Tuesday, 29 March 2016

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2": a film review

I saw "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" yesterday. Brilliant!

I never thought a sequel could ever be better than the original film, even if "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" came extremely close to doing so.  It's particularly hard for a sequel to exceed the original when the first film set as high a bar as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 1" did, but I believe "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is even better than the original.

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is about families who are constantly in each other's faces, but also have each other's backs.

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is about people who have pride and love for their heritage, and appreciation for the heritage of others.  In this vein, the scene with the four elderly men in the physio clinic, talking about their Greek, Iranian, Chinese, and Scottish cultures was pure gold. 

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2"is about young people becoming their own individuals in their own right, and it's also about elderly people learning that they can still enjoy life.

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is about about people in the difficult position of parenting their kids and their parents, simultaneously, and remaining human in the process.

A sequel wouldn't be a sequel if there weren't some humourous references to the first film, and MBFGW2 has plenty of these, enough to recall key comic moments from MBFGW1, but not so much that one needs to see MBFGW1 before seeing MBFGW2.  (If you haven't seen the first film yet, you'll definitely want to get the DVD after seeing this one.)

As a clergy-type myself, one of the refreshing things in both films in the "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" series is that the series treats as utterly normal the fact that the participants in the film are worshippers.  There isn't a hint of caricature in any of the church scenes.  (I noticed in the credits that the part of the priest was played by an actual priest.)  One of the great emotional moments in the film involved the wedding crowns used in the Orthodox wedding liturgy, but I won't give a spoiler for this.

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is a celebration of life, and it's also screamingly funny.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Now that Lent is over, here's what I gave up for Lent ... and why.

Normally, when I give something up for Lent, I've recently been in the practice lately of treating it on a "need to know" basis until Lent is over.  I've found from experience that some people find it very witty to wave a chocolate bar, for example, under the nose of someone who's giving chocolate up for Lent. 
  • Sometimes, these are people who are uncomfortable with Christian faith and practice in any form and wish to take the mickey out of it. 
  • Sometimes, these are people with a hyper-"Protestant"  (whether "evangelical" or "progressive") approach to Christian faith and practice who seem to feel threatened or offended by anyone in a "Protestant" church - let alone a minister - who feels led to give something up for Lent.
So, in recent years, I treat what I give up for Lent on a "need to know" basis (i.e., such as anyone whom I may be visiting for a meal during Lent) until Lent is over.  This post won't show up on my blog until the early evening of the Saturday of Easter weekend, at a time when some churches will be beginning to have their Easter services, as opposed to Holy Week services, and Lent will be over.

This year, I haven't given up chocolate, or whiskey, or any of my usual "go-to" Lenten challenges.  For Lent this year, I've given up pork, ham, bacon, and any other pig-related meat.  Here's why.

In the scriptures, there are many encouragements to link one's fasting - and other religious disciplines - to one's search for social justice.  By giving up pork, ham, bacon, or any other pig-based meat I'm linking my faith with living justly in three ways.

1.  The two faith communities within our western culture, Jews and Muslims, who experience the highest levels of prejudice and discrimination are also faiths with dietary practices that exclude pork. 
  • In 15th and 16th century Spain, the Inquisition frequently offered suspected marranos and moriscos the challenge "Eat pork or die!"  
  • In France today, there are some bigoted educational bureaucrats who (when planning school lunch menus) still declare that Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren can either "eat pork or go hungry". 
  • Many people in many countries (including, sadly, the various English-speaking democracies) use the vexed politics of the Middle East as an excuse for giving expression to bigotries toward Jews and/or Muslims in their own communities, bigotries that are frequently only marginally connected to people's views on the Middle Eastern situation. 
By giving up pork for Lent, I feel I'm standing alongside two communities who experience high levels of bigotry within our own western society.  As well, I like to think I'm standing alongside Jesus the Jew, who ate a kosher diet.

But that's not the only reason.

2.   According to many reports, some of the highest levels of animal cruelty in the meat industry in Australia occur within the raising and slaughtering of pigs.  By giving up ham, bacon, pork and other pig-based meats for Lent, I'm also stating my horror over the mistreatment of many animals who are raised for our food.

And, as they say in the TV advertisements for overpriced steak knives, there's more.

