Thursday, 29 January 2015

Making allowances for another’s conscience: a sermon (1st Corinthians 8:1–13)

Paul had many headaches as a result of the people of Corinth.  The Corinthians were definitely his “problem congregation”.
·        If they weren’t suing each other over trivial matters, they were having messy love affairs with each other.
·        If they weren’t having messy affairs, they were fighting over trivial theological issues, such as “speaking in tongues”.
·        If they weren’t fighting over theological trivia, they were getting drunk in church … during the communion service no less.
·        If they weren’t getting drunk in church, they were … suing each other … and so it went.
And all of that can be found in just a simple reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Over the centuries, Christian art has generally depicted Paul as being a bald-headed man whose remaining hair was grey, if not white.  I wonder if he had a full head of jet-black hair before he met the Corinthians.

But still, the tone of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, even when he was chewing them out, showed a real affection for the people of Corinth.  I think it’s similar to the way that many teachers’ favourite ex-pupils are the ones who were actually the most irritating at the time when they were in the teacher’s class.

One of the arguments Paul had to settle among the Corinthians was over the issue of meat that was consecrated to idols.  Now this would be a non-issue for us, but it was a live issue for the Christians of Corinth.

Most of us do not have problems with the use of religious imagery, whether we share the beliefs associated with the imagery or not.  Most of us appreciate the spirituality and the love associated with the use of a physical image of faith, whether the image is:
·        a statue of the Buddha in a Thai temple or a statue of Mary by the side of an Irish road;
·        a St. Christopher medallion or a picture of Ganesh on the dashboard of the taxi taking you to the airport;
·        a mezuzah or a Russian Orthodox icon greeting you at your neighbour’s front door;
·        a photo of the Pope or of the Dalai Lama in the waiting room of your GP;
·        a hijab worn by a Muslim woman, a yarmulke worn by a Jewish man, or a veil worn by a nun.

In our situation, we can welcome and celebrate these visual demonstrations of faith commitment as signs of faith, hope, and love in the midst of a world desperately needing these qualities.  And even those of us whose spiritualities encourage a certain restraint in the physical depiction of the sacred can – or, at least, should - respect the devotional practices of others … even when the devotional practices of others lead to what you or I may regard as religious kitsch.

As well, we know today that the divine is one.  So that:
·        when a Buddhist or a Hindu meditates before a sacred image;
·        when a Muslim gets down on all fours to pray;
·        when a Jew recites the Shema;
·        when a Christian of any denomination receives the bread and wine of Holy Communion;
each of these individuals relates profoundly to the single divine reality, to the only divine reality there is to relate to, to the same divine reality as each other.

But, in the ancient world, many people of all backgrounds saw the various deities as distinct, as equally real, and as being in profound conflict with each other.

So, Paul had a problem with the Corinthians’ behaviour on the issue of “food offered to idols”.  Now, Corinth was in Greece, and many people at that time still worshipped the old Greek gods such as Zeus, Apollo, and Athena.  People would bring food and drink to the temple.  A bit of food might be burnt on the altar and a bit of wine spilled on the ground.  A bit more food and wine may be received by the priests as their honorarium for presiding at the ceremony.  But most of the food and drink would be taken home again by the worshippers.

The problem arose whenever a Christian was eating a meal at the home of a friend who was a worshipper of one of the Greek gods.  The well-meaning host may say something like, “Hey, Stephanos, I know you’re a Christian, but I hope it’s OK for you that our meat and our wine tonight was involved in an offering this morning at the temple of Aphrodite.”

And there was a range of opinions about the subject among the Corinthian Christians.
·        Some felt that Christians should have nothing to do with any food or drink that was involved in non-Christian worship.
·        Others took a different approach, saying that these idols were not real, so that there is nothing wrong with consuming any food or drink that was involved in temple ceremonies.

Paul expressed some personal sympathy for this second approach – what you or I may consider a more enlightened approach - but he urged the Corinthians to make allowances when in the presence of those who consciences were weaker, i.e. for those who would be offended by the sight of a Christian eating food offered to an idol.

