or a more "conservative" minister disagreeing with something Jesus said, nothing beats "We limit not the truth of God".  [Accompanist plays a few bars thereof.]

Moving on, then it's time for the prayers of intercession.  [Accompanist plays a few bars of Janis Joplin's "Oh, Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?"]

The  notices follow.  [Accompanist plays a few bars of "Rock-a-bye, baby".]

And then there's the offering.  [Accompanist plays a few bars of ABBA's "Money, money, money".]

The children return to tell the congregation what they did during their activities [Accompanist plays a few bars of "Jesus loves the little children".]  giving the minster another unsuccessful shot at "Who made God".

And then it's time for the final hymn.  Now, in recent months, a number of members of the congregation have been heard telling their friends in other churches, [in a whiny, complaining voice] "Oh, our music is dreadful at St. Mungo's.  If it's not that modern rubbish, it's all highbrow stuff."  So, the minister and elders decided to end each service with something that was obviously neither "modern" nor "highbrow" ... in other words, a "gospel hymn". ... 

While gospel hymns arose in the more "religious" sort of churches, they are also popular among many members of churches like St. Mungo's, churches where the words of the hymns don't always reflect the beliefs of the worshippers.  Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that it brings back childhood memories of visiting elderly relatives who were people of a plain-spoken, pietist faith, and who were warm, generous, hospitable, kindly people ... even if they did believe in the total depravity of humanity and the eternal damnation of the unregenerate, among whose  number they would have considered most of today's members of St. Mungo's.

And, by the way, the Praise Band has returned from checking out the band at the AOG.  So the pipe organ will be joined by electric guitar, electric bass, and a full drum kit for this final hymn.  Isn't it exciting?  Isn't it ecumenical?

CHOIR:   (singing, to the tune of "To God be the glory" by Fanny Crosby):

My auntie's "religious".  She's been so for years.
At her church there are many like-minded old dears.
They sing gospel hymns to the tunes Sankey set.
The tunes you'll remember.  The words you'll forget.

The refrain!  The refrain!  How it pounds in my ear!
Numbs the brain!  Numbs the brain!  And it drives me to tears!
It's time for decision; it's your chance to choose
no dancing, no movies, no make-up, no booze!

And so we continue for three or so verses,
while under my breath I am mumbling curses,
and (just as my stamina's starting to falter)
we sing it again as we're called to the altar.

The refrain!  The refrain!  How it pounds in my ear!
Numbs the brain!  Numbs the brain!  And it drives me to tears!
It's time for decision; it's your chance to choose
no dancing, no movies, no make-up, no booze!

NARRATOR:    And now it's time for the Benediction, and following the Benediction, the congregation sings once more, this time holding hands.  (The elders still haven't got around to reading the denomination's paper on avoiding sexual harassment in the congregation.)  But, don't worry, we won't ask you to hold hands.  (I've read the harassment paper.)  But, anyway, good night and may the Ground of All Being bless you all real good.

CHOIR:   (singing, to the tune of "Now unto him" as found in Scripture in Song.)

Now, it is time, it is time to go home.
The service is finally over.
Home to watch the football, or mow the lawn, or eat our lunch
with exceeding joy.
And at night we'll watch an ABC drama
or something on SBS.  (3)
While eating some pizza  (4)
or Chinese takeaway.
Ah .... men.



(1)  In performance, please feel free to make St. Mungo's a congregation of whichever denomination your congregation is part.  Also, you may locate Wobbly Bridge in whichever state, province, or county you find yourselves.

(2)  In performance, please feel free to refer to the minister by whatever term you use to describe the minister (rector, vicar, parish priest, pastor ...) in your congregation, and to adapt any other bits of denominational jargon.

(3)  These are the words for use in Australia.  In the US, it could be "And at night we'll watch the History Channel / or something on PBS."  In the UK, it could be "And at night we'll watch a BBC drama / or something on Channel Four."   (Etc.)   The choice of TV viewing reflects the middle-class nature of a congregation such as St. Mungo's.

