Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Reflections from The Hill – The Big Ouch

“Aw, yeah? You and whose army?”

Jack Turner (not his real name) drew himself up to his full height. If his eyes were star pickets, I’d have been a barbed wire fence within seconds.

As it was, I had no army of any sort, just a couple of weedy, Grade 3, mates. We were no match for the knuckles of the Turner boys, so we turned away, defeated.

When I read about the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in this week’s Gospel, my mind goes to that day in the schoolyard of South Carlton Public and the eerily terrifying sounds of lines being drawn in the sand.

Instead of making a statement like “Hey, get out of this here, we don’t want your type here”, the Pharisees chose to ask a question: “Who told you that you could do this?”

Jesus must have known that the way to really judge a person was by their questions, not by their answers because he countered this question with another one about John the Baptist and showed them up in the process.

Answer one way and the Pharisees get shown up as just another bunch of ignorant religionists; answer the other and they stand to lose so much popularity that even Julia Gillard would look good, poor thing.

(As an aside, the reader might be well instructed to know that the strategy of replying to a question with another question is one that my Dearly Beloved employs with great panache and effect, but I digress.)

All sorts of people asked Jesus all sorts of questions and most of them were self-serving: they wanted to trap him, to impress him, or to get something from him.

To every pointed question, though, Jesus offered an equally pointed answer that revealed some truth about the Kingdom, the King, and/or the Kingdom's subjects.

This time, though, he gets right to their hearts by asking them a question in return. Stymied for an answer, his accusers refuse on the grounds that, no matter what they said, an answer would incriminate them, seriously, badly.

This sets up Jesus to tell a story about integrity. None of us can get past this yarn without having a twinge of conscience. In my case, it’s more like having a grand-mal fit than a twinge.

Jesus tells the awkward story of the two brothers who were asked to help out: one said “No” but then did; the other said “Yes” but didn’t. The point of integrity, though, is in what they did, not what they said.

For every one of us who hears this story, the comparison forces us to ask the question, Which one am I? Am I the one who presents as obedient but isn’t, or am I the one who for, all intents and purposes, can’t be trusted but, in the end, does what is needed? Which am I? Which are you?

It’s a tough call. We may not be the chief priests and elders of Jesus' day, asking the Messiah accusing questions. Or, perhaps we are. Even so, the parable speaks volumes to us.

When I hear or read this part of Matthew, I am reminded of that convoluted section in Romans 7 when Paul is rabbiting on about not doing the good that he wants to do but actually doing the thing that he really doesn’t want to do. Whether Paul or Matthew, the point they’re making is a challenge.

After all the saying and praying and singing, this text puts the focus on what we exactly do after we leave church on Sunday. Ouch.

Jesus has no need to defend his authority to those without integrity, for they (we) have lost face, lost trust, lost moral standing with the people. Ouch.

‘Putting our money where our mouth is’ is still a challenge. Do our words match our convictions, and does what we do match our words? Ouch.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Reflections from The Hill – A God Too Nice?

In our family’s annals there is a story that centres on which child was to get the wooden spoon after some misdemeanour that’s now been lost to posterity. Each of the tin-lids was paddled in the end (or on it) because no-one owned up.

Naturally, the event that precipitated my actions has grown exponentially, both with time and the amount of red wine consumed but, dear reader, take the point: when it comes to fair being fair, I’m on the side of equity.

The Gospel today (Matthew 20.1-16) makes another point. Depending on where your head is, this story is either one about how to get your workers really cranky, ready to bring out the Union rep and to organise a strike or it’s an exercise in extraordinary generosity; some might even say stupidity.

As I read this story again and again, I get drawn into outrage again and again, particularly as I watch malingerers and lay-abouts score handsomely for doing not much while I, who has worked until his carpal tunnels are screaming, don’t get any more for putting up with the heat, the flies or whatever. It ain’t fair.

Time and time again I get drawn into this scenario and, even though I know the answer, the question won’t go away: what kind of God have we got here? Over and over again, I get all aerated because it seems that He’s on the side of lazy people, not the productive ones, like me.

This is the world that Jesus challenges. He is using our assumptions – in this case an assumption about equality – to introduce something completely radical and different. We might agree in a moment of weakness that the owner’s move is OK: yeah, He gives us all the same thing, not what we deserve or worked for … but it’s still not fair.