There is a certain practical compassion and courtesy in all of this.
·        If you or I were having a meal at the home of a vegetarian, we would not expect to be served a meal that included meat.
·        If you or I were having a meal at the home of a teetotaller or a recovering alcoholic, we would not expect to be served an alcoholic beverage with our meal.
·        If you or I were having a meal at the home of an orthodox Jew, we would not expect to be served food that is not kosher.
·        If you or I were having a meal at the home of a practicing Muslim, we would not expect to be served food that is not halal.

And if, in any of these situations, you or I demanded a pork chop or a cocktail, we would be rednecks of the worst sort.

Also, a good host allows for the religious, cultural, and medical factors that impact on their guests’ diet to shape the menu they offer their guests.  All this is a question of common decency, whether you’re a person of faith or not.

As well as being about the things we eat and drink, this passage may also be about the way we spend our money.  It’s about how we remain Christians when we become consumers.  It’s about a whole range of tough questions, questions such as:
·        What do you do when a garment you wish to purchase was made by poorly-paid people in a sweatshop in a developing country, possibly even using child labour?
·        Do you buy the latest bit of electronic gadgetry, just to keep up with the times, even if your present machine works well enough for your needs?
·        Does it make any difference to your decision if you know that someone else – a friend, a neighbour, a co-worker, a family member – has sufficient respect for you as to regard you as a positive model for their own behaviour?

The fact is that every person sitting in this room is a role model for someone.  This is obvious for those who are parents or grandparents.  It’s obvious for those who teach or who work with young people in other ways.  But for each one here, there are those in your work, in your neighbourhood, in your community organisations, who regard you as a model for their behaviour.

Paul said to the Corinthians, “For if others see you, who have knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?” 
·        In the same light could Paul also be challenging us about wearing running shoes made in sweatshops by eight-year old children, if it encourages those who respect us to do the same after they see the logo on our sneakers?
·        Could Paul be challenging us about the results of buying the latest (and most expensive) bit of electronic gadgetry, even if we can afford it, if it encourages a friend who can’t afford it to go out and do likewise?

For similar reasons of compassion and courtesy, Paul urged the Corinthians (and future generations of Christians) to make such allowances when in the presence of those who consciences were weaker in issues of diet and lifestyle.

But sometimes these allowances can go too far, particularly when, in the name of Christian compassion toward those whose consciences are weaker, we seem to wink at prejudice, to connive with ignorance, to tolerate intolerance.  These are far weightier matters than whether or not we’re served a pork chop.  There are times when the demands of truth outweigh the demands of courtesy, and when we need to challenge bigotry even at the risk of rudeness.   

For example, what do you do when someone tells you a racist joke?  … a sexist joke?  … an antisemitic joke?  … an Islamophobic joke? … a homophobic joke?  Do you challenge the joke, or do you give silent consent to bigotry?

Any prejudice (whether against Catholics, against Jews, against Muslims, against Mormons, against Aborigines, against Asians, against Africans, against women, against homosexuals, against Freemasons, and so on …) any prejudice needs to be challenged, and to be challenged strongly.  There are times when the demands of truth outweigh the demands of courtesy, and when we need to challenge bigotry even at the risk of rudeness.   

But, in most other contexts, Paul urged the Corinthians (and future generations of Christians) to make allowances for lifestyle issues when in the presence of those who consciences were weaker.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Jonah, Indiana Jones, Alf Garnett, and Australia Day: a sermon (Jonah 3: 1-5, 10)

