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Friday, 12 September 2014

Community as Counter-culture

ORDINARY SUNDAY 24 (14th September) 2014

Readings:        Genesis 50:15-21
                        Psalm 103:8-13
                        Romans 14:1-12
                        Matthew 18:21-35

I was once told by a Catholic religious that the hardest dimension of the religious life was neither poverty nor chastity, but the brutal demands of obedience. By this he did not mean that the Fathers Abbot were constantly and unreasonably demanding that he shine their shoes, wash their dishes, or weed their gardens, like the traditional prefect demanding obedience from a fag, but that the demands of being answerable no longer just to himself but to the wisdom of a wider community as invested in a wise elder was utterly invasive and counter-intuitive. You may remember the banking advertisement – or was it insurance? Whatever! – of many years ago that solemnly proclaimed that the advertiser’s scheme existed for the benefit of “the most important person in the world: you.” My Catholic Religious friend was telling me that the life of religious community dismantled that near-universal assumption, that he was, I am, you are the most important person in the world, and flung him, me, you to the outer echelons of importance. It was however at the heart of the rule, and it had made the religious life a profound and demanding yet remarkably enriching option for 1500 years.

In the years since that conversation I have come to believe to the very depth my being that being community is the greatest evangelistic asset that the Community of Church possesses. It is close to being the pearl of great price of which Jesus speaks, though that phrase is in fact applied to the Good News of the reign of God. It is close to being that Good News precisely because it can serve as the best advertisement of that Good News that we can offer. See how Christians love each other, the first and secondary observers muttered in awe.

By community, though, I came to realise that we did not mean the glorious hippie communities, Christian or otherwise, of the 1960s and 1970s. The great and often drug-fuelled experiments in love-ins of that era degenerated into paroxysms of self-destruction, the most extreme example being, tragically, the decadent and evil commune of the Manson Family. That quasi-commune arose in the California desert in the late-1960s, and oversaw seven savage and counter-love, counter-peace murders including that of the eight month pregnant Sharon Tate, in 1969. Christian experiments in community living often descended into rancorous debacles of jealousy and metaphorical back-stabbing, and endless rounds of post-community legal wrangling over property. While the heart of the Manson Family’s degeneracy was an extraordinarily complex web of substance abuse and personality disorders, at the heart of many lesser breakdowns of the love-in experiment was simply a lack of the understanding Christianity holds dear, the understanding that we are sin-filled creatures, for who the perfection of eternity dwells not in the here and now but in the yet to come.

Nevertheless the ideal of community was a high and right one. In western society community is often only a chimera, a shadow that can be dreamed of but never grasped. T.S. Eliot amongst others saw it long before hippiedom, as he wrote of a wasteland of empty and meaningless lives, what he would memorably call the existence of “dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit.” Yet there is in our western society often desperate loneliness, and all the noise of electronic media and the internet has done nothing to heal the vast chasms that exist between isolated human beings. In this vast wasteland of loneliness the community of being-in-Christ has a powerful message of healing and redemption, of unity and togetherness. It cannot proclaim that message meaningfully however without self-discipline, and it was towards this that the demanding rules of religious orders were striving. The counterculture of Christian love is counterculture only when the blowtorch of discipline is applied, and the participants undergo the exacting work of transformation into the image of Christ.

At its best – and the great religious orders and the more modern communities such as TaizĂ© and Iona can testify to this – Christian community can be a powerful rumour of the healing love of God. Faith communities – parishes, in our parlance – can be so, too. But at the heart, the dangerous and tricky heart of being a credible witness to the community of God, dwells the enormously risky, and sometimes exhausting demand of being a community not of the social norm of revenge, but of eternal, endless, and sometimes costly forgiveness. Only in forgiveness are cycles of revenge broken; only in forgiveness, which is not the same as cheap nonchalance (but more of that another time) is the rumour of God’s eternity made into tangible, death-transforming reality. It is to that hard task we are called as the community of Jesus.


Saturday, 6 September 2014

on finding hope in a crucified crim


Reading:              John 6:37-40

Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’

When someone that we know as John wrote down a whole lot of Jesus sayings and wove them into the book we know as “John” or the “Fourth Gospel” he did so because he wanted his listeners (for such they were) to encounter the awe and the mystery and the hope and the joy that he had encountered in loving and serving one the Romans felt was no more than a crucified crim, but who he and his companions though had in some mysterious way overcome that most horrendous of deaths, not by not dying, but by dying and rising again.

Of course in a scientific rational world in which we love we know that dead friends don’t come bopping back a few days later. We are human: we wish with all our heart that they could or world, but the silent space they leave behind remains silent, the empty chairs and empty tables remain empty, and the ache of a human heart goes on. In our world we readily mock silly people who talk to their imaginary friend and hope things will get better.

Actually they did when John was writing, too. They didn’t really think that loved ones came back and sat at the table where we last saw them, even then. They weren’t dumb. Yet something had changed for them, and it was something so powerful that they were prepared to die for it. They felt that in the experience of worshipping and loving and serving the now unseen crucified, dead Jesus – and sceptics then would refer to them too as silly people who had an imaginary friend – in loving and serving and worshipping this person (that few if any of them had actually ever seen) they found supremely powerful hope. They found hope for themselves. They found hope for their friends – friends who they had shared life and love with but who now were dead – and they found and felt hope for their world.