We have a hard time right here because the challenge goes to the very seat of our upbringing. Then comes The question: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? (v 15)

He’s being merciful, not fair. If we want fair, don’t read this story. If we want mercy, then take a gander at it. There we’ll see love in action: The Big Fella wants everyone to be saved, regardless.

Part of our difficulty with the parable is that it challenges what we see as God’s predictability, His niceness. He’s become so domesticated that we now believe He wouldn’t do anything to upset anyone like me or you.

When something bad happens, which it does, and we start trying to give some sense of Godliness to it, we end up valiantly excusing Him from any culpability and assure people that He feels bad, too, just like we do, and He wouldn’t do anything like that, ever.

It’s been a bit like that this week as we negotiated our way through the 9/11 Memorial Services and the first salvos of the Carbon Tax debate, to name two. If we’re not careful, we can end up using our pulpits to give economic advice to the PM or foreign policy to the leaders of the US of A.

It’s important to be afraid of giving people the impression that God is wringing His hands on the sideline of life, like a maiden aunt with the vapours, and is too nice to do anything different. He ain’t, and we well know that.

It is hard to bear the thought of a God who does things differently from the way we do them, who thinks different thoughts to ours, who says things that are almost outside our vocabulary.

It’s even harder to continue believing in a God who is so bland, so innocuous and so harmless that He’s not worth the effort to even raise an ire about inequality. It’s not a matter of reviving J. B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small; it’s a case of delivering us from a God who is too nice.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Back to Church Sunday

When it comes to Back-to-Church Sunday, I must admit that I’m puzzled: why would anyone want to go away from church in the first place to allow them to come back?

People obviously leave in great numbers, so I’m not putting my head in the sand. An analysis of declining congregations (a phenomena of Western Christianity, I’m told) would reveal a huge array of reasons.

I’m also conscious that there are countless who have never taken up the option of finding out, or have never been able to do so because they live in deepest, darkest, Africa or some such inaccessible place.

The numbers of actual atheists is, I suspect, relatively small by comparison to the six billion or so (and counting) who live on this fantastic blue planet. I am not going to argue their case.

My task today is to try to come to grips with the reasons why people actually come to church and stay.

Make no mistake; for anyone who understands church and what it’s really all about, going to church can be the most fulfilling, inspiring thing they do in a long day’s march.

The source for Reflections this week is the Acts of the Apostles, particularly chapter 2. It’s called ‘Acts’ because it’s a story of what the early Christians did. There we find a six sentence snapshot of what early church life was like.

Looking at this picture, we can see five reasons why the church started in the first place. This may give us some clues about why we are, or want to be, part of it.

If the first question in life concerns one’s identity (“Who am I?”), the next one has to do with place, or community (“Who am I connected to?”).

Jesus built on a fantastic tradition of familial connections to give his followers a sense of community, belonging and togetherness at a level that they, hitherto, could not find anywhere else in the world.

This is so at odds to the world of TV soaps and the like that it’s puerile to even compare them with what Jesus was on about. The fact that many hang off every word in ‘Packed to the Rafters’ or ‘Cheers’ is simply indicative of the long and deep-felt hunger people have for fellowship, community and family.

I read somewhere that beer commercials don’t sell beer; they sell fellowship, even the one where the guy wets his duds in the men’s room. People long to be connected. The church gives us such a place.

That’s not all, for belonging to a church gives us, next, a chance to express that connectedness: we are connected to the One who made us and that creates an opportunity for us to express that relationship every hour of every day of our life.

This is called ‘worship’, a phenomena that is much more than the few reedy hymns and the sermon delivered through an inadequate sound system will do any Sunday morning, except perhaps in your church.

Worship is a way of life; and, if we let ourselves get immersed in worship, no matter what style we might prefer, we will feel God’s presence there, and it will stay with us.

The third element about church is finding out about The Man/God Himself, Jesus. Honestly, the level of ignorance on this subject – even among Christians, let alone those outside – is appalling. The Church ought to be the place where the right information can be found.

When we come to church and hear the Word of God being preached, it teaches us what it really means to be like Jesus; it challenges us to follow in his steps; and equips us grow to spiritual maturity.

While some of those early followers were out healing the sick, blind and crippled, other were helping the poor and looking out for one another. This points us to fourth great reason why the church exists and why we should be a part of it.

Despite the huge pressure to consume the world’s goods and its materials, it’s important to know that God designed us to make a difference with our life. He put us on earth to make a contribution, not just to consume resources and take up space.

