Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Reflections from The Hill – A Song to Change the World – Luke 1.39-45


Once upon a time in a faraway land, a young bloke from Dagenham (East London), who wasn’t Mike but Danny, was in big trouble: ‘e was lookin’ for someone to be his cheese (wife).


Because ‘e ‘ad two ov ‘em on a string, he needed to some divine intervention and make a decision, so ‘e wen’ up to ve church to find out from the Big Guy ‘oo it was gunna be.


The choice was ‘ard: Maria was a lovely lass with dark hair and big shiny eyes and Lorraine was a pert little blond wif a smile that’d knock ya teef art. The thought of makin’ a choice kept poor Danny awake at night. It was real ‘ard.


By luck ‘e survived an’ farned ‘isself in a church. It must’ve been a Roman Caflick Church ‘e went to because as soon as ‘e walked froo d’ door, ‘e knoo what ve answer was because vere, written in big letters ri’e over ve ortar were ve words Ave Maria. Danny and his Maria lived happily ever after.


For centuries, the words Ave Maria have brought peace to countless thousands of people, even if they aren’t or weren’t religious. They’ve honoured the gentleness of tender-hearted motherhood. They’ve brought tears of joy and inspired singers and musicians with their comfort.


These words (they’re actually the Latin version of a Hebrew greeting) are part of an interchange between Gabriel and the young Mary regarding her life, now and in the future. Her response to the angelic declaration was to sing.


In difficult times, when school shootings, financial crises, increasing violence and crime threaten to take their voice away, humans often turn to singing. It is a powerful thing to do under duress.


In the Gospel Reading today, our church is reminding us of the power of song. And not just any song like “My Favourite Things” but a song of both lament and praise, of promise and defiance, a song into which that first singer entered and now calls on us to join.


That song, Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, is an invitation for us to enter the promises to which she gives voice: the promise that God will lift up the lonely, the down-trodden and oppressed, not simply those of her day but of ours as well.


This week, let’s note that all the verbs Mary uses are in the past tense, indicating a relationship between her and her God, one into which she has already been drawn; a song to One who has been siding with the oppressed and who has been making and keeping promises since about Day 6.


As the words of this mighty song come to life for us in worship, in prayer, or simply in quiet reflection, we’ll find we are being drawn into taking them up on behalf of those whose loved ones won’t be coming home from school or hospital on this or any other day; on behalf of all who mourn, or who are lonely, or who don’t have enough food, or who struggle with mental illness, or so much more.


Mary’s song just doesn’t name these things; it gets us to sing them. It gets us to sing about a reality and an experience that is, at once, as profound as it is simple: that God’s promise is to change the world. In singing this – either aloud or in the deeper recesses of our spirit – we actually get to be part of that work.


Maybe it’s enough just to taste the words that encourage us to do good to the poor and weak. There’s no sin in that. But maybe there’s a bigger picture out there, a picture whose panorama stretches from Adam, Abraham and Moses through Mary and on to us, encompassing a company of saints who are to raise their voices in hope as they wait for the Lord’s comfort and peace to come.


We might think that our voices are husky, or out of tune or so quiet that they’re next to useless, but there’s strength in numbers. We are the body of Christ.


As we join together and sing, we’ll discover that we get stronger and that we begin to enter the oft-spoken but rarely lived reality of faith, courage and love.


No longer is it me against the world but together we’re witnesses of and participants in The Big Fella’s promise to change the world.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Luke 3.7-18 - Waiting


This year, 2012, has become something of a watershed year for me, not because I celebrated a momentous birthday (I didn’t) or because I don’t move across the ground as fast as I once did (I don’t). No, it was none of that.


The watershed is centred on the loss of what, for me, is the connection between God and the rest of society. Maybe T.S. Eliot was onto something when, in 1934, he wrote that ‘…The church does not seem to be wanted/In country or in suburb; and in the town/Only for important weddings’.


I think I’m still reeling from the awareness of an almost complete absence of Christmas paraphernalia like cribs, angels, shepherds and the like in our shops and halls of commerce. In homes, yes; in churches, no doubt, but at the shop? Nah. The time, it seems, has finally come.


To think that I am not wanted, or the group that I’ve become attached to is not wanted in the community ‘except for important weddings’ is enough to send me into a Decline from which I struggle to extricate myself.


It’s not just about Christmas is it? Eliot was taking a broadside at something more general than simply the Christmas season. He was addressing a whole-of-life decline, from X-mas and Jesus-is-The-Reason-for-The-Season to Happy Days and beyond.


Who really cares about Advent or Easter or Whitsunday or Epiphany or Saints Days except some we call Christians and not even all of them?


To deal with this broadside, we do all kinds of spiritual tumble-turns just to appeal to the community from what remains of their Christian collective memory. Some of these appeals deserve a place in the Ship of Fools website (check it out -( Some have done so already, some of them not.


