Tuesday, 26 January 2016

“Hard Yakka”: a sermon (Jeremiah 1:4–10, 1st Corinthians 13:1–13, Luke 4:21-30)

In television commercials, we often see depictions of work ... hard work.  One classic commercial from a few years ago – which is on TV again at present - showed images of people - usually men - working on “a hard-earned thirst”:

You can get it walking.  You can get it talking.
You can get it teaching.  You can get it preaching.
You can get it rowing a boat or casting a vote.
You can get it milking a cow or taking a vow.
Matter of fact, I’ve got it now.

But there is good news.  We are assured that such a “hard-earned thirst” can be effectively satisfied by the company’s product, … a “big, cold beer”. 

And then there was a commercial for a brand of jeans that was also on the TV some years ago.  A disaster was about to happen to a campervan full of tourists.  Nobody can stop it. ... Until he appears ... a casual, muscular-looking bloke … with a great pair of jeans.  He quickly takes control, rescues the tourists in distress with a moment of quick thinking and a few moments of physical exertion.  Then he leaves, not stopping to be thanked.  The commercial ends with the rescued tourists gazing in awe at the source of his quick mind and strong body, which (the company assures us) is most definitely his jeans, jeans appropriately named “Hard Yakka”.

Hard yakka: it’s classic Australian rural slang for hard work.  It’s usually used for hard, physical work.  But not all hard yakka is physical.  Teachers, nurses, medical practitioners, mental health professionals, social workers, youth workers, journalists, lawyers, politicians, and dare I say clergy: all these occupations have their hard yakka, a hard yakka that is more exhausting intellectually and emotionally than it is physically.

Our lessons speak of hard yakka in the life of faith:

Jeremiah was reluctant to accept God’s call.  He knew he was being given a difficult task: hard yakka.

Paul told of the radical move from speaking, thinking, and reasoning like a child to speaking, thinking, and reasoning like an adult.  Growing up is hard yakka.  Allowing one’s faith to grow up is definitely hard yakka.  

Jesus challenged his hometown congregation at the Nazareth synagogue to a greater inclusivity in their understanding of God’s love, and they became angry.  Inclusivity is hard yakka, as the Uniting Church has found to its pain in recent years (and as many other mainstream churches have also found, including the Episcopal Church in the US recently).  But such inclusivity is the way of Jesus, so the hard yakka is worth it.

And this hard yakka is not only something that God expects of those who have received calls to extraordinary service:
  • a John Wesley or a Mary McKillop,
  • a John Flynn or a Mother Theresa,
  • an Albert Schweitzer or a Father Damian,
  • (and thinking of those two great individuals who births are celebrated around the world each January) a Martin Luther King or a Robert Burns.

For each of us, God has given us our tasks ... our responsibilities ... our hard yakka.

God calls each of us to be advocates of peace, justice, mercy, generosity, and human dignity, both in our day-to-day lives and in a broader, global perspective.

God also calls each of us to share our faith with those with whom we come into contact.  And, for most of us, that’s pretty hard. 

Sharing faith is much easier for the sort of Christians who believe that their “unchurched” relatives, friends, neighbours, and colleagues are destined to become fuel for an eternal barbecue if they don’t come to faith.  For that sort of Christian, there’s a definite urgency in the call to share the faith. 

On the other hand,
  • for those of us with a more optimistic view of God’s ultimate generosity,
  • for those of us with a more Jesus-shaped God,
  • for those of us who, while we may not take everything in the Bible literally, still take that one simple verse “God is love” very literally:
  • for good, solid, mainstream Christians like ourselves, there’s not always the same urgency to share our faith. 

That’s a pity.  We have something real to share.  In fact, I believe mainstream congregations like Wesley … and Scots’ … and Hobart North … and All Saints’…. and St. Joseph’s … and St. Mary’s Cathedral …. and St. David’s Cathedral … and the Quakers …. and others, we all have something much more real, much more authentic, much more life-giving to offer our neighbours than the more aggressive, predatory, showbiz style of church has to offer.  God calls us to share our faith, and that’s hard yakka.

It’s not only for those who are called to extraordinary service, but it’s for all of us.  There’s some hard yakka that God wants us each to do.

But it’s not only hard yakka.  There’s a promise of a certain joy to it all as well.  In the TV commercials, the joy is mostly found in the enjoyment of the company’s product, whether it’s “a big, cold beer” or a great pair of jeans.

In our lessons, the joy is wrapped up with the hard yakka as a package deal:
  • The hard yakka of integrity that Jeremiah was called to proclaim has its own joy.   
  • The hard yakka of practical love that Paul celebrated has its own joy.
  • The hard yakka of inclusion that Jesus proclaimed to the shock of his hometown congregation (and to the shock of many 21st century Christians); that hard yakka of inclusion also has its own joy.

It’s not only hard yakka.  God promises us a certain joy to it all as well. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

Ageism and music (both in churches and in other contexts)

I don't know if you've noticed this as well, but older people aren't as "old" in their musical tastes as they used to be.