There are many books that offer advice on how to get the most out of life, but that’s not why God made us. We weren’t made to get but to give. We’ve been created to add to life on earth. God wants us to give something back.

If we’re already in a church and we’re not involved in a work of service, what excuses are we using? Here’s a few that have been tried before: Abraham was old, Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive, Gideon was poor, David had an affair and all kinds of family trouble, Elijah was suicidal, Jeremiah was a depressive, Naomi was a widow, the Samaritan woman had five failed marriages, Thomas had doubts, and Timothy was timid. Need I go on?

There is one more pearl to come and that’s the pearl of “What next?” If we are in a place and doing worship and maturing as a Christian and exercising some ministry, then the last reason for coming to church is to do what we’ve been talking about this week: inviting others to come to church.

Being invited by someone else is still the biggest reason for people being in church today. In Acts, the church grew from 120 to 3000 in one day. By Acts 4, that number had risen to 5000 and, by Acts 6 there were too many to count because they knew they had a mission and they set out to get it done.
How do we ‘get it done?’ The easiest thing to do is to invite someone to church and to let them hear the message themselves That’s as good a reason for Back To Church Sunday as I can find.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Reflections from The Hill – Use or Ab-use?

From time to time, TV journalists do stories on domestic violence. It’s an horrendous topic, both visually and aurally, even if the re-enactments are staged for the report.

Such behaviour is so far outside my level of desire that it’s almost dreamland stuff and, frankly, I am confronted and offended by the reports, despite being able to see myself in many of them.

This delicate subject of physical, emotional and verbal abuse gets a fair bit of attention – and rightly so – those in authority are doing their level best to lower the high physical and monetary costs associated with the problem.

In the context of today’s Gospel Reading from Matthew, we get a glimpse of another type of abuse, a most insidious example called spiritual abuse.

Wikipedia says that spiritual abuse ‘occurs when a person in religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of God or church …’

Sad to say but this passage from Matthew has been used by clergy and church officials the world over to harm people, to exercise power over them and, if two or three of them agree on something, to ignore everyone else’s opinion and do what they want.

Of course, I’m not thinking of your Parish or ministry area as I write this. Such things don’t happen there, I’m sure. But if this form of abuse did occur where you are, and if you used Matthew to justify your actions, we can be pretty sure that it happened because someone put a spin on the words of Jesus that just ain’t there.

When we get to read it, it’s important to stand back a bit and look at chapter 18 as a whole, like I had to do when I visited Canberra and saw Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” in the National Gallery. I had to consciously avoid getting up close and personal.

Standing back ensured that I was able to take in the painting in one go, to see it as it was. Its impact on me is still profound to this day.

The trouble is that, when we get to Scripture, we tend to do the same thing: get up close and personal first, rather than stepping back and getting the bigger picture.

When we get too close, we become picky and selective about what’s there. Some bits are agreeable to us and some aren’t. For example, we don’t drown people for being a stumbling block anymore and I’m not sure that plucking out an eye has ever had the desired result.

Mind you, not too many farmers would leave ninety-nine sheep in a paddock to go look for one which went missing, either. Leave them alone and they will come home is far more cost effective but I could be wrong.

So what was Jesus trying to get us to understand in these few verses this week? Retribution is good? Hardly. Excessive use of power is a thing to be grasped? Not likely. Drown your opposition? Excuse me …

No. Jesus is continuing his teaching on the Kingdom by helping us understand that He sees things from a very different and opposite perspective from the one we have.

Jesus is saying that it’s not the greatest, or the most powerful, or best dressed who are top of the pile in God’s Kingdom but those who are vulnerable, without power and without status.

He uses hyperbole (overstatement) to help us hear the gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, with different language and images.

Jesus could have used his power to tell the disciples exactly what he thought of their question about who was the greatest, but he chose to listen, to open up conversation and to teach.

There’s a good lesson here. If Scripture is a closed word and simply an answer book, then we’re all in trouble. We’ll continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and to justify harm in God’s name. In this, we will limit God – and that’s no exaggeration.

Jesus’ own exaggeration goes beyond what the disciples and we can comprehend: it goes way beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take each other seriously, listen to the other, and dare to trust that this other person belongs in God’s love as much as we do.

In the wash-up, that’d have to be a whole lot better than a head full of power, a mouth full of control and a fist full of abuse, now, wouldn’t it?