Saturday, 19 July 2014

"Charlie's Country": a film review

About a week ago, I was invited to attend a preview (at the State Cinema in North Hobart) of the new Australian film "Charlie's Country", starring the iconic Aboriginal Australian actor David Gulpilil.  Following the preview, there was a conversation about the film with the director, Rolf De Heer.

Charlie, played by David Gulpilil, is an Aboriginal Australian man of late middle age - bordering on elderly - living in a small community in the Northern Territory.  At one level, Charlie is critical of the impacts of western society on his community, particularly as seen in the effects of the abuse of alcohol, tobacco, drugs and "whitefella junk food".  At another level, Charlie personally participates in his people's adoption of these western vices with some level of enthusiasm.

Charlie was a noted dancer in his youth.  He looked with some level of personal pride to the time when he was a member of the troupe of traditional Aboriginal dancers who performed at the opening of the Sydney Opera House, in the presence of no less a personage than Queen Elizabeth II.  Even so, when he was asked to teach the traditional dances to some of the local young people, he declined, saying there were others who were far better at the dances than he was.

Charlie decides to leave the town and go out to the bush to live "in the old way", hunting, fishing, and cooking his food over an open fire.  (The scenes where he cooks and eats a fish that he caught are worthy of any gastronomic scene in "Babette's Feast".)  The scenes where Charlie is living in the bush are paced in a leisurely manner, reflecting the culture and the environment.

Things begin to change.  Charlie becomes ill as a result of exposure in a heavy rain.  He is evacuated to hospital in Darwin, the main city of the Northern Territory.  After leaving hospital, he is drawn into the company of a community of urban Aborigines living in a park in Darwin and indulging in the various "whitefella" vices with great enthusiasm.  After committing a minor, "nuisance" offense (an offense for which a "whitefella" would merely receive a stern lecture from the judge), Charlie goes to prison.

After release from prison, Charlie returns to his community.  He seriously tried to avoid the "whitefella" vices that got him into trouble.  One scene at this point in the film shows him throwing some cigarettes into a camp fire, one by one.

Finally, Charlie is asked once again to teach some of the traditional dances to the kids.  This time he says yes.  The film ends with Charlie teaching the dances to the young people and talking once again about his involvement in opening the Sydney Opera House in the presence of the Queen.

This is a film about human transformation, both positive and negative.

The example of negative transformation is seen particularly in the character of one young, white police officer, who at the beginning of the film is well-disposed to the Aboriginal community and seeks to make a positive impact on the relations between the racial groups.  As the film goes on, he hardens and becomes a bigot.

The example of positive transformation is in the character of Charlie.  For most of the film, Charlie is on the verge of self-destruction, whether intentional, or unintentional, or a combination of both.  At the end of the film, Charlie finds wholeness for himself as he teaches the dances to the young people.  Wholeness for Charlie is found in two things:  (1) engaging in the tradition of his people and (2) doing something positive for others.  That sounds like a pretty good formula for wholeness for any of us. 

While there isn't a single word about religion in this film, I believe this is a profoundly spiritual film.  Charlie's search for wholeness was a profoundly spiritual search.

This film is worth seeing a few times.  Catch it in the cinema.  Buy the DVD.  It's definitely among the group of films that we should all, particularly those of us living in Australia, view, "mark, learn, and inwardly digest".

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

“…Some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”: a sermon (Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23)

Jesus once told a story about a farmer sowing some seeds. He spoke of the different results with different seeds, depending on where they were sown.
  • Some seeds fell on the path. They were eaten up by birds before they had a chance to grow.
  • Other seeds fell on rocky ground. They sprouted quickly, but didn’t continue to grow, because they were in shallow soil.
  • Other seeds fell among thorny plants and, as they sprouted, the new plants were choked by the existing plants.
  • Still other seeds fell on good soil. They grew, and grew well.
Later in the chapter, an explanation of this parable is given. The seed was the “word of the kingdom”, the message of God’s love. The fates of the various different seeds represent people’s varied response to the message of God’s love.