(4)  Eating "some pizza" may work in most of the world.  On the west coast of the United States, or in the Southwest, this may be eating "some tacos".  In the UK, this could be eating "a curry".  Anywhere else, this could be whatever happens to be the popular takeaway food in your area.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Cricket and Christianity

Well, cricket season is upon us in the Southern Hemisphere.  For those reading this in such non-cricketing nations as the US, France, or China, my apologies in advance if you don't understand any of my cricket-related references.  If you want to know anything about the basics of cricket, ask any friend who's lived in one of the cricketing nations (Australia, the UK, India, South Africa, the West Indies, Pakistan, New Zealand, Bangladesh ....).

One thing about cricket is that it exists in three basic formats.  (Interestingly, I can compare these three formats to three different styles of Christian worship and ministry -- more about this later.)

The first format is "Test" Cricket.  (Well, it's only called "Test" cricket when it's a match between two national teams, but this longer, classical format is used between local and regional teams as well.)

This is the format of cricket that people joke about.  A match can take up to five days to complete (and still end in a draw).

When cricket enthusiasts say how much they "love cricket", this is usually the form of cricket that they love.  (Similarly, when some non-enthusiasts say they "hate cricket", this is the form of cricket they hate.)

This style of cricket has inspired many such 19th century "sport-as-a-metaphor-for-life" moralisms as "It matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game."

Nevertheless, when a commentator describes a cricketer as a "great cricketer", the measure of the player's greatness is his or her performance in this longer, classical form of the game.

The second format is "Limited-Overs" or "One-day" Cricket.

In the 1970s, for the sake of television, a shorter form of cricket was devised, and it was very controversial at the time.  (I won't get all technical about the format, for the sake of any readers in Nashville, Calais, or Shanghai who may find all the cricket-speak a bit boring.)  Let's just say that potentially thirty-five hours of play spread over five days has become seven hours of play during a single day.  The playing strategies have changed for the different format.  The game is somewhat more fast-paced.  But the way teams score runs or get batsmen out remains the same.

The third format is "Twenty20" Cricket.

Twenty20 is an even shorter and faster form of cricket.  The match is even shorter than One-day, about the length of a baseball or soccer match.  The style of play is even quicker than One-day.  (It's still cricket, however, in terms of the game that's being played.)  There is a lot of entertaining "razzamatazz" associated with the match.  In Australia or the UK, there is the feel of an American baseball match in the attendant sideshow.  In India, the "razzamatazz" approaches that associated with an American football match.

The three styles of cricket all co-exist with each other.   The first two formats most suit a match between national teams, or teams representing English counties or Australian states.  Twenty20 is at its best when played between professional clubs in India (each with a interesting mix of young Indian players and international veterans).  There are questions about the continued viability of the One-day format, now that Twenty20 has become established.

And I see a real parallel between the three formats of cricket and the diverse styles of Christian worship and community that are available in many places today.

First, we have "Test Christianity".

This format of Christianity is found in the classical liturgical denominations (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran), particularly those with a wide diversity of theologies and spiritualities within the one fellowship.  These churches regard worship in terms of a balance of Word and Sacrament.  In these churches, "Tradition" and "Ritual" are not dirty words.  (And, for the most part, both "Tradition" and "Ritual" are living, evolving things in these churches.)

The main paradigm for worship, in this format, is an encounter between the worshippers and the living, triune God.  God is present among the worshipping congregation, and the worshippers experience that presence.

Secondly, there is "One-day Christianity".

This format of Christianity is found among the churches which find their historical roots in the "Protestant" Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Puritan movement of the seventeenth century, and the Wesleyan revival of the eighteenth century (including those formed by ecumenical unions in the twentieth century, such as the Uniting Church in Australia or the United Church of Canada).  While these churches have adapted culturally over the years,  the strong emphasis of these movements upon preaching and teaching has still continued.

While the encounter with God's presence is part of the paradigm for worship in this format, the predominant emphasis of this format (whether the particular style of worship is that of a 1950s "preaching service", a 1970s "all-age family service", or a 1990s "Café-style Fresh Expression") is the need for the members of the congregation to "learn something" about their faith as a result of participating in the worship service.

Thirdly, we also have "Twenty20 Christianity".

Twenty20 Christianity has its roots in various evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic religious revivals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Like Twenty20 cricket, Twenty20 Christianity is much more fast-paced than the two older formats, and it has a lot more "razzamatazz" than the other formats.  Its style of worship emphasises the popular entertainment value of worship far more than the two older formats.  In the early 20th century, its music resembled that of vaudeville and the English music halls.  Today, its music reflects various popular styles (pop, rock, country, hip-hop ....).

