Monday, 26 May 2014

"An ecumenical matter": a sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (John 17)

Many of us remember the TV comedy series “Father Ted”. It was a popular series, which was cut short by the sudden death of the actor who played Father Ted. The series was set on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. An oddly assorted team of three priests served the people of the small island.
  • There was Father Dougal, young, inexperienced, na├»ve, and … clueless.
  • There was Father Jack, an elderly man, quite a dynamic priest in his day, but now seriously bonkers.
  • And then there was Father Ted, the parish priest, holding the team together, and engaging in a fair amount of wheeling-and-dealing in the process.  
Frequently, the situation would arise where the group of three priests were in a bit of a quandary as to which of two or more options to follow. This situation was sometimes solved by Father Ted making the comment, “You know, I think this may be an ecumenical matter.” Father Ted’s confreres usually responded to this statement by solemnly earnest expressions, followed by big, broad grins. For, you see, in that context, “an ecumenical matter” meant:
  • It would take ages to sort out.
  • It would be sorted out at the highest possible level, far away from that small island off the Irish coast.
  • In the meantime, we can do what we want (and please don’t bother the bishop about it)
We’re at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, or at least we are here in Australia. It was founded in the early twentieth century by a Frenchman whose surname means “dressmaker”, a Roman Catholic priest named Paul Couturier. Churches in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in mid-January. In Australia and New Zealand, we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity during the week leading up to the Day of Pentecost.
And always, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the churches are challenged to hear once again the words of Jesus’ prayer “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”
We hear these words in today’s lesson from John’s gospel. It was the night before the crucifixion. Jesus was praying. In John’s gospel we find a different prayer than one Jesus prayed that evening in the other gospels.  

In Matthew, in Mark, and in Luke, Jesus prayed, on the one hand, asking his Father if there was any alternate course of action before him other than the way of the cross. On the other hand, he prayed “Not my will, but yours, be done.”
This prayer wasn’t found in John’s gospel. Instead, the emphasis was on the disciples and – by extension – all in future generations who would believe in the way of Jesus, ourselves included.
Jesus prayed “… that they may all be one …” and then, later in the prayer, after today’s lesson, Jesus expanded the prayer to “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”.
And, you know, the opposite has been true as well. The fact that Christians have allowed ourselves over the centuries to be divided has been a really good excuse, an excellent excuse, for many other people to avoid, to ignore, or to absolutely rubbish the Christian faith.
 Still Jesus prayed, both for his disciples then and for us today, “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”.
So, really, for something to be “an ecumenical matter”, does not mean that it is something that will necessarily:
  • take ages to sort out, or
  • be sorted out far, far away from any of us.
Instead, the task of ecumenism – the task of promoting the wholeness of the people of God - is a task that Jesus has given to every Christian. Jesus prayed for each one of us “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”. In a real way, any Christian who has said “No” to ecumenism has really also said “No” to Jesus.
But, of course, we need to know the difference between real ecumenism and mere post-denominationalism.
Post-denominationalism is something that sociologists have told us about for decades. There are many people of faith – good, sincere people of faith – who have a tragic inability to commit themselves to a particular community of faith.
For many decades, people on the “evangelical” end of the Christian spectrum have drifted about, from congregation to congregation, and from denomination to denomination. For many decades, there has been an observable “floating” population on the evangelical side of the spectrum, moving quickly to churches where it seems “the action is” and moving just as quickly to other churches when they believe “the action” has shifted.
In more recent decades, this has also been an issue for mainstream Christian churches such as the Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, and Uniting Churches. There’s been the beginning of the growth of a similar “floating” church population such as our evangelical neighbours have known for a much longer time. And the growth of this “floating” church population among mainstream churches is what some sociologists call “post-denominationalism”.
While some of this post-denominationalism is a result of people having had earlier bad experiences in churches, a much larger part of this post-denominationalism has to do with our consumer-oriented society. As consumers exercise choice between various commodities or suppliers, many of whom differ mainly in areas of fine detail, there is an increasing sense of “Let’s see where I can get the best deal at the moment, and I’ll decide later whether or not I want to change my mind.” And this works whether the choice is between:
  • Coke and Pepsi, 
  • Coles and Woolies,
  • McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s,
  • Jetstar and Virgin,
  • ANZ and Westpac,
  • Ford and Holden,
  • Carlton and Collingwood, or 
  • Liberal and Labor.
So, then, a similar consumer-oriented approach to faith tells many people that there is a similar sort of temporary, provisional choice between:
  • Catholic and Lutheran, 
  • Anglican and Uniting, or
  • Baptist and Mormon.
And essentially, this consumer-oriented approach to faith is the key to post-denominationalism.
The real problem is when people with an uncommitted, post-denominational approach decide to describe themselves as “ecumenical”.  "Ecumenism" is then unfairly equated with a lack of commitment.

