Tuesday, 24 November 2015

“Stand up and raise your heads!”: a sermon (Luke 21: 25 – 36)

When I was twelve or thirteen, I attended an Easter sunrise service for the first time.  It was an ecumenical service, sponsored by a number of churches of different denominations. 

That year, it was the turn of one of the churches with a more conservative-evangelical theological outlook to provide someone to preach the sermon.  For some reason, this fellow chose not to speak about Easter, but about the Second Coming.  Growing up as a Methodist, this was something I’d never heard about in our church.   

As I remember, the visiting preacher exhibited what seemed to be great glee about the torments that awaited those whom he didn’t deem worthy of God’s presence.  He really seemed to be enjoying himself.   

The one thing I remember most vividly, though, about the sermon was the series of nightmares I had for a week or two afterwards.  (The nightmares only stopped after I overheard my minister joking about the fire-and-brimstone sermon at youth group, which gave me the opportunity to ask him about what he thought.  And I learned that he profoundly disagreed with the guest speaker.)

Because I was so traumatised by this experience, I have always, in my ministry, tended to be very wary of passages such as today’s gospel lesson.  I know, from experience that such passages need to be handled with care. Jesus’ message of hope can easily be distorted into a message of fear.    

·         This can happen innocently, as a result of a lack of sensitivity on the part of the person preaching or teaching.

·         At other times, this can also happen with no innocence at all, but rather with the unscrupulous deliberately seeking to use fear to manipulate the insecure or the immature (including twelve or thirteen year-old kids attending their first Easter sunrise service).

The final triumph of Christ at the climax of human history is a theme that we find in the lessons both for the beginning and the ending of the Christian Year.  We find this as a theme for the first Sunday of Advent, as well as for some of the Sundays in the previous weeks. There are a few reasons why passages such as our gospel reading today are treated as importantly as they are.  I’ll suggest two.

1.     Firstly, the three-year lectionary we now use was first developed during the 1970s.  This was during the period of the Cold War, a time when the world lived under the shadow of nuclear warfare.  As happened at many other periods of history, the growing insecurity experienced by many people led to a growing sense that human history was coming to its end.  Because this theme was becoming so important to some of the movements on Christianity’s fundamentalist fringe, the compilers of the lectionary felt it was important for the more sane sort of mainstream Christian churches to address this as well.

2.     Secondly, this theme seemed to be very important in the mind of Jesus and of the first generations of Christians.  All of this first generation of Christians seemed to believe that they were living during history’s endgame.

In any event, Christians have argued over the Second Coming for two thousand years.  I believe Christians will continue to argue over the Second Coming for the next two thousand years, if not for longer.

But one thing that we hear very clearly in what Jesus said in our lesson is not to be overcome with fear, but to live with courage. 

Jesus spoke of those who “will faint from fear and foreboding” in response to events taking place in the world around them, both in the world of nature and in the world of human affairs.  The context here is that this response, to “faint from fear and foreboding”, is not a very useful one.

Instead, Jesus advised his disciples (and us) to “stand up and raise your heads” in response to traumatic events both in the world of nature and in the world of human movers and shakers.  Live with courage.  “Stand up and raise your heads.” 

·         Live with courage in a world of environmental degradation.

·         Live with courage in a world of climate change.

·         Live with courage in a world of proliferating armaments.

·         Live with courage in a world of growing inequality.

·         Live with courage in a world of frightening religious fundamentalism, smoldering cultural resentments, and the terrorism caused by both.

“Stand up and raise your heads.”

Ultimately, this message of God’s final triumph at the climax of human history is not really there for the benefit of:

·         a religious huckster trying to scare some thirteen-year-old kid in an church or a hall somewhere into walking down the aisle to make a commitment, or

·         another religious huckster trying to scare a lonely person on the other side of a TV screen into writing a big, fat cheque.

That sort of con artist will always be there.

But, ultimately, the Advent message of God’s final triumph is that God can give us the courage to live in the face of all the threats that life can throw at us, whether the threats are of human origin or not.  We have the choice to live with courage. “Stand up and raise your heads.”

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Empire of Vulnerability: a sermon (John 18:33-37)

Here in Australia, churches have a few problems with today’s observance of the Sunday given the title of Christ the King, or The Reign of Christ.

In our egalitarian society, the idea of kingship rings a note that is artificial for many people; and even deeply offensive for some.

This is further complicated by the fact that, in many countries with monarchs (at least in the Western world), monarchs play a mainly symbolic and ceremonial role.

We ask ourselves the questions:
  • Is this image of Christ the King a symbol that denies much that is good, healthy, and life-giving in Australia’s egalitarian traditions?
  • Does this day of Christ the King speak to most Australians of an irrelevant Christ, a mainly symbolic and ceremonial Christ?

So, we find ourselves with a celebration whose main symbol could be seen as:
  • of limited relevance for most people,
  • artificial for many,
  • offensive for some, and
  • potentially misunderstood by all. 