Many people who are attracted to Twenty20 styles of Christianity wear their affinities with a congregation or a denomination rather loosely.  They are "consumers" of  what their church has to offer, but some are always on the lookout for a different - and more exciting - product.

Now, the experience of God's presence is part of the paradigm for worship in this format, as is also a "teaching dimension" to the service.  Nevertheless, the predominant (or at least the most obvious) aspect of worship in this format is the dimension of worship-as-entertainment. 

The three styles of Christianity, like the three styles of cricket, can - and should - coexist happily with each other, and - at the very least - they should acknowledge each other as various formats of the one "game" (as happens in cricket).

And like good cricketers, perhaps Christians should be increasingly able to "pad up" and "play" in a variety of formats.  For example, in my own case as a minister, my parish ministry has (other than a brief time in an ecumenical parish with a strong Anglican component) almost exclusively been in churches that play the "One-day" format of church life and worship.  Nevertheless, when I attend church as a worshipper in a congregation, my strong preference is for churches experiencing the "Test" format.  (I personally find it very hard, though, to engage myself in the "Twenty20" format, in either church or cricket, however.)

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Christmas: a season of opportunity

In December of 1994, a few days before Christmas, shoppers were shocked and children were terrified on the streets of the New South Wales country town of Lismore. People from a church - not one of the mainstream churches in this case, but one of the narrow sects - staged a realistic-looking mock assassination of Santa Claus. Shoppers in the central business district thought they saw a man in a Santa suit being gunned down by a man who shouted “Freeze, Santa. You’ve ripped me off for the last time. You’re a fake.”
This happened 43 years after a similar event in France in 1951, this time (unfortunately) involving a mainstream Christian church. The priests of Dijon Cathedral burned an effigy of Peré Nöel, the French version of Father Christmas, during the week before Christmas. The effigy of Peré Nöel was burned as a “usurper and a heretic”.
Personally, I find these incidents very disturbing. (And I believe that they say a great deal about the emotional health of the people responsible for the incidents, far more than the incidents say about anything else.)
As I said in an earlier article, there is much happening at this season within the wider community that we find very frustrating. There is also a lot happening that we can celebrate:
  • The same carols we sing in church are played over the loudspeakers of supermarkets and shopping malls.
  • The same lessons we read in church are read at Carols by Candlelight events sponsored by local government bodies.
  • Nativity scenes are seen in all sorts of non-churchy settings.
  • There is a general sense of generosity, hospitality, tolerance, and goodwill in the air, reflecting (if incompletely) the extravagant generosity of God whose self-giving we celebrate at this season.
For the Christian church, Christmas is a season of opportunity. Rather than being overly aggressive toward the broader community, I believe the church needs to build bridges with our community at this time. 
One year, at the Hobart Carols by Candlelight, I was given a great example of what not to do.  A young man handed me a pamphlet. The pamphlet was headed: 
“Why glory to the new-born King? 
What did he ever do for us?”      

Under the heading , it continued:
This is not a sweet this-time-of-year flier
or anything like that,
I just want you to think about this, be honest:
Why on earth are you singing these songs?
Is it because you’re a Christian and are praising God?
Is it because it makes you feel nice?
Or just an excuse for a drink?
Is it because the kids enjoy a bit of a sing-along
and it seemed like a good thing for all the family?
Well, these songs are here because it’s Christmas,
But what is Christmas?
From there, the pamphlet continued as a evangelistic tract. For me, the single most striking – and most arrogant - thing about this pamphlet was the way it discounted the serious possibility that a person receiving it may actually have a consciously Christian spirituality: “Why on earth are you singing these songs? ... Is it because it makes you feel nice? ... or just an excuse for a drink?” I’m not sure which church produced the pamphlet. It didn’t say. The wording of the pamphlet led me to believe that it was one of the “fringe” sects, and not a mainstream church. 
But that doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s not only the extreme sects who discount our neighbours’ spirituality. In mainstream churches, it’s also too easy to mock those whose churchgoing is confined to times such as:
  • Christmas or Easter;
  • baptisms, weddings, or funerals.

