Tuesday, 23 February 2016

“Abundance and Scarcity”: a sermon (Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1–8; Luke 13: 1–9)

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters …  

I like that opening in the New RSV’s version of our lesson from Isaiah, particularly beginning with the word “Ho” - possibly with the same sense of joyful and generous celebration as Santa Claus’s “Ho, Ho, Ho!”

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;    
and you that have no money, come buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Now, this is a pricing policy that will probably never be adopted by Coles or Woolies:

… you that have no money, come buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

But while we won’t expect to ever see these words in an advertisement for a supermarket, nevertheless our lesson begins with a celebration of abundance.  As well, there is a link between these images of material abundance with a celebration of the abundance of God’s love for all.  And the idea of “for all” is very important, as we hear:

See you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you.

In these later chapters of the book of Isaiah, called Third Isaiah by some scholars, a significant theme running through this section is the idea of people other than Jews responding in faith to the one God.  

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

The theme of abundance we find in Isaiah is echoed in the Psalm. 
  • The version of Psalm 63 which we used as our responsive reading, gave one verse as “My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness.”
  • In the NRSV, that same verse comes much closer to the image of an abundant meal found in Isaiah and says “My soul is satisfied, as with a rich feast.”

Instead of these images of great abundance in Isaiah and in our Psalm, our gospel lesson from Luke has a contrasting image of scarcity.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus told a story about a landowner who was concerned about a fig tree that wasn’t growing figs (which is what a fig tree is intended to do).  The landowner wanted to chop the tree down right there and then, but the gardener suggested the tree be given a bit more time, a bit more cultivation, a bit more fertiliser, a bit more work.  The desired result, of course, was for the tree to produce fruit, for the tree to come up with the figs. 

Jesus then left the story open-ended.  We never heard whether the tree came up with the figs, or whether it was cut down a year later.  In any event, we have this contrast between passages about celebrating abundance and a passage about coping with scarcity.

In many ways, it’s much easier to talk about scarcity.  In Australia, particularly in rural areas of Australia, we know how to complain when things are tough.  We’re less apt to give public voice to celebration when things are going well – particularly if the taxman may be listening.  For many of us, the voice of “Hanrahan”, from John O’Brien’s poem, is very much in evidence: 

“‘We’ll all be rooned,’ said Hanrahan,
‘before the year is out.’”

In some ways, the difference is partly one of a person’s own attitude.  You know the saying about different people looking at a glass of water, a glass in which the water comes about halfway to the top:
  • The optimist (such as Pollyanna in the classic children’s story) looks at the glass and says “The glass is half full.”
  • The pessimist (such as our friend Hanrahan) looks at the glass and says “The glass is half empty.”
  • And then the engineer looks at the glass and says “You know, a glass half the size of that one can do the job just as well.”

But leaving the engineer out of it, the voice of the pessimist should never be seen as the voice of the realist.  The humour of John O’Brien’s poem is that, whatever the weather at the time may be doing, Hanrahan’s reaction is always the same:

“‘We’ll all be rooned,’ said Hanrahan,
‘before the year is out.’”

Truly, the reaction of a Hanrahan to life is just as unrealistic as the attitude of a Pollyanna.

But there is more to this – much more - than merely a question of differences in a individual’s personal attitude.  Scarcity and abundance are two different experiences:
  • Abundance is a real experience.
  • Scarcity is a real experience.

Material abundance is a real experience for many of us – if not most of us – living in Australia and in other developed countries.

Material scarcity is a real experience for many people – if not most people - in the developing world.  As well, material scarcity is a real experience for many people living in Australia and in other developed countries.

But, you know, in many non-material ways, we in Australia and in other western cultures experience a sense of scarcity as well.  In our materially prosperous society, many of us also experience a scarcity of the spirit, a sense that something is missing, that something very important is missing:
  • in our spirituality,
  • in our faith,
  • in our sense of community,
  • in our self-esteem,
  • in our own personal well-being.

There is a prevailing sense in our culture of “Something is missing and I don’t know what it is.”  This is not unlike the attitude expressed in Peggy Lee’s classic song “Is that all there is?” 

Sometimes, this scarcity of the spirit affects us as citizens.  So much racial or religious bigotry, whether in this country or in nations around the world, is grounded in the idea that the abundance we enjoy is actually much less than it really is.  And so, we develop illogical resentments against those who seem to us to be “muscling in” on our own good fortune. 