3.  Here in Tasmania, the one reliable local producer of free-range pork products is owned by a member of the Exclusive Brethren.  Whether we call the Exclusive Brethren a sect or a cult, it's a group I'd rather not support, in terms of their treatment of women and young people in their group, in terms of their "shunning" of people who choose to leave their group, and in terms of their support of far-right-wing politicians.  Buying free-range (but Brethren-raised) pork products, I was always uneasy to imagine what activities were funded by a tithe of the profits of my Christmas ham.  By giving up pig-based meat for Lent, I'm standing alongside the many people who have been hurt by their involvement in religious fundamentalism of any sort.

As it turns out, I fell "off the wagon" unintentionally once during Lent.  I was at Hobart's annual "Festa Italia" and, as you do, ordered some pasta with meatballs, assuming that the meatballs were made from beef.  Between paying for the food and receiving it, I hear the seller say that the meatballs were made from a mixture of beef and pork.  On the grounds that it was ethically far worse to waste good food than to nibble a meatball of which I gave up 50% for Lent, I ate the meatballs.  (Kyrie eleison.)

While Lent is supposed to be a spiritual de-tox rather than a physical one, I think I'm experiencing some physical benefits from going porkless during Lent.  While I know the jury is still out on the health benefits of a pork-free diet, I feel generally a bit healthier for the experience. 

As a result, even though Lent is over and I can return to my pre-Lenten practices, I won't be getting into a furious bacon-fest over Easter.  While I'm relaxed about it, I'm not in any particular hurry to return to a porcine diet in the near future.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

“An idle tale?”: a sermon for Easter Day (Luke 24:1-12)

Alleluia!  Christ is risen
He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Mary Magdalene and her friends went to Jesus’ tomb to perform the ancient burial rites of the Jewish faith.  On Friday, Jesus’ body was put in the tomb quickly, without ceremony.  The burial needed to be completed before the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday night.  The burial rites had to wait. 

So, on Sunday morning, after the Sabbath was over, the women went to the tomb so that Jesus’ body could receive the washing, anointing, and embalming that was expected in the culture of the times.  Mary Magdalene and the other women went to the tomb to do the decent thing for the dead body of a friend.  They were surprised to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, but they were still looking for a corpse.  But two strangers, attired (as Luke tells us) “in dazzling clothes”, said to them:   “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”

They went to tell some of the other disciples, some of the men, but - except for Peter - they weren’t really interested in their story.  “...these words seemed to them an idle tale...”  

And, in our culture, there are many “idle tales” floating around … about many different things.

Some of the “idle tales” take the form of gossip; gossip about neighbours or co-workers; gossip about entertainers, sportspeople, politicians, or those vague “celebrities” who are famous just for being famous.  Some gossip is deliberately malicious; some gossip is well-meaning.  All gossip is destructive.

Some of the idle tales take the form of racial, ethnic, religious or other stereotypes.  Some people persist in attributing a wide range of faults and vices to all members of any particular group, without exception: to all Jews, to all Muslims, to all Catholics, to all Aborigines, to all Freemasons, to all Mormons, to all gay or lesbian people, … and so on.

Some of the idle tales take the form of conspiracy theories; far-fetched theories that say that widely disparate groups of people have conspired with each other to keep you and I “in the dark” either about historical events or about present realities.  People are prepared to pay good money to hear or to read even the wildest of these conspiracy theories.  Just ask Dan Brown (the “Da Vinci Code” guy).  Just ask any climate change sceptic, creationist, or holocaust denier.

In our culture, and in many cultures, there are many “idle tales” floating about.

Some of the male disciples thought that Mary and her friends were indulging themselves in an “idle tale”.  Peter, though, ran to the tomb and found it empty.    

In our own day, we too are called to look for the presence of the risen Christ in the midst of life, not death.  We often find the risen Christ in the presence of those who may themselves not be aware that he is there.

Whenever individuals seriously try to face the difficult ethical decisions of life with integrity, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there.  

Whenever families seek to nurture their children as people of honesty, kindness, and generosity, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there. 

Whenever communities, divided by fear and prejudice, seek to discover new ways of reconciliation in their common life, it is not “an idle tale”:  the risen Christ is there. 

Whenever nations reject the paths of war to explore new options for peace, it is not “an idle tale”:   the risen Christ is there. 

Whenever congregations gather week after week, not to be dazzled by the latest religious gimmickry, but to break open the Word and to bread the bread”:  the risen Christ is there. 

For some, these signs of new life may be viewed cynically as “an idle tale”, but, for us we can see these as signs of the risen Christ.  