Christmas is a time when Christian churches have a season of opportunity in terms of relating to our wider community, but we rarely grasp the opportunity. I want to make two very practical suggestions for how the church can treat this time as the season of opportunity that it is:

1. Cut down on the disapproval.
2. Cut down on the casual.
1. Cut down on the disapproval.
This is a hard thing to say in some church settings Many people, both inside the churches and outside the churches, think of the churches in terms of the things that the various denominations are against. You know the drill, it goes something like this:
  • One denomination is against drinking and gambling;
  • Another denomination is against gambling but doesn’t mind if you have a drink;
  • A third denomination is not only against gambling and drinking, but it’s also against dancing, wearing make-up, and doing anything on Sunday that isn’t specifically “religious”;
  • A fourth denomination doesn’t worry too much about drinking or gambling, but it is against a lot of other things, usually involving bioethics;
  • Meanwhile, some people joke about more "liberal" churches like the Anglican and Uniting Churches, because we’re not really against anything, … except the things that everyone is supposed to be against, things like violence, bigotry, and greed, … you know, all the stuff Jesus was against.
Nevertheless, many Christians – even in the Anglican and Uniting Churches - have learned to be very disapproving of the ways in which the rest of our community enjoys themselves. We’ve learned how to finger-waggle, how to tut-tut, and how to give the disapproving look. It’s one of the most effective ways that so many congregations have found to almost empty our churches of young people, of working-class people, and of men.
A big first step in terms of the church treating this time of year as a season of opportunity is to cut down on the disapproval. (This is also good advice for many church people at other times of year as well, but Christmas is an excellent time to start.)
2. Cut down on the casual.
I’m speaking here as the first adult in my family to be a regular churchgoer for three generations. I broke a proud family tradition of people who sent their kids to Sunday School but didn’t attend church themselves, other than on special occasions.  From this vantage point, growing up among people who didn’t go to church a lot, let me say that people who don’t go to church a lot find casual worship very hard to take. Some church people enjoy casual worship, but most people who don’t attend church a lot look at casual worship and wonder what it’s all for. 
I’ve heard other clergy speculate whether overly casual worship – or overly gimmicky worship - is more about outreach to the unchurched or entertainment for the overchurched. Personally, I believe it’s all really about entertainment for the overchurched.
People who don’t go to church a lot get their casual in many other places:
  • They get their casual at home - a lot more naturally than when the church tries to “do” casual.
  • They get their casual from the TV - a lot more naturally than when the church tries to “do” casual.
  • They get their casual watching sport - a lot more naturally than when the church tries to “do” casual.
  • They get their casual at the pub - a lot more naturally than when the church tries to “do” casual.
People who don’t go to church a lot - on those special occasions when they do, such as weddings, baptisms, funerals, Easter, and (of course) Christmas – when they go to church, they look to the church to worship God:
  • with a bit of style and flair,
  • with a bit of dignity and solemnity,
  • with a bit of awe and wonder,
  • with a bit of mystery and transcendence.
They can get their casual elsewhere, at places that “do” casual much more naturally – and with much more integrity - than churches “do” casual. People who don’t go to church a lot look to the church for something different. 
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Saviour. We celebrate the Word made flesh. We celebrate God in our midst. The awe, the wonder, the mystery of this event is good news that many of our neighbours want to hear and receive. At any time, but particularly at Christmas, cut down on the casual.


Christmas is a season of opportunity for the Christian church, a time when the church has much in its favour in relating to its wider community. If we want to grasp this opportunity, let’s begin by remembering these two things:

1. Cut down on the disapproval.
2. Cut down on the casual.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.


Monday, 11 November 2013

The Peaceable Kingdom (a sermon: Isaiah 65:17-25)

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, 
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; . . .
They shall not hurt or destroy 
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

In the nineteenth century, the American artist Edward Hicks painted a series of pictures with the same title:  “The Peaceable Kingdom”.  Edward Hicks was a Quaker and he saw his art as his way of sharing the Quaker community’s convictions about peace and non-violence.

The paintings are landscapes, with some animals in the foreground and a child in their midst.  The animals are painted in what the art world calls a naïve style, in other words not very realistically, even though the landscapes are very realistic.  In each of the pictures, we find a group of animals of different species: fierce predators resting alongside defenseless grass-eaters. 

