Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Covenant Service, a somewhat "tweaked" version

On Sunday, I’ll be leading a Covenant Service, a service in which a congregation renews its commitment to the life of Christian faith and service, in a nearby congregation. This is based on a service developed in the 18th century by John Wesley.
Traditionally the Covenant Service was observed annually, either on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, or (as in this case) during a congregation’s first service of Holy Communion for the year.
While this is based on the Covenant Service found in Uniting in Worship 2, the Uniting Church’s main liturgical resource book, I’ve tweaked the service a bit. Here’s the covenant renewal part of the service as I’ve tweaked it, with the changes being underlined and in italics, and with number (in parentheses) leading to footnotes explaining the changes.
In the Old Covenant, God chose Israel as his people and gave them the gift of the Law. For the Jewish people today, this Old Covenant still abides, and will abide for all time.
In the New Covenant, God made the gift of his Son Jesus Christ to the rest of humanity. (1) We stand within the New Covenant and we bear the name of Christ. God promises us new life in him. We receive this promise and pledge to live not for ourselves but for God. This covenant is renewed each time we meet at the table of the Lord. Today we meet, as generations before us have met, to renew that which bound them and now binds us to God. 
The minister continues:
Beloved in Christ, let us again claim this covenant for ourselves, and take the yoke of Christ upon us. To take this yoke upon us means that we are content that he appoint us our place and work, and that he himself be our reward.  
Christ has many services to be done:  
  • some are easy, others are difficult;  
  • some bring honour, others bring reproach;  
  • some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests; others are contrary to both. 
  • In some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. 
Yet the power to do all these things is given us in Christ, who strengthens us.
Therefore let us make this covenant with God our own, trusting in the eternal promises and relying on divine grace. (And I invite those who can stand safely and comfortably to do so now.) (2)
The people renewing their covenant stand, if they can do so.
Let us pray: 
Lord God, in baptism, you brought us into union with Christ who fulfils your gracious covenant; and in bread and wine we receive the fruit of his obedience. So with joy we take upon ourselves the yoke of obedience, and commit ourselves to seek and do your perfect will. As we do so, before we recommit ourselves to your service, we pray in silence for the world which you love. (3)
Silence is kept for a time. The minister says:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
The minister and people say together:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
enable me to make things happen, enable me to let things happen; (4)
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you;
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. 
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours, to the glory and praise of your name. Amen.
(The service continues with the celebration of Holy Communion.)
(1) This affirms that the relationship between God and the Jewish people is still an ongoing relationship, and that Christianity has not, in any way, superceded Judaism.
(2) This simply recognises the presence of people of different physical abilities, including those for whom standing in one place for a few minutes is painful (if not dangerous).
(3) This is a simple addition of a brief time of intercession in this part of the service. Normally, prayers of intercession serve as a bridge between the Service of the Word and the Service of Holy Communion, and I’ve included the intercessions here.
(4) Here, I’ve “tweaked” the language of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, without changing the meaning. At one point, the congregation traditionally said, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering”. The word “suffering” there does not involve our usual meaning of the word “suffering”. We’re not saying that God causes human suffering. To say that, or even to think that, would be to make a monster out of God.
Instead, the word has the same meaning as when the translators of the old King James version of the Bible had Jesus say “Suffer the little children to come to me”, in other words “Allow the children to come to me”, or “Let the kids come and don’t stop them”.
To allow things to happen is an important ministry given to all people of faith. Sometimes we see some possibility in the church’s ministry and mission which (deep, down inside) we know is a good, healthy, wholesome, development for the people of God, but, still, we don’t particularly like it. 
In these cases, we have two options:
· We can either allow it to happen graciously, (or)
· We can stamp our foot and say “Over my dead body!”
And this “Over my dead body” mentality has been destructive to the life of many congregations and many denominations over the years.
When we say, in the Covenant Prayer, words to the effect of “Put me to doing, put me to suffering”, we are expressing our rejection of the whole, destructive, “Over my dead body” mentality. 
In more modern language and (I hope) in less potentially misunderstood language, I’ve expressed this same idea in the phrase “Enable me to make things happen; enable me to let things happen.” I hope Mr. Wesley approves.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Reflections on a pair of antlers.

This time last year, I noticed a car with those artificial reindeer antlers, complete with a red nose a lá Rudolph.