Let's imagine one hypothetical example of a proverbial "little old lady" living in a home for the aged.  If she celebrated her 85th birthday this week, she would have been born in 1931.  Her early teens, a crucial time of life for the development of many people's musical tastes, would have been during the Second World War, the era of "Big Band" swing music, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and all that.  She would have been in her mid-twenties when Elvis started shaking his pelvis.  She would have been in her early thirties, and probably still interested in the music of younger people, at the time when the Beatles first appeared on the scene.

Nevertheless, the majority of people who visit homes for the aged as volunteer entertainers will play and sing music, not from the time when this lady and her contemporaries were young, but from their parents' era at the time of the First World War, or even from their grandparents' era in the 1890s. 

Whenever I tell this to people who sing or play music at homes for the aged and suggest they may want to add some music from the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons (or even, to be a bit less radical, some "Big Band"-type stuff), they look at me like I've taken leave of my senses.  I just think that this lady and her friends may occasionally be "In the Mood" for some "Good Vibrations" from her own generation's music, rather than her grandparents' music.

Anyway, I believe the assumption that all older people in 2016 will automatically enjoy music from the 1890s is just a bit ageist.

I hear similar ageism at times regarding music in churches.

Most of the Uniting Church congregations I know use a reasonable variety of music, singing a mixture of newer and older music, with probably a bit more new stuff in the mix. 

As far as the newer music is concerned, you may find hymns by Elizabeth Smith or John Bell.  Worship responses from the TaizĂ© and Iona Communities may feature, as will the occasional African or Latino chorus, Scripture in Song jingle, or (the - very occasional!) Hillsong ditty.  Such mainstays of the post-Vatican 2 Catholic repertoire as "Here I am, Lord" and "Come as you are" will be sung at the drop of the proverbial hat.  All very good!  There may the occasional raised eyebrow (including mine) whenever "God gives us a future" is used (once again!) at a time when the Church Council is trying to persuade the congregation to take a particular course of action.  But, nevertheless, the mix of newer music is mostly pretty good.

While the newer music comes from a variety of sources in most UC congregations, the sources of older music are a bit more limited in some congregations.  In some churches I know, requests by some worshippers for "a few more of the older, traditional hymns" are regarded as a desire for 19th century revivalist hymns.  For the most part, with the exception of a few worshippers of a more conservative bent in their own beliefs, that's not what they're asking for.  They may be asking for the occasional Scots Psalm, or the occasional Reformation-era German hymn, or one of Chuck Wesley's greatest hits.  In only a very few cases, are they asking for 19th century revivalist songs.

I believe it's ageist to assume that an older person today, born in the early 1930s, would automatically prefer popular music of the 1890s to the popular music of their own youth, be that music Glenn Miller or Elvis.

I believe that it's equally ageist to assume that the same older person, if their religious background was in a mainstream congregation of any mainstream denomination, would suddenly develop a taste for Sankey.  While they may be "In the Mood" for "Now Thank We All our God", being fobbed off with "Trust and Obey" may send more than a few to "Heartbreak Hotel".

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

“The challenge of community”: a sermon (1st Corinthians 12: 12 – 31)

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

As we approach another Australia Day, I think that one of the saddest things about living in Australia in Twenty-sixteen is the diminishing sense of community.  In the past few decades, Australians have been taught by politicians, by economists, and by the media
  • to suspect each other,
  • to mistrust each other,
  • to fear each other,
  • to hold each other in contempt,
  • to regard each other, not as neighbours, but as competitors,
  • even to regard each other as potential threats to our well-being.

Like the various bodily organs in Paul’s extended metaphor in today’s lesson, we’ve become very expert at saying to each other, “I have no need of you.”  We read it in letters-to-the-editor pages.  We hear it on talk-back radio.  For example:
  • Many non-indigenous Australians have become very expert at telling indigenous Australians “I have no need of you.”
  • Many Australians by birth have become very expert at telling Australians by choice “I have no need of you.”
  • Many Australians who are part of nuclear families have become very expert at telling Australians who are part of other sorts of families “I have no need of you.”
  • Many Australians with jobs have become very expert at telling Australians without jobs “I have no need of you.”
  • Many Christian Australians have become very expert at telling Muslim Australians, Jewish Australians, and Australians of other faiths “I have no need of you”.
  • Many non-religious Australians have become very expert at telling Australians of any faith tradition “I have no need of you.”
And, being an election year, we’ll probably hear more and more of this sort of thing as time goes on and politicians on all sides continue to stake out mutually exclusive positions.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

And every time one group of Australians tells another group of Australians “I have no need of you”, we lose some of our sense of community.  We become that much less Australian.  We increasingly resemble that much more divided and fragmented society on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the one in which I grew up.

I believe churches and other religious communities have a role in helping to restore this lost sense of community.  Historically, in many parts of the world, churches have had such a role in helping develop a sense of community where one was missing.

During the Apartheid era in South Africa, many local congregations (particularly congregations of the Methodist, Anglican, and Catholic churches) served as some of the very few Apartheid-free zones that were available in the country.