All the animals have a look of calm about them. 
·        The carnivores are not agitated by the presence of their prey. 
·        The herbivores are not worried by the presence of their hunters. 

All the creatures have a wise, almost philosophical, look on their faces.
·        The child has the expression of a mature adult.
·        The animals have almost human expressions on their faces.

Edward Hicks’s paintings picked up themes we hear in our Old Testament lesson today.  In the 65th chapter of Isaiah, we hear an image of peace at the climax of human history:

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; . . .
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

This image echoes a theme found earlier in the book of Isaiah, in the eleventh chapter; in a passage we’ll hear in three weeks’ time on the Second Sunday of Advent:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
the weaned child shall put its hand
on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

As some background to why this theme is found twice within Isaiah, most Old Testament scholars – whether Christian or Jewish – most Old Testament scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was actually three different books, written by three different people, at three different times in history.
·        The first part of Isaiah, chapters 1 to 39, was from a time before the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon.  Isaiah the prophet attempted to warn the community of the crisis that was to come.
·        The second part of Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55, was from the time of the Exile.  A later prophet, following in Isaiah’s tradition, sought to provide comfort and encouragement for the community struggling to maintain its life together during the crisis.
·        The third section, chapters 56 to 66, was from a time after the Exile, as a third prophet in the tradition of the first two intended to provide guidance to the Jews as they rebuilt their national life.  Along with the books of Ruth and Jonah, also from this time, this third section of Isaiah was an encouragement to the Jews to rebuild their community on a far more inclusive basis.

In today’s passage, from what we can call “Third Isaiah”, we find an image of God’s future expressed in terms of wholeness and well-being for humanity.  People live to a ripe old age.  People can enjoy the fruit of their own labour in safety and security.

The sense of security seen in this passage extends from the world of humanity to the wider world of nature.  We see this in the image of animals at different positions on the food chain eating together without eating each other.  This is the dramatic, yet peaceful image found in Edward Hicks’ paintings.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; . . .
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

As well, there's another dramatic image of peace from the book of Isaiah – in a passage we’ll hear in two weeks’ time on the first Sunday of Advent - an image of swords being beaten into ploughshares.  This other dramatic image is given visual expression in a statue found on the grounds of the United Nations building in New York, a statue that was a gift to the UN from the old Soviet Union.  In this statue, a muscular, athletic-looking bloke (possibly even one of Karl Marx’s “workers of the world”) is busily engaged in beating a dangerous-looking sword into a useable-looking plough.

They shall beat their bayonets into tractors,
and their Kalishnikovs into combine harvesters.

Back to our lesson, the images of peace and well-being we find in our lesson are affirmed as God’s initiative:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating; . . . .

While this is God’s initiative, however, we are not let off the hook.  With any of God’s activities, God calls humanity as a partner in the task of creation.  Now as always, God calls us to be partners in peacemaking.

As Christians, we celebrate God-as-Trinity.  In the love of Father, Son, and Spirit for one another, the living God whom we worship lives in community.  The profound love of God-as-Trinity spills over into profound love for the whole creation.  Thus, we affirm that God always takes the initiative in making peace and creating community, among humanity and among the whole created universe.

God calls us to join in the task of building community, of helping in God’s task of building the peaceable kingdom. 

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox; . . .
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Christmas: not only for the religious