(Note:  The image here is taken from the 'net, and not from the actual car I saw.)
My initial reaction was to enjoy the festivity of the car's owner, and the fact that here was someone who, I thought, went the extra mile in celebrating Christmas. 
My sense of festivity and enjoyment vanished when I saw the bumper sticker on the rear of the car, a sticker used by some people on the far right here in Australia to indicate their hostility to refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.  The bumper sticker read:   "Eff off, we're full."  (... No, that wasn't the exact quote on the sticker.  ...  Yes, I know the actual word, and I've been known to use it myself when sufficiently annoyed.  ...  Nevertheless, I am trying to maintain some level of high standards in my blog.)
My reaction was to think, "Mate, you don't really 'get' Christmas.  However much you'll max out your credit cards in December, and however drunk you plan to get on the 25th, you're not really celebrating Christmas.  With that bumper sticker, dude, you're not even celebrating Xmas."
There is a real clash in values between the celebration of Christmas and the message of "Eff off, we're full."
Whether your Christmas is about Jesus or about Santa Claus, or about some Dickensian middle way, Christmas is about joyful generosity.
Whether your Christmas is about events in Bethlehem or at the North Pole (or both), Christmas is about extravagant compassion.
Whether your three-word slogan this time of year is "Peace on Earth" or "Ho! Ho! Ho!" (or both), Christmas is about universal hospitality.
There's just no room in the Christmas inn for the notion of "Eff off, we're full."
Anyway, to all who read this post, have a blessed Christ-Mass, a merry Christmas, and (just to annoy the folks at Fox "News") some Happy Holidays.

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, 16 December 2015

“Keeping the ‘flesh’ in Christmas”: a sermon (John 1:1–14)

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Let’s keep the ‘flesh’ in Christmas.

Every now and then, I receive a Christmas card where, printed on the envelope, I find the saying:  “Keep Christ in Christmas”.  The cards were sold by a Christian charitable organisation, the St. Vincent DePaul Society (the Vinnies), who put this slogan on their cards as part of their on-going ministry.

I like the Vinnies.  I have great respect for their work.  But I feel the Vinnies are perhaps just a little bit too pessimistic here.  The phrase “Keep Christ in Christmas” implies that Christ is somehow at risk of becoming completely excluded from our Christmas celebrations.  And I honestly believe that the Christian basis of our Christmas celebrations is far too robust and resilient – even among those in our community who are not regular worshippers – for there ever to be any real danger of a completely Christless Christmas, despite all the scare talk about a so-called “War on Christmas” from idiotically extremist elements within the tabloid media.

Actually, I have a t-shirt that begins with the Vinnies’ phrase, “Keep in Christ in Christmas” and then lists a few ways in which we can do just that:   “Feed the hungry.… Shelter the homeless.… Welcome immigrants.… Forgive others.… Embrace outsiders.…  Share with those in need.… Advocate for the marginalized.… Confront those abusing power.… Value others’ religions.…”  (And, of you want to see the t-shirt, I’ll be modeling it when I take my alb off after church.)

And, if we did these things, not only at Christmas but all year, we’d be well on the way toward living the life of Jesus, and certainly keeping Christ in Christmas.  (We’d also seriously annoy the far-right media extremists who started all this “War on Christmas” hoo-hah in the first place.)

But still, I’d like to borrow the phrase from the Vinnies and play with it a bit more.  Taking, on the one hand, the Vinnies’ slogan “Keep Christ in Christmas”; and also taking, on the other hand, the central affirmation of our lesson from John’s gospel “... the Word became flesh ...”, I’d like to develop a new version of the Vinnies’ slogan: 
“Let’s keep the ‘flesh’ in Christmas.”

When our gospel lesson declares that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, the writer was saying a mouthful.  In speaking here of “the Word”, the writer seemed to be combining a significant idea from the Jewish scriptures with another significant idea from Greek philosophy.  Both ideas referred to the mind of God reaching out to the mind of humanity.

The Jewish idea was called Wisdom, (Hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek).  Wisdom was often personfied and, when personified, Wisdom was personified in female terms.  Lady Wisdom is a term often used by scholars today to speak of this personification of Wisdom.

The Greeks spoke of the logos, a word which means “word”.  But logos means “word” in a far more active sense than merely a series of letters that makes up part of a sentence.  Logos means “word” as in the self-revelation of the one speaking. 

In this passage from John’s gospel, we have a combination of both the Jewish sense of Wisdom and the Greek sense of the self-revelation of the mind of God, using the Greek word logos, “Word”. 

The active Word,
     the living Wisdom,
          the eternal self-revelation of the Living God
came to Earth and into our midst,
     not as ink on paper, but as flesh and blood,
          not as an infallible  book but as a vulnerable person. 
The Word did not become mere words, but living flesh.

As well, it was also important that the Word became flesh.  The Greek word used here for “flesh” was sarx.  In Greek, the word sarx was considered a bit crude.  Both literally and in the way we use the term today, sarx was a four-letter word.

When the Greeks wanted to speak of the dignity, nobility and beauty of the human body, they used the word soma.  Soma was the body beautiful, the human body which was immortalised in the classic Greek sculptures and celebrated in the regular athletic contests at Olympia.  That was soma:  dignified, noble, and beautiful.

However, sarx was the word they used to speak of our human flesh at its least dignified, least noble, least beautiful, and most vulnerable. 
Sarx hungers,

Sarx thirsts.

Sarx sweats.

Sarx gets sick.

Sarx bleeds.

Sarx dies.