Christ is risen, bringing us:
life in the face of death; ...
... life despite death; ...
... life in defiance of death.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen
He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Monday, 21 March 2016

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”: a sermon for Good Friday (Matthew 27:45–49)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

The experience of humanity in recent centuries is the experience of God-forsaken-ness. 

There was a time, many centuries ago, when all life in western nations was infused with the experience of Christian faith.  Back in those times we call the Middle Ages, everyday life in all its concerns was intimately connected with the life of faith.  What we today call the “secular” dimension of life was not something of which people were aware.  Everything was all bound up with the life of faith.

Times since then have changed.  In many ways - we would all say – times have changed for the better. 
  • Diseases that used to kill people are now very curable.
  • Public sanitation and personal hygiene are much better.
  • People’s diets are much better.
  • More people have access to education.
  • There is a greater social equality among people.
  • People, for the most part, are much less superstitious.
There are many ways in which society has changed for the better in the centuries since the Middle Ages.

But, as well, in the centuries since the Middle Ages, it’s been a lot harder to have faith in God.  There has been a reduction ... century after century ... year after year ... in the role that most people see for God in our lives.   One Christian writer some years ago wrote of the “God of the Gaps”.  As science is able to explain more and more about the world around us, the role played by God in many people’s minds is shrinking.

And, as a result, we come to our own day.  For an increasingly number of people, God is absent from life.  For many people, humanity is profoundly alone in the universe.  For many people, their existence seems radically God-forsaken.  The experience of humanity in our own day is the experience of God-forsaken-ness. 

This sense of God-forsaken-ness has ethical implications.  Even for many people with a religious faith, there is a profound sense in which God is ethically absent.  This experience of living in a world in which God is ethically absent has its many monuments.  The monuments are littered around the world, monuments with names such as Auschwitz, …Dachau, … Hiroshima, … Nagasaki, … Tienanmen Square, … Risdon Cove, … Chernobyl,  … Fukushima, … Dunblane, … Port Arthur, … Columbine, … Ferguson, … and Charleston.  Humanity has profoundly suffered from this sense of God’s absence.

On the cross, Jesus also felt abandoned by God:   “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  At that moment, Jesus also felt profoundly alone in the universe.  At that moment, Jesus felt a profound God-forsaken-ness in his own existence.

On this day when we remember Jesus’ crucifixion, let us also remember that Jesus experienced that same sense of abandonment, aloneness, and God-forsaken-ness that is the deep-seated experience of our culture. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

As we reflect today on the cross and Jesus’ experience of God’s absence, we know that this is not the end of the story.  If Good Friday is about God’s absence, Easter Day is about God’s enduring presence.  We know that Good Friday is not the end of the story. If Jesus’ experience of God-forsaken-ness was not the end of the story for Jesus, neither need it be the end of the story for us, or for our world.  I believe a sermon for Good Friday could appropriately conclude with those words that often appear the end of a television programme where the story continues, and the plot is resolved, in the following episode:  “To be continued”.

On the cross, Jesus experienced God’s profound absence.  He did so in solidarity with us, who also experience God’s profound absence:
  • either individually or as a culture,
  • either occasionally or constantly.
Jesus experienced God’s absence on the cross so that we could experience God’s presence.  

 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  

... To be continued ...

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Renewal or Novelty: a sermon (Isaiah 43:16–21)

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

You know, I’m sure that many – if not most – of you really began to groan inwardly when I quoted that verse from the book of Isaiah: 

I am about to do a new thing … do you not perceive it?

And I’m also sure that many of those who were groaning inwardly were very close to groaning outwardly as well.  For you see, in many churches, any reference to “do[ing] a new thing” frequently leads to a suggestion of adopting some sort of novelty or gimmick in worship, those things that, in recent years, have been called “fresh expressions”. 

For many worshippers today, if not most, these novelties, gimmicks, and “fresh expressions” frequently lead to a feeling that the church’s worship has become that much less sacred, … that much less holy, … that much less worshipful, … that much less special.

Thus, the “fresh expressions” that have become part of worship in so many churches have led to a sense of “novelty fatigue” on the part of many worshippers today, if not most. 

So when we hear:

I am about to do a new thing … do you not perceive it?

many of us think,

Here we go again.  What are they going to ask us to do now?  We’ve done “family services”.  We’ve done “Hillsong”.  We’ve done “cafĂ© services”.  What now?  Can’t we just do “church”?  Can’t we just do “normal church”?

And yet we still hear:

I am about to do a new thing … do you not perceive it?