Before I talk about “Jonah, Indiana Jones, Alf Garnett, and Australia Day”, I’d like to give a bit of background to the time when the book of Jonah was written. It was in the fifth century BC, after the Exile. A generation or so before, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. Many of the Jews, particularly the leadership of the people, had been taken into exile in Babylon. After they had been there for a generation or so, further political changes had taken place. Persia had conquered Babylon. The Persians allowed the Jews to begin to return to their own land.
But many other things had changed, as well. After a generation in Babylon, many of the men who came back brought wives who were Gentiles, who weren’t originally Jewish. As well, some of the men who were allowed to stay in the land also married Gentile women.  
A crisis arose as to how to deal with this issue. Is God’s love based on matters of race and ethnicity, or is God’s love given freely to all people? That was the question. Most of these women in fact converted to Judaism - it was at a time when a married woman automatically adopted her husband’s religion - but the issue was really one of ethnicity, rather than religion, anyway. 
A pamphlet war of sorts developed. In the Hebrew Scriptures we have today, we have books written on both sides of the argument.
On one side, we find the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The writers of these books took a hard line on this issue. They praised those Jewish men who sent their Gentile wives packing, even including the majority of women who actually converted to Judaism. While these books are still part of the Hebrew Scriptures, they never made the biblical hit parade - and just as well.
On the other side, we have two little gems of books. They are some of the most popular parts of the Hebrew Scriptures both for Jews and for Christians. They were two works of openly creative fiction in the Scriptures. You could call them sacred novels. They are the book of Ruth and the book of Jonah.
Briefly, the book of Ruth is set in the early days of ancient Israel, the days of the Judges. Naomi and Elimelech, a Jewish couple, move to the land of Moab with their two sons during a famine. The sons marry Moabite women, Gentiles. Elimelech dies, as do the two sons. When the famine is over, Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law that she is returning home and offers them the opportunity of remaining among their own people. Ruth insists that she will go with Naomi to the land of Israel.  Once they are there, a romance develops between Ruth and a wealthy landowner Boaz. They marry and have children. It turns out, then, that Boaz and his Gentile wife Ruth are among the ancestors of the great King David. Take that, Ezra and Nehemiah.
The book of Jonah, on the other hand is a rollicking old sea tale. Jonah was called by God to be a prophet, to speak God’s word to the people of Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and ran away from God’s call. He booked passage on a ship. There was a great storm. The sailors drew lots and decided that Jonah was the cause of the storm. He was thrown overboard, eaten by a great fish, and regurgitated onto the shore. At which point our scripture lesson for today picked up the story.
Let’s imagine we were making a movie out of either of these books. How would we do it?
The book of Ruth is easy. It’s a romance. We’d have to make it a three-handkerchief “chick flick”, wouldn’t we. For Naomi, we’d want some prestigious veteran actress - perhaps Dame Judi Dench or Dame Maggie Smith. We’d probably cast Sean Connery or some other hunky - but mature–age - heart-throb to play Boaz. While, to play the title role of Ruth, we’d probably want someone like Meg Ryan to play a character who’s vulnerable but nobody’s fool.
There’s a bit more of a choice, though, if we were making a movie of the book of Jonah. Perhaps you’d want to make it an action-adventure film with plenty of special effects, featuring the storm at sea and the encounter with the monster fish. In that case, we’d probably cast someone like Harrison Ford as Jonah. Jonah could be the Indiana Jones of the Old Testament. This would be the easy and obvious way to make a movie about Jonah: easy, obvious, and wrong. If we did this, we’d miss the point of the book.
I think the best way of doing Jonah as a movie would be to make it a comedy. I’d cast Warren Mitchell as Jonah. You remember Warren Mitchell? He played Alf Garnett - the thick-headed, Cockney bigot - back in the 1970’s. Alf Garnett had a few imitators. There was Archie Bunker, an American version of Alf Garnett. Here in Australia, there was Ted Bullpitt. But it was all the same character, a thick-headed bigot with loudly-expressed opinions on everything. He was a bit of a domestic tyrant as well. He tended to sulk when he didn’t get his own way, which happened in most episodes. At the end of each episode, Alf/Archie/Ted was usually outwitted by his family and his neighbours. But he usually admitted his mistakes (very reluctantly) at the end of the episode just before the credits began to roll.
Jonah was the first Alf Garnett. Jonah was a thick-headed bigot who sulked when he didn’t get his own way.
Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh when God called him to go. Jonah didn’t like the people of Nineveh. Jonah went as far as possible in the opposite direction. He tried to go by ship to a place called Tarshish - in Spain - at a time when cruising the Mediterranean was much more of a dodgy proposition than it is now. Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, and Ted Bullpitt, Jonah tended to respond to any challenge to his worldview in a ridiculous way.
After the storm and after the business with the fish, Jonah changed his mind and went to Nineveh. This is where we find the story in today’s lesson. He still didn’t like the people of Nineveh, but at least there was a hard-nosed message of judgement: “Three days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” Jonah may have thought perhaps he’ll be lucky enough to see Nineveh actually destroyed. Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, and Ted Bullpitt, Jonah was persistent in his prejudices.
Jonah preached. The people of Nineveh listened - and - the people of Nineveh changed their ways. As a result, God changed God’s mind. Destruction was taken off the agenda. The order went down the line: “Stand down the fire-and-brimstone crew!” 
The story continues after our lesson for today. Jonah was annoyed, so he went off to sulk. Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, and Ted Bullpitt, Jonah was great at sulking when he didn’t get his own way.
While Jonah was sulking, God caused a tree to grow near Jonah, to give him some shade. Then the tree died. Jonah sulked some more. God asked Jonah why he was sulking. Jonah got all upset over the tree.
And God’s response (and the comic irony of these words are much more obvious when said with a Jewish accent): “You did nothing to make the tree grow, and yet you sulk. Should I not be concerned over the people of Nineveh whom I made? Not to mention all the animals?” Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, and Ted Bullpitt, Jonah finally got the message as the final credits began to roll.
Now, the people who initially read the book of Jonah - along with the book of Ruth - also got the message. Although the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are still there in the Hebrew Scriptures, they exist mostly as an historical footnote. Their radically exclusive concern was a losing cause. The books of Jonah and Ruth shaped the course of history. The inclusive values proclaimed by these little sacred novels won out, hands down.