Among the African-American community in the United States, the churches served as training ground for participation and leadership in civil society.  It was no accident that so many leaders in the Civil Rights movement in the US were Baptist or Methodist ministers.

During the collapse of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, churches in many countries (the Catholic Church in Poland, the Lutheran Church in the former East Germany, and others) enabled the development of an emerging civil society in these countries.

And for us, in Australia in Twenty-sixteen,
  • an Australia that is increasingly suspicious of the outside world,
  • an Australia whose people are increasingly suspicious of each other,
the churches (and other faith communities) have a role in modelling authentic community to a culture that has increasingly allowed itself to forget the crucial importance of community.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

But, of course, the same disease that has infected the wider society has also infected many of the churches. 
  • Some churches are tearing themselves apart over fine details of theology, or biblical interpretation, or personal lifestyle, or worship styles, or musical preferences.
  • Some churches are very selective in their welcome to newcomers, particularly if the newcomers are from a different ethnic background, social demographic, or age profile to the existing congregation. 
Such churches are unable to show our culture a better way of being community ... because they haven’t learned that lesson themselves.  Those churches are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

In the face of a society that increasingly denies – and often mocks – our need for community, the church has the responsibility to provide examples of authentic community, even if this includes starting from scratch to re-learn the values of true community ourselves.  On this Australia Day weekend, I believe this is the way in which we can most effectively serve our community in the name of Christ.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Good News of Baptism: a sermon (Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-22)

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name, you are mine. …
Do not fear, for I am with you.
Over the course of the year, there are three particularly good Sundays to celebrate Baptisms, and today is one of them.
The other Sundays are Easter, when we celebrate the risen Christ into whose risen life we are baptised, and Pentecost, when we celebrate the Holy Spirit who is active in our Baptism.
Today, our Gospel lesson focuses upon the time when Jesus himself was baptised, in the Jordan River, by John the Baptist.
Very briefly, there are some big differences between the baptism practiced by John the Baptist and the baptism practiced by the Christian church in the centuries since the time of Jesus.
John’s baptism was individually-oriented, while Christian baptism is community-oriented.
In the baptism practiced by John, the focus was radically on the individual and on the steps of faith being taken by that individual.
In Christian baptism, the focus is on the pilgrim people of God welcoming and celebrating a new fellow-traveller.
John’s baptism was past-oriented, while Christian baptism is future oriented.  
In the gospel passages talking about John, they said he practiced a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. John’s baptism was past-oriented, about dealing with the bad stuff of the past and getting rid of it.  
And so, given that Jesus wouldn’t have had anything to repent of himself, the reason he chose to be baptised by John, as well as possibly giving a bit of moral support to a relative who was doing his thing, (It happens.) was mainly to identify with our human condition in all its brokenness.
But, on the other hand, Christian baptism is future-oriented. Christian baptism is about the beginning of a life of faith. It’s about the early stages of the pilgrimage of faith, which is the reason why most Christian churches baptise babies and children as well as adults.
John’s baptism was about a human action, while Christian baptism is about God’s action.
In John’s baptism, the focus was always on the decision made by the person being baptised. It’s about the person’s choice.
This is the main reason that I am personally very happy that I was too small to know what was going on when I was baptised. I don’t particularly want the life of faith, the life of living out my baptism to be mainly about me and about my choices.
In Christian baptism, the focus is always on God’s action. It’s about God’s choice.
And God’s choice is always love.
As we heard in our first lesson, from the book of Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name, you are mine. …
Do not fear, for I am with you.
God’s love is there for each of us, 
  • not because of anything good we’ve done, 
  • not because we have been baptised, 
  • but simply because we’re alive.
And baptism – particularly when we baptise a baby or a child – is the most potent way we can communicate this important affirmation of Christian faith.
God’s love is there for each of us,
  • not because of anything good we’ve done,
  • not because we have been baptised,
  • but simply because we’re alive.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name, you are mine. …
Do not fear, for I am with you.
For Charlie, and for each of us here, and for everyone in the immediate world,
There is nothing that he – or anyone else - can do to lose God’s love.
There is nothing that he – or anyone else - can do to earn a bigger share of God’s love.
He’s got it all now.
So have we all.
That’s the good news of baptism.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

I'd rather be "politically correct" than a jerk.

I'm a man who respects women. In the minds of some people that makes me "politically correct".

I'm a "white" person who respects people of colour. In the minds of some people, that makes me "politically correct".

I'm a "straight" person who respects LGBT people. In the minds of some people, that makes me "politically correct". 

I'm a "religious" person who respects people with non-religious viewpoints. In the minds of some people, that makes me "politically correct".

I'm a Christian who respects Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha'is, Sikhs, etc. In the minds of some people, that makes me "politically correct".

I'm a "Protestant" who respects people who are Catholic or Orthodox. In the minds of some people, that makes me "politically correct".

Call me "politically correct" if you must. I don't care.

I'd rather be "politically correct" than a jerk.