And, let me say, I believe this statement from scripture has nothing to do with the worship gimmicks that have been the source of conflict, contention, and strife in congregation after congregation.  This quote has nothing to do with the worship novelties that have led many people of deep Christian faith to decide nevertheless that Sunday morning is a far better time for sleeping in, playing golf, or taking their kids to netball than it is for attending church.

I am about to do a new thing …do you not perceive it?

This is much less about “fresh expressions” in our worship than it is about the on-going renewal of our faith.  I know that most of us approach worship that is “normal” with great joy, and (as well) many of us approach the various “fresh expressions” with a sense of grim duty.  (And I willingly include myself in that description.)  Still, this statement is as relevant for us as it is for the trendy congregations that always seek to be first with the latest “fresh expressions”.

I am about to do a new thing … do you not perceive it?

This statement isn’t really about “fresh expressions” or gimmicks.  It is about an authentic renewal of our faith.  I believe this statement is about our commitment to continually renew our thinking about our faith, and to be up-front with our neighbours about the way our faith is being renewed. 

In this regard, I believe that there are some things that worshipping Christians today need to say to our neighbours about the way our beliefs have evolved, things that most of us have heard from the pulpit for years, but which many members of the broader public have no idea about.

For example, we’ve heard for years that there are better ways to interpret the Bible than in a strictly literal way.  We can take the Bible seriously without taking all of it literally.  To give one particular example, mainstream Christians today (particularly those of us whose label says “Uniting” or “Anglican” or “Catholic”) know that there is no real conflict between Christian faith and a belief in evolution.  In contrast, so many people out there in the wider community think we’re all creationists.  We need to correct that understanding.

As well, we need to be up-front about the fact that over the past fifty years or so, there’s been something going on called the Ecumenical Movement.  The prejudice that used to exist between Protestants and Catholics back in the “bad old days” now exists principally in the minds of people for whom there’s been at least a generation – if not more – since there’s been an active worshipper of any sort in their families.  We need to let our neighbours know about our new ecumenical reality (even if it’s really not so new anymore).

As well, there are other things we need to be saying to our neighbours about what we believe today:
  • We need to tell our neighbours that many Christians today believe that there are far better ways to understand the crucifixion of Jesus than as a substitutionary blood sacrifice.
  • We need to tell our neighbours that many Christians today believe that there are better ways to understand salvation than those understandings that lead us to think that God will condemn people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ on the basis of their beliefs.
  • We need to tell our neighbours that many Christians today are actively developing far less arrogant attitudes toward Jews, Muslims, and members of other faiths.
  • We need to tell our neighbours that many Christians today are also actively developing far less arrogant attitudes toward unwed mothers, unmarried couples, and same-sex couples.
You know all this stuff.  You’ve heard it from me, from previous occupants of this pulpit, and from previous occupants of other pulpits.  But many of our neighbours haven’t heard it.

And I believe it is urgent that we tell them. 

For years, mainstream churches have agonised over those who left mainstream churches to go to evangelical churches because mainstream churches were not narrow enough in our beliefs (or sufficiently “showbiz” in our worship) to suit them. 

Over that same period, the same mainstream churches did little – if anything - to address the issue of the much larger group of people who left the same mainstream churches – and went nowhere - because they believed the churches were too narrow in our beliefs.  They believed that we are far narrower than most of us really are.

Look around you.  Notice the empty seats. 
  • I know some empty seats represent people who are worshipping elsewhere because they believe that we are not narrow enough in our beliefs.  (I can name some of the people.  I take personal responsibility for some of those empty seats.) 
  • However, other empty seats – far more of the empty seats – I believe at least three times as many if not more - represent people who are worshipping nowhere because they believe that we are more narrow in our beliefs than we really are.  (These seats were empty well before my time.  Many were empty for decades.  I can’t name any of these names, but I’m sure that you can.)
And this situation is not anything that I – or any other minister or priest – can solve.  The people who have left churches like ourselves because they believe we are more narrow than we really are are not the sort of people who talk to clergy types like me if they can avoid it. 

It is urgent for the future of this congregation that the message gets out:  churches like ourselves are far less narrow in our beliefs now than we were even a few decades ago.  The people who need to hear this message won’t believe it from me.  They may believe it from you.

I am about to do a new thing … do you not perceive it?

This statement isn’t really about novelties, gimmicks, and “fresh expressions” in our worship.  It is about an authentic renewal of our faith.  It is about our commitment to continually renew our thinking about our faith, and to be up-front with our neighbours about the way our faith is being renewed.

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?