In the three classic monotheistic religions that developed in the Middle East,
  • Judaism, 
  • Christianity, and 
  • Islam, 
the concerns of these books remain. The one living God is not just the god of a single tribe, nation, or race. Instead, God’s love is there for all humanity. 
But we live in a time when the Ezras and Nehemiahs increasingly seem to be having things their all own way at the moment. In the broader community, those who wish to restrict the right of full participation in our society on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, or some artificial measure of economic productivity are being taken much more seriously than they deserve.   
The Ezras and Nehemiahs have had it their own way for far too long. It’s not an easy time for those of us who value the inclusive lessons of Ruth and Jonah. Still, God promises us, the Ezras and Nehemiahs will never prevail for long: that’s the message of Ruth and Jonah.
While thick-headed Jonah may have provided a role model for some comic bigots in a later century, the book bearing his name is a caution to all people who seek today:
  • to limit humanity to the members of any single race,
  • to limit virtue to the citizens of any single nation,
  • to limit God’s love to the adherents of any single religion.
On this year’s Australia Day weekend, let us give thanks to God for our multiracial, multicultural, and mulifaith society. Remembering the lessons of Jonah, let us solemnly pledge not to let the Alf Garnetts of our world ruin it.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Wisdom, power, and vulnerability: a sermon for Epiphany (Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12)