The ecumenical movement is truly about commitment. It’s about people who have a passionate – but by no means uncritical – commitment to the unity and the well-being of their particular communities of faith. It’s about these people recognising that they have a far greater, far more profound, and far more passionate commitment to the unity and the well-being of the larger people of God.
Ecumenism is not about a lack of commitment. In truth, it’s about a heightened commitment.
The task of ecumenism – the task of promoting the wholeness of the people of God - is a task that Jesus has given to every Christian. Jesus prayed for each one of us “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Is your congregation's worship "metaphor-friendly" (or is worship a "metaphor-free zone" in your congregation)?

This morning I had an insight in church.

I wasn't leading worship.  I was attending a service as a worshipper, sitting in a pew.

It wasn't the congregation I serve as supply minister, or any other congregation of the Uniting Church.  It was an Anglican Church (or "Episcopalian" for my friends in the States), one of a handful of "Anglo-Catholic" parishes in what's become (in recent years) a rather evangelical diocese.  I enjoy attending this church whenever I'm not scheduled to lead worship elsewhere.

Anyway, at one point, I had an insight during the worship.

There were a number of phrases and comments in the liturgy and some of the hymns that I would either avoid using or spend a great deal of time and effort "unpacking".  There were references to the atonement in terms of "sacrifice".  There were references to Jesus "coming again".  There were references to "Adam".  If these references were associated with a service I was preparing to lead, I would expend a great deal of energy in "unpacking" them, in terms of "Now, we don't take these statements literally.  We regard them as metaphors.  Here's the meaning we can receive from them, even while we should never take them literally."  And if I didn't have the energy to unpack the metaphor, I'd look for ways to avoid using the metaphor.

In this setting, I didn't worry.  I knew the statements were metaphors.  I knew that the other worshippers present also regarded these statements as metaphors.  This church is not a fundamentalist congregation where the people held literally to a view of the atonement as a substitutionary blood sacrifice, or a literal "Second Coming", or a literal "Adam".  The metaphoric nature of these statements were obvious, and we all enjoyed the benefit of the metaphors.

My moment of insight was this:  Some churches are "metaphor-friendly" in their worship, while the worship in other churches is, necessarily, a "metaphor-free zone".

In some churches (particularly churches in an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic tradition, along with the more "catholic" sort of Anglican/Episcopalians and Lutherans - along with a very fortunate handful of churches in other traditions) worship is metaphoric.  Worshippers feel under no pressure to literalise the metaphoric dimension of what they see, hear, and experience in worship.  The worship of these churches is "metaphor-friendly".

Other churches have a different approach to worship.  They are in the classically "Protestant" strand of church life.  Many worshippers in these churches are cerebrally-oriented people for whom something is either literally true or literally false.  (And if something isn't easily categorised as either literally true or literally false, it's regarded as a problem to solve.)  In these churches, metaphors need to be either "unpacked" or avoided.  The worship of these churches would be a "metaphor-free zone".