And when those whom we fear are “muscling in” on us seem somehow “different” to us (in terms of appearance, or language, or beliefs), our exaggerated sense of material scarcity can lead to the curse of bigotry and racism.  This bigotry has made the careers of a number of politicians in a number of countries, including here in Australia.  It’s also helped to poison our public life.

This scarcity of the spirit also affects us as worshippers.  Sadly, some religious people believe that God extends a rather limited welcome into his presence.  Some religious people can’t seem to enjoy their own salvation unless they believe that many others will be damned.  In contrast, in our first lesson, Isaiah celebrated the rampant abundance of God’s love, which is extended to all.

See you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you.

As well, for those of us in middle-of-the-road “Protestant” churches, our style of worship also conveys this sense of scarcity:  always so verbal, always so cerebral.  There is a diminished sense of celebration in our worship, and a growing sense of scarcity, as if God’s grace is scarce and needs to be parcelled out in tiny, bite-sized pieces.  And I honestly believe that this is one of the main reasons why so many congregations like this one are in serious decline.

In all things, we are challenged to celebrate and to share the abundance of the love that the living God has for all life, and to realise this as individuals, as citizens, and as worshippers. 

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Mansplaining, whitesplaining, techsplaining, carsplaining, medicsplaining, churchsplaining: ... Let me splain.

A few days ago, I ran across a discussion on Facebook involving the term mansplaining, which is a composite (or "portmanteau") of the words man and explain, defined as  "to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing."

The FB discussion, involving both men and women, involved a comment from some smartarse (OK, by moi) that I'm frequently aware that people of non-European heritage receive similar painful "explanations" from white people.  Would that be called whitesplaining?  (And it turns out this word is also in use.)

Essentially, any sort of attempt at an explanation that treats the recipient of the explanation as somewhat of a dunce can merit the ...splain suffix.  Looking at it, in addition to mansplaining and whitesplaining, I see there's a whole lot of splaining going on out there. 

As a driver who isn't a "motoring enthusiast", I've been frequently on the receiving end of carsplaining both from mechanics and from amateur petrolheads.

As a computer user who happily uses the thing without really grasping the technology of what makes it work, I'm frequently on the receiving end of techsplaining both from IT professionals and from enthusiastic amateur geeks (the people who were called "computer jocks" when I was an undergraduate at Lafayette).

As the owner-operator of a vintage 1953 human body (brain in great condition, the rest rather flabby), I experience high levels of medicsplaining from health professionals and from amateur health enthusiasts.  (Hey, I think I've just coined a new euphemism.  "Amateur health enthusiast" can be the polite way to say "hypochondriac".)

But, as a clergy type, I'm also conscious of churchsplaining.

I know I've personally been guilty of churchsplaining, particularly in my early years of ministry.  (A tendency to churchsplain is a vocational hazard among those who have been ordained fairly recently.  The current trend toward ordaining people to ministry at a later age can also mean that fewer clergy grow out of the tendency to churchsplain before they retire.)

But I've also frequently been on the receiving end of churchsplaining:
  • I've been churchsplained to by fundamentalists who are worried that by having the "wrong" (in their opinion) doctrine of Scripture or of the Atonement I risk becoming fuel for an eternal BBQ.
  • I've been churchsplained to by "progressives" who believe that, because I find meaning and hope in such traditional Christian beliefs as the Incarnation and the Trinity, I'm really no different from a fundamentalist myself.
  • I've been churchsplained to by "converts" from one Christian church to another, who have adopted a rather eccentric, ultra-conservative form of their new church allegiance, and who wish me to join them in the "Scientology" wing of the Roman Catholic Church or the "Jehovah's Witnesses" wing of Eastern Orthodoxy.  
  • I've been churchsplained to by denominational bureaucrats who want me to be more "missional".  ("Missional", by the way, is churchspeak for "But, Dad, it's what all the cool kids are doing!")
  • I've been churchsplained to by lay "gatekeepers" in congregations who try to inform me, regarding any proposal in a congregation's life they don't like, "We tried it before, it didn't work, and we can't even think about doing it again."
And that can all happen to some of us in the course of a single week.

Anyway, the difference between splaining and explaining is simple.  It's called having some respect for the other person's intelligence.   (I hope I wasn't splaining there.)