Wisdom, power, and vulnerability: In today’s gospel lesson for Epiphany, we see all these factors interacting
First there is wisdom.
The wise men came from Persia, present-day Iran. Matthew called them magi. It was originally a Perisan word (magus in the singular, magi in the plural). It referred to people who were partly religious scholars and partly astrologers. By the time of the New Testament, the term magi also acquired an overtone of sorcery, so we get our words magic and magician from these Persian scholars.
Most English translations of the New Testament translate Matthew’s magi as “wise men”. We really know very little about them. Matthew doesn’t tell us how many wise men made the trip from Persia to Bethlehem. Some of the older Christian traditions have anywhere up to twelve wise men. Because of the three gifts, a tradition soon developed in the church that there were three wise men. 
One thing we know is that, despite the words of some old carols, the wise men were not kings. The part about their being kings came from a Christian legend from a somewhat later time than when the New Testament was written, partly because of the reference to kings in the lesson from Isaiah which, by then, had become associated with the visit of the magi.
Being good first century Persians, the wise men were Zoroastrians, followers of an ancient religion that is still found among the Parsee community in India. As far as we can tell, they continued to be Zoroastrians when they returned to Persia. There is nothing in the gospel that gives any indication to the contrary.
So, Matthew’s gospel tells us of a group of exotic foreign intellectuals coming to pay their homage and give their exotic gifts to the child Jesus. And then they went home, 
  • back to Persia,
  • back to their star charts,
  • back to their Zoroastrian faith.
While remaining people of their own culture and their own traditions, they were drawn to this birth, and to this child. The wisdom tradition that illuminated their religion and culture was one that led them to appreciate the traditions, the faith, and the wisdom of other peoples. But still, they went home: home to their own traditions, their own faith, and their own wisdom.
Wisdom was confronted by the child of Bethlehem. Wisdom came and paid its homage.
Then there is power.
The wise men made a big mistake when they visited the palace on their way to Bethlehem. But of course, even the wisest wisdom is never infallible. The king panicked. The panic was for good reasons if you shared his logic.
Herod was king over the Jews but he wasn’t a Jew himself. By the standards of the day, he was an old man, getting close to the end of his life.
Herod ruled as king in Jerusalem because he was Rome’s man in Jerusalem. One writer said that Herod was no worse than other puppet kings put in place by the Romans in his day, but “he was fully as bad as” the others. He ruled with an iron hand, feared and hated by the mass of people. His policy was to keep the locals terrorised while he practised an appropriate level of obsequiousness to his patrons in Rome.
Herod had three sons who divided his puppet kingdom after his death. When the wise men visited and spoke of new-born king, Herod was already anxious to the point of paranoia about matters of succession. The wise men threw him into a panic. A potentially popular claimant to the throne ... one who was a Jew himself ... a descendant of the great David no less ... such a person would be a threat to Herod’s plan to set up a new dynasty. So, baby or no baby, the rival claimant must die.
And when the wise men returned to Persia without a final courtesy call at the palace, Herod’s plan for an assassination became a plan for a massacre. “Collateral damage” is what the military boffins and political spin-doctors call it these days. The real word is murder.
Power was confronted by the child of Bethlehem. Power panicked and ordered a massacre.
And then, finally, there is vulnerability. And the couple and their newborn child who sheltered in Bethlehem’s stable were vulnerable to the extreme.
  • Jesus, as a baby, would have been vulnerable by definition. Herod’s murderous plans magnified the danger.
  • Then there was Mary, a young woman whose pregnancy would have been the occasion for gossip and harsh remarks – and the possibility of violence - in her community. It happens today, in the twenty-first century, even in a supposedly tolerant nation such as Australia. How much worse would it have been two thousand years ago. 
  • Then there was Joseph, he probably caught a lot of flak from people for going ahead with the marriage. Exactly how welcome either Mary or Joseph would have been among their families and friends would have been anyone’s guess. Perhaps that was why Mary and Joseph needed to look for an inn in their own home town.
The vulnerability continued, as Herod’s plot unfolded and the family sought sanctuary in Egypt. In recent years, we have all become aware of the vulnerability experienced by refugees and asylum seekers, and this was the experience of the child Jesus and his parents.  
But then, there were also those Persian scholars. They came, paying homage and bringing gifts. In addition to Matthew’s visitors from the East, Luke told of some local wise people, Simeon and Anna, who also paid tribute to the child Jesus. 
Vulnerability was personified by the child of Bethlehem and his family. 
  • Then as now, vulnerability brings out the worst from those who those who seek to acquire power for its own sake.
  • Then as now, vulnerability brings out the best from those who seek to live according to wisdom.