Here are a few questions for you to help decide whether worship in your church is "metaphor-friendly" or if it's a "metaphor-free zone".

1.  Is the highlight of worship each week a celebration of the Eucharist / Lord's Supper / Mass / Holy Communion?  If yes, your worship could well be "metaphor-friendly".  Is the highlight of the service a sermon?  If yes, your worship is probably a "metaphor-free zone".

2.  Do the worship leaders in your church wear vestments (albs, stoles, etc.)?  This may point to a "metaphor-friendly" approach.  (The fancier the gear, the more potentially "metaphor-friendly".)  Do they wear "normal" clothing (either business suits, or casual clothing, or anything in between)?  This sounds like worship is a "metaphor-free zone".  (If the worship leaders wear either academic-inspired or legal-inspired robes, that sounds even more "metaphor-free" than normal clothing.)

3.  What about the music?  Is it inclined to the classics ("metaphor-friendly") or to pop ("metaphor-free").

4.  What about the physical worship space?  Are there some visual aids to devotion (stained-glass windows, icons, statues, candles ....), or it is a plainly Bapto-Quaker-Presbygational meeting house?  The more plain the worship space, the more "metaphor-free" you can expect the worship event to be.

There are two particular things to look for.
  • If a church uses incense, this just screams "METAPHOR-FRIENDLY!" at the worshippers.
  • If a church uses a data projector, it similarly screams "METAPHOR-FREE ZONE!"
And, if you ever happen to attend worship in a church where incense and a data projector are used in the same service, ... be confused .... be very confused.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Three Venerable Bigotries

In any culture, a number of prejudices are deeply ingrained for so many people that they are considered second-nature.

Some of these prejudices are racially-based or ethnically-based.  Some are religiously-based.  Others are gender-based or lifestyle-based.  All these prejudices are deeply and profoundly stupid.

Nevertheless, the stupidity of these prejudices do not weaken the power of these prejudices, in any real way.  Despite their complete and utter irrationality, these prejudices remain strong.

As a person who lives in a western and English-speaking culture, I am aware of three religious prejudices that are strongly persistent in my own culture.   Two of them are common to all western societies.  A third is particularly virulent in the English-speaking world. 

I call these prejudices "The Three Venerable Bigotries".
  • The first venerable bigotry, common to all western societies, is antisemitism.
  • The second venerable bigotry, also common to all western societies, is islamopobia
  • The third venerable bigotry, particularly virulent in the English-speaking world, is anti-Catholicism.
Obviously, there are other strongly ingrained bigotries that persist in our world and our culture, based on differences of race, ethnicity, gender, lifestyle and other factors.  These are three particular bigotries that are religiously-based.

Antisemitism, the irrational fear of - or hatred toward - Judaism and individual Jews (merely for being Jewish) has been present in most cultures whose traditions were shaped by Christianity ever since the "parting of the ways" between Christianity and Judaism during the first century CE. 

Islamophobia, the irrational fear of - or hatred toward - the Islamic faith and individual Muslims (merely for being Muslim), has similarly been present in most cultures whose traditions were shaped by Christianity ever since the emergence of the Islamic faith in the seventh century CE.

Anti-Catholicism, the irrational fear of - or hatred toward - the Roman Catholic Church and (at times) individual Catholics (merely for being Catholic), has similarly been present in most English-speaking countries ever since the religious conflicts in Britain in the sixteenth century.

These three venerable bigotries share some common features:

In the case of each of these prejudices, there is a significant body of hate literature (i.e., The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and similar books in the case of Catholics, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and similar books in the case of Jews, many more recent works in the case of Muslims).  Even for those who haven't read these works of fiction posing as fact, their message has infected the attitudes of many people.  And the message of these books is, simply and falsely, "The community of people about whom you're reading here is a sinister institution determined to harm you."  (And, if you haven't read these books, my advice is that you have far better things to do with your time, and far better books to read.)