When the gospel declares that God’s eternal Word and Wisdom took human form, the word used wasn’t the beautiful, noble, and dignified soma, but its poor relation, the vulnerable sarx.  This is good news to us all in our own vulnerability.  This good news is the message we proclaim at Christmas.  This is the good news we proclaim in the lessons we’ve been reading and in the carols we’ve been singing.  At its best, Christmas has always been a rather motley combination of authentic Christian spirituality and authentic human earthiness. 

Perhaps this combination of factors is why so many of the more austere sort of Christians are very uncomfortable with Christmas:

  • the sort who also deny the authenticity of the spirituality of most people in the community;

  • the sort who often deny the authenticity of the faith of most of their fellow-Christians;

  • the sort who are often highly uncomfortable with their own earthiness.
Such austere Christians are often profoundly uncomfortable with the motley combination of authentic Christian spirituality and authentic human earthiness that is Christmas at its best. 

But for the rest of us, for those of us who don’t wear our halos so tightly as to cut off the blood supply to our brains, this message is tremendous good news.  The Eternal God has embraced our human condition in its fullness.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Let’s keep the ‘flesh” in Christmas!

Saturday, 5 December 2015

“... Every valley ... every mountain ... all flesh ...”: a sermon (Luke 3: 1 – 6)

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

In these middle Sundays of Advent, our gospel lessons focus on John the Baptist; a curious figure, in many ways.

Luke tells us that Jesus and John were related to each other through their mothers.  At an important point in the story of the preparation for Jesus’ birth, Mary received hospitality and profound encouragement from her relative Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John.

Throughout the gospels, there seemed to be both some strong points of contact (as well as some areas of tension) between the movement led by John and the movement led by Jesus.  Exactly how much closeness and how much tension there was is a matter for speculation (and many writers have added to the speculation). 

While many of John’s followers embraced Christianity, many others did not.  There is still, in fact, a religious community in the Middle East (the Mandaeans) which regards John as the founder of their faith.  

At various points in the gospels, John was described as maintaining a very austere lifestyle. 

  • He lived in the desert. 

  • He survived on the Middle Eastern equivalent of “bush tucker”. 

  • He wore only animal skins. 

  • He rejected many of the comforts of life.
(In fact, the gospels tell us that one point of tension between John’s movement and Jesus’ movement was that some of John’s followers criticised Jesus for not living as austerely and abstemiously as John.)

John baptised people as a sign of profound repentance of sin.  (The baptism practiced now by the Christian Church is a very different baptism from that practiced by John, in many ways, not least of which is the fact that Christian baptism is principally an act of incorporation into a community, while John’s baptism was a radically individual act of repentance.)

John’s was a provocative critic of many different religious, social, and political abuses.  This criticism eventually led to his imprisonment and execution.

Every community needs its John-the-Baptist-like characters.  Every society needs its provocative social critics, those who make themselves an absolute pain in the anatomy most of the time while speaking words of genuine wisdom and solid (if uncomfortable) integrity.

As Luke began to describe John’s ministry, he used words from a prophet whom biblical scholars today call Second Isaiah.  Second Isaiah was the person responsible for most of the last third of the book of Isaiah, proclaiming a message of hope and renewal as the Jews returned from the Exile in Babylon. 

This part of the book of Isaiah was from a time about one hundred and fifty years after the earlier two-thirds of the book of Isaiah, which was written well before the Exile.  (For that matter, most biblical scholars also think there was probably a Third Isaiah.) 

Luke associated the message of renewal proclaimed by Second Isaiah with that proclaimed by John:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Throughout the centuries, the image of valleys being filled and mountains being leveled has always been an image of human liberation.  Human liberation is God’s concern, and it always has been. 

  • When Second Isaiah first used these words to celebrate the return from Exile, human liberation was God’s concern.

  • When Luke quoted these words to describe John’s ministry of preparing the way for Jesus, human liberation was God’s concern.

  • In 1742, when George Frederick Handel set these words to sublime music, human liberation was God’s concern.

  • In 1963, when Martin Luther King quoted these words in his “I have a dream” speech, human liberation was God’s concern.
And today, in twenty-fifteen, human liberation is still God’s concern.

As well, we also need to note the radical inclusivity of this image of liberation: 

Every valley ... not just some valleys ... but every valley shall be filled.

Every mountain ... not just some mountains ... but every mountain shall be made low.

All flesh ... not just some flesh ... not just white flesh ... not just male flesh ... not just the flesh that surrounds minds that have got their theology right, or with whose politics we agree, or of whose personal morals we approve  ... but all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

There is a message of radical inclusivity here in this Advent message of renewal. 

This Advent message of renewal leads into the message we celebrate at Christmas, good news of the eternal Word of the Living God taking tangible form,

  • not as a book, but as a person,

  • not as ink on paper, but as flesh and blood.

  • not as the Word becoming words and correcting our theology, but as the Word becoming Flesh and living among us ... the Word becoming Flesh and living among all flesh ... the Word becoming Flesh and sanctifying all flesh.
The sacrament we celebrate today is a participation in this process. The Incarnate Christ, whom we expect each Advent and welcome each Christmas, comes near to us in this meal of faith, as near to us as the food we eat.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.