The majority of New Testament scholars agree that the explanation is not part of the original story and, in fact, is from a somewhat later time than the story itself … probably from at least a generation later than the time when Jesus told the story.
In fact, the emphasis of the actual parable is very different from the emphasis of the later explanation. 
  • The emphasis of the actual parable is on celebrating the seeds which grew, and which grew well, both the seeds in the story itself and, by extension, for the metaphorical “seeds” of the message of God’s love.
  • The emphasis of the later “explanation” is on the reasons for the failure of those seeds which didn’t grow well, particularly for the metaphorical seeds, making the story less of a parable and more of an allegory.
We need to remember that there is a difference between a parable and an allegory. In an allegory, every part of the story has a symbolic meaning. In a parable, such as the stories Jesus told, there is usually only a single point to the story. In the case of this parable, the point of the story is celebrating the seeds which grew, and which grew well.
Still, we can use the general premise of the explanation that the seeds represent the message of God’s love, and that the various sorts of soil for the seeds represent our various reactions to the message of God’s love. Given that premise, what parallels do we see, in our own day, in the year Twenty-fourteen, to the situations in this parable.
1. First, there are the seeds that fell on the path and were eaten by the birds.  And there are people of faith who get “eaten up”.
There are some people who get “bored” by the mainstream churches and become attracted to the more predatory, “fundamentalist” sort of churches, the more “religious” sort of churches. Frequently, they may get excited at first in these groups. Frequently, they may find the religious certainty of these groups very satisfying. Frequently, they enjoy being told what to believe. 
It’s not really their fault. Some people like certainty. Some people can’t cope with ambiguity.
But then, many find that they can’t accept the whole package of beliefs and lifestyle expected by these groups. And many feel that, if they reject (or even question) one part of their group’s teachings, they’ve rejected the lot. And many leave. 
The predatory, “fundamentalist” churches have a very wide “back door”. We hear a lot about the people who leave mainstream churches and go to the more “religious” churches. We hear far less about the people who leave these predatory churches. They often don’t go to the mainstream churches because they’ve usually been told so many bad things about us in the more “religious” churches. When people leave the predatory churches, they usually end up going … nowhere … as if they were eaten up, and then spat out.
2. Then there are the seeds that fell on rocky ground with shallow soil, seeds which sprouted quickly but didn’t grow, because of the shallowness of the soil. 
And there are people who have a shallow faith, as well. 
  • These are the people who leave a church if their musical tastes – whether contemporary or traditional - aren’t catered for.
  • These are the people who leave a church if the minister doesn’t pander to their pre-existing prejudices: prejudices against Jews, prejudices against Muslims, prejudices against Catholics, or gays, or feminists, or … anyone really.
  • These are the people who feel that a Sunday School-faith, or a Confirmation Class-faith, or a Youth Group-faith is a sufficient faith to sustain them in adult life.
  • These are the people who approach their faith asking, “What will this do for me? … What will the church do for me? … What will my faith do for me? … What will God do for me?”.
These are the people who have not asked the real question: “How will the church enable me to do something for God and for the world which God loves?”
And again, it’s not really their fault. We live in a consumerist culture. It’s only normal for some people to develop a consumerist attitude toward their faith.
Just as there were seeds which fell in rocky ground with shallow soil, seeds which sprouted quickly but didn’t grow, so too there are those who allow their own faith to remain shallow.
3. Then there are also the seeds that fell among thorny plants, seeds which first sprouted, but soon found that the young plants were choked by the thorny plants. And there are people of faith who allow themselves to be choked up by their attitude to their faith. 
There are people who see their faith not as a joy to celebrate, but as a heavy burden to bear; people for whom the punch-line of last week’s gospel lesson is relevant, when Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And there are people of faith who see their faith as an uneasy yoke and a heavy burden, those who see the practice of their faith as a grim duty: a lot of jobs to do but with no joy in it at all. Many find themselves getting “burnt out” in their church life.
At its most extreme, this mentality leads to the dour-faced Calvinist for whom any levity associated with their faith is a grave sin indeed.
Dr. Tex Sample once told about a time when, as a young theological student, he attended a church service and the minister who was preaching said “Why, If I didn’t believe the things I’m telling you, I wouldn’t be preaching to you. Why, I’d be out having myself a good time!” 
And it was obvious, both to Tex Sample and to many of the others at the service, that the preacher’s idea of “a good time” was one that they didn’t particularly share. But, nevertheless, there was this attitude conveyed by the minister – an attitude shared by many people inside and outside the church - that faith is a heavy burden, something that keeps us from having fun, and from fully enjoying ourselves.
And, again, for those who have this attitude, it’s not really their fault as well. Too many churches have taught versions of this attitude for so long, that it’s very difficult to encourage people to see an alternative view.
Like the seeds that fell among thorny plants, which found that the young plants were choked by the thorny plants, there are people of faith who allow themselves to be choked up by their attitude to their faith.
4. But, finally, there are the seeds that fell on good soil, seeds which grew, and grew well. Even though, this part of the story was not emphasized in the explanation, this was the part of the story that Jesus emphasized. This is the part where Jesus allowed his language to get particularly expansive, with the seeds bringing forth grain, “… some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. 
The point of Jesus’ story is not to bewail the failures of the times when we share the message of God’s love. Neither is it to make excuses for these failures. The point of the parable is to celebrate the successes of the message. There are occasions when the message gets through, and bears fruit “… some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. 
For this congregation, as for any mainstream church,
  • there will be some people who will allow themselves to get “burnt out” in their practice of their faith;
  • there will be others who will get their noses out of joint if their personal tastes and prejudices are not totally catered for;
  • there will be others who will decide that this church is not “religious” enough for them, and will look for a church that is more “religious”.
But, rather than obsessing over these facts, let us celebrate all those for whom this congregation provides an opportunity to do something for God and for the world which God loves, and are, thus, enabled to bear fruit “…some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. 