In the case of each of these prejudices, there is a determined effort by many to associate all the members of a community with the crimes of a few.  According to this mentality, all Catholics (or at least all priests and religious) are blamed for the activities of a small number of paedophile clergy.  Similarly, this mentality blames all Muslims ... or all Jews ... or both ... for the activities of a comparatively small number of political extremists in the Middle East.

The content of these bigotries varies according to the individual, but the bitterness remains.
  • If you're on the political "right", your anti-Semitism, islamophobia, or anti-Catholicism takes on a right-of-centre flavour.
  • If you're on the political "left", your anti-Semitism, islamophobia, or anti-Catholicism takes on a left-of-centre flavour.
  • If you're religious, your antisemitism, islamophobia, or anti-Catholicism takes on a religious flavour.
  • If you're non-religious (or even anti-religious), your antisemitism, islamophobia, or anti-Catholicism takes on a non-religious (or anti-religious) flavour.
In either way, the bitterness remains.

While people holding these bigotries point to events in the news as support for their prejudices, the prejudices are not dependent on the events.
  • If the whole political situation in the Middle East was solved to the full satisfaction of all the various communities in the area, antisemitism and islamophobia would remain problems in our western society.
  • Similarly, if the problem of child abuse among some clergy was completely solved, with appropriate penalties given to all who abused children and all who covered up these crimes, we'd still have a problem with anti-Catholicism in our community.
Antisemitism, islamophobia, and anti-Catholicism are the bigotries that just keep on giving.

With all bigotry, the responsibility for combatting the prejudice rests on those of us who are not among the objects of the bigotry.  As with racism, sexism, and homophobia, so it is also with these three venerable bigotries.:
  • For those of us, including myself, who are gentile, combatting antisemitism is our business.
  • For those of us, including myself, who are Christian, combatting islamophobia is our business,
  • For those of us, including myself, who are "Protestant", combatting anti-Catholicism is our business.
Bigotry of any sort is a threat to our community.  The task of resisting bigotry is up to each of us.

Monday, 12 May 2014

"Many places to live in ....": a sermon (John 14:1-14)

When I was a theological student, I saw a poster that I absolutely “coveted”, in the full biblical sense of “covet”.  It was a drawing – a cartoon-like drawing - of a large, complex building – a building with many domes.  Each of the domes was topped with a religious symbol.

Some of the domes had crosses:
  • one had the three-armed cross typical of Eastern Orthodox Christianity;
  • another one had the crucifix typical of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Christianity;
  • a third had the plain cross typical of the various "Protestant" Christian churches.
Other domes had other religious symbols:
  • a Star of David representing Judaism;
  • a crescent moon representing Islam;
  • and other symbols of other faith communities.
Also on the poster were words from today’s gospel lesson, words from the old Authorised Version, the version authorised by the fellow known to the English as James the First, to the Scots as James the Sixth, and to the more pedantic sort of historian as James the First and Sixth.  According to King Jimmy’s version, Jesus said to his disciples:  “In my Father’s house are many mansions”.  And those were the words quoted on the poster.

I coveted that poster.  And I still do.

And the reason I coveted the poster is the fact that it pays tribute to the people of God in its wholeness: not only the Christian people of God, but also;
  • the Jewish people of God,
  • the Muslim people of God,
  • the Hindu people of God,
  • the Buddhist people of God,
  • the Sikh people of God,
  • the Baha’i people of God,
  • and the whole crowd.

I still covet that poster.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You trust in God, trust also in me.
In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;
otherwise I would have told you.

The Greek words used in this passage are important.

The word used for the Father’s house is the word oikos, from which we get such high-powered English words as economics, ecology, and that highly significant word for people of faith: ecumenical.   Oikos means “house” in its broadest sense, not just a building, but the family or other community who relate to a common home.