They remembered Jesus talking about something called resurrection, and they felt his presence so powerfully in their worship and in getting together to pray and eat and sing that they began to understand what he had meant. They came to believe passionately that sadness and loss and even death were not the end, though they remain a passage through which they and we and those they loved and those we love must pass. They came to believe, against all the cynicism around them that even death was just a parenthesis, a break in transmission, a kind of brutal loss but yet one which would not end the experiences of love and fellowship.  People then talked about silly Christians and their Imaginary Friend, but slowly the compassion and the love and the hope the Christian community demonstrated began to attract others, too.

Sometimes in our rational world it’s hard to believe all that stuff. And yet every now and again I experience something so uncannily irrational, so utterly powerful in its rumouring of a life beyond the merely here and now, that I cling as those first Christians did to this weird thing called Christian belief. Through three and a half decades now it’s seen me through some pretty interesting times, and given me powerful experiences of love and hope and joy along the way. So I guess I get what those first Christians were on about as they remembered their loved ones, hoped for them in Christ, and dedicated their lives to believing in Jesus.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Called to be Canaries?

ORDINARY SUNDAY 23 (7th September) 2014

Ezekiel 33:7-10
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Several years ago I was privileged to interview Sydney rabbi Raymond Apple.[1] I asked him during the course of the conversation as to whether he sought a more evangelistic emphasis in Judaism. Rabbi Apple laughed and exclaimed words to the effect of “God forbid – I would not wish on anyone the burden of being a Jew.” In a more sombre tone, the famous New York rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, struggled in the early 2000s with the burden of Judaism, writing
the Jew plays the role for the world that the canary used to play for the coal miners. You've read about how the miners would take canaries with them into the mines because the canaries were extremely sensitive to dangerous gases. They responded to danger before the humans did. So if the miners saw the canaries get sick and pass out, they knew that the air was bad and they would escape as fast as they could.
That's what we Jews do for the world. We are the world's early warning system. Where there is evil, where there is hatred, it affects us first. To be a Jew, whether we like it or not, is to be a magnet for hatred, for envy, for resentment no matter how unjustified, no matter how irrational. If there is hatred anywhere in the world, it will find us. If there is evil somewhere in the world, we will become its target. People overflowing with hatred for whatever reason, including self-hatred, make us the objects of their hatred.[2]
Kuscher was writing after 9/11, when, paradoxically, anti-Semitic attitudes were on the rise around the world. He sees his Jewish siblings as the canaries in the mines of human existence, living as a sign to the world of the possibilities of God, “not because it will make our lives easier, but because it will make our lives more meaningful, because it will bless the world as Abraham blessed the world, showing people what it looks like to live by God's word.”
As a sad aside I probably have to add that my clear sympathy for this Jewish religious perspective bears no resemblance whatsoever to my deep grief at the obscene military bullying of Palestinians by the State of Israel. I see the latter as spiritually (although to say this is chronically to oversimplify) unrelated to the holy People of God, who strive by Torah-observance to witness to the possibilities of God as signs of God’s covenant.
Nevertheless, just as the mortal prophet Ezekiel was commanded to prophesy to the wicked, urging them to turn from sin and selfishness and from, as we say in our liturgies, “all that leads to destruction,” so the people of God are called to exist in the community as a sign, however fallible, of the possibilities of redemptive, healing, uplifting relationship to God. If I am an evangelical I am, like Rabbi Apple, a poor one, for I sense that our role too is in a sense a burden, a task not of converting others to our ways, but of shining as beacons of gentile hope in a world that sometimes for good reason is little enough interested in the God of Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Such an attitude of course is hardly likely to fill our churches with converts, and I certainly long for people to come to know the God-in-Christ I love and strive fallibly to serve, but I have no formulaic expectation that those I meet in daily life and ministry must pray the sinners’ prayer and come to adopt my faith. You will often hear me say, echoing if distorting Paul and Jesus alike, that we are called to be the tenth leper, remembering to say thanks to God for all we as created beings experience, remembering to implore God when the going gets tough (as it does each day) for humanity and the biosphere, who are which are respectively too busy or too voiceless to pray.
I mention in passing Torah-observance. Because we read through the lens of Paul’s struggles we give Torah, the Law celebrated by the psalm today, bad press, as though it were some kind of evil burden from which Jesus releases us. The Christ of Matthew’s gospel – possibly narrated in this way by Matthew in order to apply a corrective to some believers who were yet again abusing Paul’s “law free gospel” – is committed to fulfilling and even exceeding the laws of Torah. Is this then some terrible curse or wowserism and myopia we must bear?
Certainly in the expectations of Torah and Christ-following alike there are exacting demands, demands that we should live in a way that exceeds the morality of the culture around us. In Roman times culture was harsh and greedy: the Christians set about exemplifying love and generosity. It became their most powerful evangelistic weapon: see how these Christians love. We might well look at the dominant paradigms of our culture: where there is fear let us be a people, by grace, of hope; where there is meanness and greed let us by grace be a people of generosity; where there is a spirit of hedonism let us be a people, by grace, of disciplined fidelity and even unpopular chastity.  Where hatred and vengeance dominate the narratives of a society, can we be a people of love and cycle-breaking reconciliation? Only by grace, but we can.
We are called to be in this community as a sign, a rumour of the countercultural standards that God can, as we ask, as we seek, inject into the arteries of our existence. “How then can we live?” We can live imploring the God who awaits to hear us as we gather in God’s name, we can live imploring God to make us into the sign of Christ-values, Jesus-values, even Torah-values that Matthew’s Jesus calls “being loosed on earth,” which Rabbi Kushner called being society’s canaries, and which we might call advertising the eternal reign of justice, righteousness, peace and love that Jesus open to us.

[1] Or I think I did. I worked in the religion department of ABC Radio, and I may have internalised an interview by my much more skilful colleague Rachel Kohn. It was all long ago and far away!