Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Lost Things

I can’t say that I’m excited by this week’s Gospel, especially the bit where it talks about losing stuff. It really doesn’t matter what the stuff is, it’s losing it that I find irksome.

Temporarily misplaced? Put it somewhere where it won’t get broken? Mislaid? Nowhere to be found? Nah. Time to call on St Anthony.

The “stuff” this week is “our life” which, when we stack it up against our diamond ring or gold brooch – things for which Anthony works overtime – we discover that Anthony isn’t all that interested in finding for us.

As the words of the Reading roll off the lips of the Gospeller this Sunday, we realise that Jesus isn’t talking about “stuff” like we think and that we’re facing that awful chasm that gets stretched between Jesus’ call on our lives and our part-time, mostly volunteer, discipleship.

As an aside, years ago I figured the best way to overcome the guilt I felt in not being able to ‘give it all to Jesus’ was to sign up for Ordination. I contemplated missionary work and being a monk but they weren’t the same. Ordination was for life. Full-time.

Thus began the myth that clergy (or nuns or monks) are closer to God because of their time commitment. Ha. It’s like saying you’re closer to heaven if you live in a high-blocked house.

Instead of getting better, my guilt got worse because I soon learned that when he speaks about losing things in this passage, he’s actually talking about ‘destruction’. Destroy my life? Come on.

Well, I thought, at least I’ve got a few mates out there who congregate with me week after week, they’ll tell me that it’s OK for me to believe he’s not being serious and I’ve just read it wrong, right? Wrong.

The most difficult observation, though, was that most of us choose to ignore this passage. We’d rather read something nice. We’d rather hear the challenge and ignore it rather than surrender to it.

Precious are the few who can lay everything on the line for the gospel, it seems, but the majority can’t/won’t. The words, though, aren’t going to disappear as if by magic. We can’t avoid them; neither can we ignore their call.

What we tend to do is to fit church into our life as best we can. Most of us simply put it into the open spots on our calendar. The more we can fit it, the more committed we are in the eyes of the beholders.

“Does your mum practice her faith?” I asked a sad son whose ma had just been admitted to hospital.

“Oh, no” he responded, “She doesn’t practice it, she does it for real.”

Matthew 16:21-28 moves from a focus on Jesus and his vocation to his demands for his disciples. Jesus has just congratulated Peter for his recognition that he (Jesus) is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and in the same breath uses words that talk of authority, privilege and power. It’s all good.

Then, in a surprising move, Jesus begins to reinterpret what being the Messiah actually means and what following that Messiah really entails. If Peter can’t bear the revelation of Jesus’ coming suffering, which he can’t, how will he respond when the focus shifts to those whose fate mimics that of Jesus?

Many of us know only too well that we fall far short of Jesus’ standard. By contrast, perhaps our culture needs the reminder, too. One of the cultural issues I’m struggling to overcome is the insidious assumption that God wants us all to be happy little Vegemites.

Ask any bride and groom what they want from their marriage and see if I’m not wrong. The quest for happiness has become like a weed that is slowly suffocating us.

It’s pursuit is aided by Christian music. There are countless choruses and songs that celebrate how much we love Jesus and how great he is. Open any Christian website and you’ll be flooded with invitations to buy the latest Self-Help book. At one level it looks good, as I say.

The happiness assumption has wriggled its way so far into our collective psyche that we’ve become almost incapable of being challenged by Jesus’ own words. Right there is our challenge.

Can we hear that God just might be calling us to a radical commitment and that this just might mean losing our life? It’s a tough question.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Speaking Up

There’s a lot of chat on the streets about Jesus and who he is. Everyone’s got an opinion, from the bishop (any bishop) down: the bro who’s dealing joints, your hairdresser or the friendly barista at Gloria Jean’s.

It’s no surprise to know that there are opinions in those sepulchres of advanced learning, too. Scientists and philosophers are particularly vocal but plenty of others will give you a potted course in their version of Christology at the drop of a stethoscope, too.

Just thumbing through the Gospels ourselves, we see that quite a number of people there have a view of Jesus as well, not all of them complimentary: Mary’s son; a prophet without honour in his own country; the king of the Jews; a prophet, a rabbi and a pain in the neck.

He can heal your sick child, cast out your demons, forgive your sins, raise your mate from death and lead the revolution. He’s the bloke to invite to dinner and the bloke to invite to leave the district.

He’s been alive, dead and risen again; some say he’s coming back for a third shot, which raises the question about how many times he needs to get it right; and, of course, he’s Lord and God.

People say lots of things about Jesus, spiritually, theologically, historically, colloquially, pastorally or biblically. They shout out his name on building sites, on the internet, at the kitchen table, from pulpits and in psych wards. You can hear the word used in anger, joy, bitterness and any other emotion, or none.

People describe him, decry him, defend him, and deconstruct him. They explain him; complain about him, and just plain yak about him. Jesus is easy to talk about. Pick your context, pick your method, and go for it, says Anna Florence in Lectionary Homiletics.

The one place that talking about Jesus can be tricky, however, is at church. Ever tried it at the morning tea after the Service?

“We have boundaries Ian,” I was told after one such attempt, “There’s a time and place for everything, you know.”

We do have limits, sure. There are things about Jesus that you can’t say about him, not if you want to pass your theological exam anyway. So we learn very quickly what line the examiners want to read, what the selection committee members want to hear, what the denominational view is.

The trick with this is to learn how to honour all of the above and maintain one’s integrity at the same time, so that what people say about Jesus intersects with what we say. That’s the place where formation happens, that’s where we are moulded. What people say does shape us, about that there is no doubt.

In a curiosity of life pretty much limited to the miraculous, what people say about Jesus turns into something far greater than what the sum total of their words could ever do.

So how do we make the jump from what people say to what we say about Jesus? This is really the touchstone of this week’s Gospel Reading.

It’s the touchstone of the Gospel because it is the foundation for a person to mature in the faith of Christ, a Confirmation requisite.

It’s the touchstone of the Gospel because by it people are formed and moulded into Christ themselves. Their participation in church practices – singing, praying, serving, feeding, foot washing and the like – deepens what they say about Jesus by immersing them in what others say.

It’s not just a matter of knowing stuff, like how to pronounce Old Testament words or of knowing what “eschatology” means. Information is readily available and people knock their eyes out satisfying their curiosity.

It’s Peter gives us the clue. He sets aside what others have said and listens to what the Lord is saying to him in the depths of his spirit: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” he blurts.

"Blessed are you, Simon," crows Jesus. "No human being could have told you that. You really must be listening."

For each of us, the moment comes when what people say about Jesus no longer satisfies us. We can’t hide behind their words anymore. We can’t pretend what they say is ours. We can’t substitute what people say for what we say. We only can listen to God and speak up for ourselves.