The words used to refer to the “many mansions” are monai pollai, literally “many residences”.  Some translations speak of “many rooms”, or many dwelling-places”.  The fact that the translators hired by King Jimmy the First and Sixth spoke of “many mansions” may be an indication of the aristocratic context in which they worked.

The old German translation by Herr Luther spoke of viele Wohnungen, “many residences”, which was as close to the Greek as we can get. 

The translators of the New Jerusalem Bible have probably given the closest approximation of the Greek I’ve seen in any English translation when they gave us:

In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;

Now, there are some Christians who are uncomfortable with this idea:

In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;

This sort of Christian believes that there is only one place to live in within the Father’s house, the same place where they are.  And, they believe, if you’re not there, you are not in the Father’s house. 

This sort of Christian prefers words that appear a bit later in this chapter, words that also appear in today’s gospel lesson, words in which Jesus was quoted as calling himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” and declaring that “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This sort of Christian is offended by the idea that anyone who follows a path other than a strictly Christian one is part of the people of God. 

This sort of Christian is profoundly offended by the idea that many Christians – including myself – can regard a person who follows a path other than a strictly Christian one as part of the people of God. 

I feel profoundly sorry for that sort of Christian.  I have no idea why any person has any real need to believe that other people will be eternally condemned by God merely on the basis of their theology.  I personally feel really sorry for anyone who believes this.

But, I also know I really need to take a stance of “tough love” toward them and say “In the name of Jesus Christ, I believe you are profoundly wrong!”

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You trust in God, trust also in me.
In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;
otherwise I would have told you.

Remember here, the gospel of John was the last of the four gospels to be written.  The vast majority of New Testament scholars believe the words of Jesus in John’s gospel were not actually spoken by Jesus.  Rather, these words were reflections on the significance of Jesus by the next generation of Christians.

This refers to all the quotes by Jesus in John’s gospel.
  • It refers to the nice bits, the inspirational bits, such as “In my Father’s house there are many places to live in…”.
  • It also refers the less nice bits, the less inspirational bits, the hard-edged stuff such as No one comes to the Father except through me.”
All of the quotes by Jesus in John’s gospel are reflections on the significance of Jesus by the next generation of Christians.

Now, this isn’t something I’ve come up with on my own.  Anyone who studied Christian theology in the last half-century at any reputable theological institution, whether Protestant or Catholic, has learned this.  (And if they didn’t learn this, they may have been taking a nap during their New Testament lectures.)

Now, if both of these comments are reflections on Jesus’ significance by a later generation of Christians, rather than the exact words of Jesus, we are in fact free to evaluate either on their merits.
  • Does an attitude that there are “many residences” … “many places to live in” … within the Father’s house reflect the spirit of Jesus?
  • Or does an attitude of “No one comes to the Father except through me” somehow reflect the spirit of Jesus? 
If you think it does, I believe the ball is in your court, because I frankly find that attitude completely alien to everything else I see in the life, teachings, and person of Jesus.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You trust in God, trust also in me.
In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;
otherwise I would have told you.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Some reflections on Mothers' Day

The modern day we celebrate as Mothers’ Day has its origins in three different celebrations.

Since the Middle Ages, in much of Europe, the fourth Sunday of Lent – three Sundays before Easter - was observed as Mothering Sunday. On this day, children who were working away from home were given the weekend off to visit their mothers. Frequently, the working children gave their mothers a rich fruit cake, known in England as a Simnel cake, as a pre-Easter present. It was often the one day of the year when all members of a family were together at one time. Families made a point of worshipping together. In many churches, bunches of flowers were given to each mother present.  In many areas, these traditions lapsed over the centuries, but there were many other areas where the traditions were kept up.

The celebration of this day as Mothers’ Day developed from two proposed celebrations in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1872, Julia Ward Howe, the author of the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, suggested the establishment of a “Mothers’ Day for Peace” in June every year. Following the carnage of the American Civil War and of the Franco-Prussian War, she called on the mothers of all nations to unite to promote peace and to oppose warfare, in a document she called “An appeal to womanhood throughout the world”. She wrote:

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. ... The women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

Sadly, nothing much came of Julia Ward Howe’s proposal other than a few occasional local celebrations.