If we look at the background of this day, the celebration of Christ the King began in the early twentieth century in the Roman Catholic Church.  It was a time when many nations were coming under the rule of dictators, such as Hitler or Stalin.  It was a time when powerful national governments were seeking to control all aspects of human life.  This celebration of Christ the King was a reminder to worshippers - and to the broader community - that no state ever had that right.  It was a celebration of human dignity and human integrity. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, this day of Christ the King became part of the life of many other denominations, such as the Anglican Church and the Uniting Church.  This was when most mainstream churches adopted the three-year lectionary, which developed following the Second Vatican Council. 
This day gives us a chance to reflect on Christ’s challenge to all who exercise power over others.  Each year, the gospel for this day emphasises Christ exercising a radically different kind of kingship than that exercised by the rulers of his day . . . and by many of the rulers of our day. 
In the coming weeks of Advent and Christmas, we’ll hear of some very unchristlike things being done by rulers:
  • Augustus ordering a census so that he could extort as much taxation as possible from the provinces;
  • Herod ordering a massacre of babies so that he could eliminate a potential rival.
Christ the King exercises a radically different kind of kingship than the rulers we encounter in our lessons for the next few weeks.

We see this in our gospel lesson for today.  Jesus was on trial before the Roman governor.  Pontius Pilate goose-stepped onto the pages of the New Testament as a chilling symbol of all that jack-booted fraternity who exercise power over other people by the sword, the whip, the gun, the bomb, or the noose.

The gospels tended to whitewash Pilate.  Other historical records of his time described him as a cruel and brutal ruler.  By the time the gospels were written, the small and emerging Christian movement was under great pressure to say that Christians could be loyal citizens of the Roman Empire.  However, there was one problem.  Jesus was executed by crucifixion, a characteristically Roman form of execution and torture reserved for those enemies of the Empire whom the Imperial authorities decided deserved a particular level of pain and humiliation in their death.

So the process developed, which was at its most advanced in John’s gospel, by which the cruel and sadisitic Pilate was transformed into a vague and vacilliating intellectual, so that Jesus’ death could be blamed on local authorities, rather than the Empire. 

In our lesson, Pilate assumed he was judging Jesus.   “Are you the King of the Jews? ... So you are a king?”  Pilate soon found that the tables were turned, and Jesus was judging the whole system of “might makes right” by which Pilate exercised his power. 

Now there’s an interesting thing about the word for “king” and “kingdom” used in the New Testament.  The Greek words used here is basileus for king, and basilea for “kingdom”. 
  • So, all through Jesus’ public life, he proclaimed, “The basilea of God is upon you.”
  • So, in this lesson, Pilate asked Jesus “Are you the basileus of the Jews?” ... and later ... “So you are a basileus?”
  • And Pilate’s sign on Jesus’ cross read “Jesus of Nazareth, the basileus of the Jews”.

The importance of these words is that they exactly echo the words that the Romans used to speak of their empire and their emperor.  The proclamation of the kingdom of God, the basilea of God, was seen as a challenge to the basilea of Rome, a challenge to the Roman Empire. 

In response to Pilate’s bullying questions, Jesus spoke about truth:
  • about his role to testify to truth,
  • about the response of those who are sensitive to truth.

Truth wasn’t Pilate’s strong suit.  Pilate was out of his depth here, ethically if not intellectually.  (And possibly Pilate was out of his intellectual depth as well.)  In his discomfort, Pilate responded to Jesus with a sarcastic one-liner:  “What is truth?”  (And I think Pilate’s comment probably came out more like:  “And what the hell is truth, anyway?”)

So in this lesson, we see a head-on confrontation between the power of human force and the power of God’s love.  Pilate, as he exercised the power of human force, believed he was judging Jesus.  Rather, Jesus was judging Pilate.

As we celebrate Christ the King, we reflect today on the judgement of the Prince of Peace upon all who exercise their power in a destructive way.

Jesus challenged the empire of force, but not by an appeal to counter-force.  He challenged the empire of force with an appeal to an empire of vulnerability.  And this inevitably links us as Christ’s followers with:
  • vulnerable communities of people around the world,
  • vulnerable communities of people in our own nation, and
  • vulnerable communities of people seeking refuge in our nation.
In many nations around the world, Christians are a small and, often, very vulnerable minority.  Still, these vulnerable communities of Christians work actively to promote the well-being of their neighbours in many practical ways.  I have seen this myself on my visits to Bangladesh on behalf of the Christmas Bowl.  Our support for the Christmas Bowl encourages these small, vulnerable Christian communities in countries around the world in their work of practical mercy, as part of Christ’s empire of vulnerability. 

Our celebration of Christ the King does not need to be a denial of our healthy, egalitarian Australian traditions.

Our celebration of Christ the King does not need to be a presentation of a ceremonial Christ with no real relevance.

At the first performance ever of Handel’s Messiah in 1742 in Dublin, the advertisements read:  “Gentlemen are requested not to wear their swords.”  This led one later commentator to say “Raw power has no place in the presence of the Prince of Peace”.

We celebrate Christ the King, who turns our cultural notions of kingship on their heads.  We celebrate Christ the King who calls us to the privilege of citizenship in God’s empire of vulnerability.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Religious Liberty: When should we support it? When shouldn't we?

There are a lot of comments about "Religious Liberty" or "Religious Freedom" making the rounds these days.