In 1981, the Tasmanian department store chain Fitzgerald’s (now part of Harris Scarfe) had an advertising campaign that featured the slogan: “Christmas is Fitzgerald’s”.   Justifiably, many people were annoyed. People wrote letters to the editor of all three Tasmanian papers.   Highly critical statements were issued by various church bodies. Fitzgerald’s business began to suffer.   Finally, they withdrew the ads and, in their new ads, apologised for any distress they caused.
A priest I knew was shopping in a supermarket.   He wasn’t wearing his clerical collar.   (It was about the time when most Catholic priests were starting to wear civilian clothes most of the time.)   He overheard a conversation between two shoppers about the Fitzgerald’s advert.   He decided to eavesdrop on the conversation, and he heard one woman say:
“Imagine that, Mavis; the flaming churches are even trying to take over Christmas!”
In many cases, there is a sense of frustration at this time of year on the part of those of us within the churches.
On the one hand, there is much happening that we can celebrate.
  • The same carols we sing in church are played over the loudspeakers of supermarkets and shopping malls.
  • The same lessons we read in church are read at Carols by Candlelight events sponsored by local government bodies.
  • Nativity scenes are seen in all sorts of non-churchy settings.
  • There is a general sense of generosity, tolerance, and goodwill in the air, reflecting (if incompletely) the extravagant generosity of God whose self-giving we celebrate at this season.
On the other hand, there is much of which we can, should, and must be critical.   The worse of it is a certain manipulation on the part of advertisers that tries to say that the one, effective way of showing love at this season is by spending frantically.   Often, the people who have the least money to spend are also those who are emotionally least resistant to this manipulation.
There always has been a certain ambivalence within the Christian church to our celebrations of this season.  Frequently, this ambivalence has been strongest among the more intensely “religious” sort of Christian.   At its most extreme, the English Puritans refused to celebrate Christmas.   And, in fact, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Christmas was banned in England.
But, even at the beginning of the Christmas celebration, there was a certain ambivalence on the part of the church.   It was only about four centuries after the time of Christ that Christmas began to be observed.   It was soon after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire.   There was a popular pagan Roman holiday called Saturnalia at this time of the year.   The Christian church was concerned that some Christians (particularly those who were less-committed) may be tempted to lapse into pagan worship if there was no Christian competition for Saturnalia.   So, a celebration of the birth of Christ was established at the time we do so now.   (Before then, Easter and Pentecost were the only major Christian festivals.)   Celebrating Christmas gave Christians an opportunity to celebrate at the same time as their pagan neighbours.   The idea worked.   It worked well.  From the beginning of the Christmas celebration, Christmas was not only for the “religious”.
And in our gospel lessons about the birth of Jesus, we also see people who were not so “religious”, people who were outside the community of faith (or at least the active community of faith), playing important roles in the church’s retelling of the birth of Jesus.
  • In Matthew’s gospel, we find the wise men.  Now, the wise men weren’t Jewish.  They were Persian scholars, ... members of the Zoroastrian faith, ... exotic foreign intellectuals.  In fact, the wise men did the highly un-Jewish thing of practising astrology.  These exotic foreign intellectuals were among those who followed the star and paid tribute to the infant Jesus.
  • In Luke’s gospel, we have shepherds.  Now, the shepherds were Jewish but they wouldn’t have been considered very good Jews.  For one thing, they couldn’t go to the temple all that often.  It went with the job.  Working with animals, they came into constant contact with the blood and the faeces of animals.  As a result, they were ritually unclean and would have to take a number of days off work for ritual baths before they could go to the Temple.  Thus, a religiously-minded Jew didn’t think of becoming a shepherd.  It was a job for your basic secular, working-class bloke.  But it was these secular, working-class blokes to whom the angels gave the news about Jesus’ birth.  
In the gospel accounts of the first Christmas, Christmas was not only for the “religious”.   Matthew’s exotic foreign intellectuals and Luke’s secular, working-class blokes were there as well.   From its very beginning, Christmas was not only for the “religious”.
But I’ll conclude this article with a story from an English Methodist minister named Jack Burton.   For a number of decades, Jack Burton earned his living as a bus driver in the city of Norwich, so that he could engage in a deliberate ministry with people for whom the churches - for whom any churches - are unfamiliar territory.   One day, a few days before Christmas Day, Jack entered Norwich Cathedral, with Tony, his bus conductor.   Like the shepherds in Luke’s gospel, Tony was a secular, working-class bloke; one of these people for whom any church is unknown territory.  Jack Burton tells the story:
“Inside the great building, decorated for Christmas, Tony looked round and said, ‘Is this for everyone?’   I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant: ‘Can anyone walk round here at any time?’ ‘Can anyone come to the services here?’   But I didn’t stop to ask - I answered immediately and emphatically, ‘Yes, of course.’   It was a good question.”            (Jack Burton, Transport of Delight, SCM, p. 61.)

“‘Is this for everyone?’ … ‘ Yes, of course.’”
From its very beginning, and continuing to our own day, Christmas was not only for the “religious”.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.