In the early twentieth century, a woman named Anna Jarvis established a day that (at least in its early years) had similarities both with the European Mothering Sunday and with Julia Ward Howe’s “Mothers’ Day for Peace”.

Anna Jarvis’s mother, Ann, was an active community worker in rural West Virginia. During the years following the American Civil War, living in an area where local sentiments were divided between the two sides, Ann Jarvis set up a number of community groups where women could meet with other women, regardless of their families’ side in the conflict.  These groups promoted reconciliation in their communities following the tragic war.

Following Ann’s death in 1906, her daughter Anna began a campaign to establish a Mothers’ Day celebration. This celebration involved both the sense of honouring individual mothers (as in the European Mothering Sunday) and with the humanitarian sense found in Julia Ward Howe’s “Mothers’ Day for Peace” and in her own mother's community work in West Virginia. The first public celebration of Mothers’ Day was on the 10th of May, 1908, at the Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.

Mothers’ Day was officially recognised in the United States in 1914, and in many other countries since then.

Interestingly, Anna Jarvis’s campaign in the United States inspired a English woman named Constance Smith to begin a campaign to revive the celebration of Mothering Sunday in the UK at about the same time, and with similar motivations as Anna Jarvis, but continuing with the traditional European date of the 4th Sunday of Lent.  

In her later years, Anna Jarvis was profoundly saddened by the commercialism that surrounded Mothers’ Day and, by the time of her death in 1948, she expressed her deep regrets that she had been involved in establishing an event that had been so badly commercialised. (It’s just as well that she hasn’t seen how badly commercialised the day has become in the years since her death.)

As we celebrate Mothers’ Day today, even as we lament the commercialism that has affected this celebration (like so many other celebrations), there are many signs of hope in the history of this day. Not the least of the signs of hope is in the fact that such individuals as Julia Ward Howe, Ann Jarvis, Anna Jarvis, and Constance Smith - each of whom were individuals of active Christian faith and commitment - how each of these women were able to take hope-filled ideas and work to make their ideas a reality.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A liturgical greeting for Mothers' Day

We gather to worship God, the Trinity of Love:
Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life.

Today is the fourth Sunday of the Easter season.  We continue to celebrate the reality of the risen Christ in the midst of his people. Each year, the focus of today’s lessons on this fourth Sunday of Easter is Christ the Good Shepherd.  Our lessons and some of our hymns today will reflect the theme of Christ the Good Shepherd.
Today is also the day celebrated as Mothers’ Day.  So, happy Mothers’ Day to all mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, stepmothers, foster mothers, mothers-in-law, aunts, great aunts, big sisters, child care workers, early childhood teachers, pet carers, and other maternal individuals (of either gender) who are part of the congregation today.  Morning tea will follow the service, and you are invited to stay and enjoy morning tea.
On Mothers’ Day, we also remember with compassion those who are mourning the death of their mothers or their grandmothers.

As well, on Mothers’ Day, we also remember with compassion those whose experience of their parents was not one they remember with thanksgiving.  We remember those whose childhood was marked by abuse or neglect, or those who grew up with the feeling that, in their families, every day was Mothers’ Day, or every day was Fathers’ Day.  And, if that was your experience, we reach out to you this day as well.
Today, we also celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion, rejoicing in the presence of the risen Christ who shares himself with us as food and drink.  (The Uniting Church celebrates an open communion.  All who seek to be fed from Christ’s table are encouraged to share in this sacrament, without exception.)

Therefore, let us worship God.
Our opening hymn is associated with one of the noted mothers in the Bible, Mary. It’s based on her hymn of praise in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, the hymn we call the Magnificat, “Tell out my Soul, the greatness of the Lord.”