To hear some people, religious freedom means "freedom to be a bigot while blaming God for your bigotry".  I don't buy it.  I don't want to support that kind of "religious freedom".

To my mind, the importance of supporting religious freedom is completely dependent upon what a person does with their religious freedom.

For example, if (compared to the average person in your community) your exercise of your faith makes you a more compassionate person, or a person with a more open and accepting attitude toward those who are different from you, I believe I have a sacred responsibility to respect, support, and defend your exercise of your religious freedom.

On the other hand, if (compared to the average person in your community) your exercise of your faith makes you a less compassionate person, or a person with a less open and accepting attitude toward those who are different from you, I believe that my responsibility to respect, support, and defend your exercise of your religious freedom can be best expressed in such terms as:  nil, nada, bupkiss, sweet Fanny Adams, zilch, zero, and zippidy-doo-dah.

If your exercise of your religious freedom makes you a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Mother Theresa, or a Mary MacKillop, I stand with you.

If, on the other hand, your exercise of your religious freedom is comparable to the behaviour of those who ran the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch Trials, you're on your own.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

“The Widow’s Mite”: Was it really a good thing?: a sermon (Mark 12:38–44)

Our lesson from Mark’s gospel is part of a larger section which is found in three of the four gospels. It took place during the week before the crucifixion. Jesus was teaching in the Temple and, in the process, was soon involved in arguments with representatives of many of the religious factions.

In both Mark and Luke, this section ends when Jesus noticed a poor woman, a widow, put two small copper coins into the Temple’s offering box. Jesus commented that the widow gave much more than everyone who gave much larger amounts, because she gave all she had.

Traditionally, this passage has been used in some churches to encourage painfully sacrificial giving, with the “widow’s mite” presented as an example of such painfully sacrificial giving. “Give until it hurts,” was the message that many preachers derived from Jesus’ comment on the poor widow’s offering. 

But nowhere in this passage did Jesus declare that it was a good thing that the poor widow gave all that she had. Jesus stated that the woman gave more than the others, because the others “...have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty ...”, but nowhere do we find a “Go, and do likewise.”

In fact, some biblical commentators today do not regard Jesus’ comment as a recommendation of the woman’s painfully sacrificial giving. Rather, they believe that Jesus here criticised those who caused the widow to believe that, even in her poverty, she was obliged to donate to the Temple “all she had to live on”, money that she needed just to buy food.

Many New Testament scholars believe that Jesus did not regard "the widow's mite" as being a good thing. Personally, I agree with them.

The context of the lesson bears this out. In the paragraph just before Jesus noticed the widow and her offering, Jesus criticised the abuses practiced by some religious leaders. At the climax of his criticism, Jesus condemned those religious leaders who “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (in today’s terms: lengthy, ex tempore prayers, which call attention to the piety of the person praying, and which are loaded with plenty of “justwannas”). Jesus condemned the over-the-top piety that ignores the call to practice social justice.

So when the poor widow came trudging up to the offering box to drop in her last few coins …her “bread money”…, that was the last straw. Jesus said that this poor woman gave so much more than the others because the others “...have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty...”. I don’t think that Jesus’ comments praised the woman’s faith and commitment. Rather, I believe, he felt sorry for her. I think that Jesus spoke out of a combination of exasperation, anger, and horror at the way that unscrupulous religious leaders were able to manipulate a simple person’s simple faith for their own financial gain.

Now, let’s not con ourselves into thinking that this was just something that happened two thousand years ago, in other culture, among people of another faith. If this abuse was happening in Jesus’ culture and era, it’s been well-and-truly perfected among Christians in western nations today. Many Christian leaders in our own day and in our own culture are very expert at using manipulation to get money from people.

For example, watch any television evangelist (… if you have the stomach for it. I usually don’t. ...) … watch any television evangelist and you will find that a major part of his broadcast is an appeal for money. Some are more blatant than others in their approach, but an appeal for money is a major part of their message, often with a manipulative tug on the heartstrings. As in our lesson, unscrupulous religious leaders today continue to manipulate the simple faith of simple people for their own financial gain.

And it's not merely in the world of TV evangelists, and among the wild-and-woolly fundamentalist churches, where this happens. In many congregations of a variety of mainstream denominations, the "stewardship programme" is often an occasion for guilt trips and emotional manipulation. Many people feel compelled to give money that they really cannot afford to give: lonely people, ... unsophisticated people, ... people with a guilty conscience for one reason or another, ... and other easily manipulated people. Many people feel compelled to give money that they really cannot afford to give.

This all provides us with quite a complicated lesson.
 · On the one hand, Jesus challenges those who are well-off to give generously.
 · On the other hand, Jesus challenges those who are not so well off to give intelligently.

This is relevant to us, both as we consider our support of the church and as we consider our personal support of human need both in the local community and among our global community.

Jesus saw a poor widow put a few coins in the offering box. He commented on her donation that others “...have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty...”. I believe this comment was not in praise of her sacrificial giving.   Rather, I believe it was a reflection of Jesus’ pain that others manipulated the woman into believing she was required to give “all she had to live on”.