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”: a sermon (Matthew 11: 16-19. 25-30)

Jesus said, “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Do we really believe this?

Jesus said, “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

There are many people who do not believe this.

Jesus said, “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

There are many people who will try to tell us otherwise.  Some are people outside the Christian faith, while others are within the Christian faith.

Firstly, there are some people outside the Christian faith – and, for that matter, usually outside the life of any faith – who believe they have a solemn duty to tell those of us who practice the Christian faith – or, for that matter, those who practice any faith – just how stupid we are.

And, you know, doing this is an easy way for any person with a second-rate or even a third-rate mind to develop a reputation as a cutting-edge “public intellectual”:  just “have a go” at religion. 

It’s almost as if they’re told something like this:

Pick a religion – pick any religion – and rant against it.  It’s an easy way to get your views in print in the paper.  You may even get to do a few TV documentaries like Richard Dawkins.

Of course, you’ll get more people to notice your ranting if you pick a faith to rant against that actually has a lot of adherents in the area where you live.  Pick a large target. 

Normally, pick out a few old facts from way back in the “bad old days” and act as if they’re still the case.  For example, you can talk about the way couples in a “mixed marriage” were treated by their churches and their families back in the “bad old days”, not how they’re treated today.

And, in all of this, talk about how faith and religion is a “burden” that people need to be “liberated” from.

You know the routine. 

I’m sure we all can think of many media figures who follow this pattern, many of whom can be very intelligent and reasonable when you get them off the topic of religion.

But, when they get onto their religion hobby-horse, they will argue with Jesus’ words, “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  For them, Christianity – and any other faith – is, by definition, an uneasy yoke and a heavy burden, from which people need to be liberated.

Still, Jesus said, “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

And then, there are others as well.  There are people within Christianity who believe that the Christian faith needs to be an uneasy yoke and a heavy burden.  They say that those of us who do not treat our faith as an uneasy yoke or a heavy burden simply don’t get it.

There are those who make the Christian faith an uneasy yoke and a heavy burden in the area of beliefs. 
  • For example, there are some who insist that a Creationist understanding of the beginning of life is the only way a Christian can understand the world’s origins, and that any understanding of the world’s origins other than a literal reading of the first few chapters of Genesis sells our faith short.
  • There are some who emphasise a doctrine of blood sacrifice as the only way we can make sense of the crucifixion of Jesus, and they act as if those of us who understand the crucifixion in other ways are denying the significance of Jesus.
  • There are those who believe that God is going to eternally punish people who get their beliefs wrong, and they are very annoyed at those of us who cannot stomach that idea.
I believe that all of these make the Christian faith an uneasy yoke and a heavy burden.

In response, Jesus said, “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

As well, there are those who make the Christian faith an uneasy yoke and a heavy burden in the area of lifestyle: 
  • There are those who think Christianity is about abstaining from some of life’s pleasures.
  • There are others who think that Christianity is about taking a particularly hard line on some questions of sexuality or of bioethics.

And to each of these groups, Jesus continues to say “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

And then there are those whose heavy burden and uneasy yoke takes the forms of a belief that we need to make all sorts of cultural contortions in our worship style if we want our faith to be “relevant”.  There are those who tell us we can’t really regard our church life as genuine:
  • unless we become artificially “happy-clappy” in our worship,
  • unless we engage in the latest worship gimmicks Sunday after Sunday,
  • unless in selecting music for our worship we adopt an artificial penchant for hip-hop or “heavy metal”. 
To these as well, Jesus says “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

But it’s not only
  • to rampant secularists
  • to fringe ultra-conservative Christians,
  • or to unreflective dilettantes in the area of worship,
to which Jesus addressed these words.

Jesus spoke these words to us as well, even to those of us who enjoy the privilege of worshipping within a balanced, mainstream church.  In mainstream congregations and denominations, we too need to avoid the trap of making unreasonable and excessive demands on people's time, energies, or finances, thus turning our faith into an uneasy yoke or a heavy burden.

You and I, no less than anyone else, need to keep Jesus’ words in mind:  “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The sacrament which we shall share is a sign of this.  Not only does Jesus call us to be his people.  He provides us with strength and refreshment on the way.  Through everyday gifts of bread and wine, Christ encourages us to feast with him frequently and joyfully.

Jesus said, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”