So we come to Advent. I can put up with the 24 Day Advent Calendar (or is it 26?) where each day proffers a new treat, a chocolate or a whiz-bang thingummy. I can enjoy Christingle. I can even handle the 12 Days of Christmas Street Art website, even when they’re only offering 11.


What I find a bit awkward, though, is finding either no understanding of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, as I did recently, or experiencing an exercise in what is called the ‘modern Advent’ of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy, complete with mauve and pink candles and an Advent wreath.


Leaving aside the candles, the four modern themes are important but to use them as an excuse for not raising the topics of the Other Four is a lame one, especially when we’re doing it because we believe these Other Four are too tough a call for modern wo/man to hear about.


What do we do? Retreat into our funk-holes and throw up walls that will keep us safe and everyone else outside? Probably not but it’s a tricky one.


I can put up with the offences that come my way simply because I live in a post-Christian community. I shouldn’t expect any concessions from our secular leaders, whether it’s Christmas stuff in our shops, RE in schools or discounts because I work for the Church.


I haven’t been invited to a Mayor’s Civic Reception for decades, which is not a bad thing. I’m told I’m not missing much. However, if for some reason these things come my way, things like access to schools or invitations to a mayoral knees-up, well and good, but I don’t seek them out as a matter of course.


The question still remains: What should we do? In today’s Gospel, the crowds asked John and John obliges with some specifics: check out your wardrobe and the people who come to your place for dinner; check out your bank account(s) and the people you pass on the street; check out God’s call on your life.


Here’s a clue: even if we don’t do anything about the answers John gives, the question is a good one. Simply by asking it, we are not only letting God inside to where his Good News lives, we are continuing the whole idea of Advent: waiting.


Losing hair or sleep or watching my blood pressure rise because it ain’t what it used to be is never an option. It’s not about being wanted. It’s about waiting.


Getting stroppy because these or those Christians do Advent differently isn’t where it’s at, either. It’s not about being wanted. It’s about waiting.


I often wonder how I made it this far. Maybe I’ll hang about and wait next year, too.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Luke 3.1-6 – Inns & Outsiders

An old theatre, full of badly upholstered seats, dust and the smell of generations of sweaty North Queenslanders is not the sort of place you’d expect to get a fright.

It was only when the house lights were replaced by the dim glow of the EXIT signs and the last of the conversations had ebbed away that I began to be filled with anticipation. Like everyone else, my focus was towards the stage.

Then a single spotlight shone over our heads like a bolt of lightening and a voice from outside, from the darkness at the rear, pierced the fetid air: ‘Pre-e-e-pare ye the way of the Lord’ it sang. Loud. Clear.

We were forced to sit upright. Our eyes and ears were straining backwards. Our heart speed tripled. These physical things were still to catch up with our emotions. Raw. Shock. Fear. We knew we were in for the ride of our life.

In this place, at least, there were none that we could recognise as being special: community leaders, knights of the realm (when we still had a few), medicos, the odd sky-pilot, you know. We’d all paid our money and we were all together. Leaderless.

As it was in the theatre, so it is in today’s Gospel. The word came from outside, bypassed all the powerful ones – the Herods, the Caesars, the Pilates, the Lysanias’, the sites of power and influence – and came right here, bypassing the antiseptic surrounds of a home to arrive in a shed.

It’s the way it is in Luke. Ch 1 of the Gospel is set ‘in the days of King Herod …’ and tells us about the birth of John the Baptist. In Ch 2 the setting is ‘… in the days of the Emperor Augustus …’ and that other guy, Quirinius, and tells us about Jesus’ birth. Now, in Chapter 3, Luke sets the story in more history ‘…in the fifteenth year …’ and gives us John’s message.

Three times Luke has bypassed the toffs and nobs of the world. Three times Luke has chosen to place these events – at one level, about as small and insignificant as one can imagine – right alongside the movers and shakers of the day.

Three times Luke has illustrated that God’s mercy comes from outside the usual places disguised as human weakness; it bypasses everyone we’d normally expect to be there and, along the way, it introduces us to a couple of young blokes who will grow up to change the world.

For Luke, small is beautiful, especially when it can grow bigger. There’s something later on in Luke about mustard seeds, so I’m beginning to think that it’s a bit of a theme in his writing.

Whatever else you can say, though, it’s a change of focus. This God-word came to a no-body called John, in a no-where place called the wilderness and, yet, this small and insignificant thing is more important than all the important people and events of the day.

It is still the same. Not just to the nobodies gathered in a dilapidated theatre in tropical NQ during the flower-power revolution but to the nobodies in our congregations and in the no-where places of our unremarkable suburbs and communities.

There’s more. If something is coming to, chances are it’s also coming against, against the political, religious and economic principalities and powers of the Emperors, Rulers, Governors and High Priests of our day.

Against these powers of empire stands an odd little guy called John and his somewhat more respectable cousin Jesus.

Against these powers of empire stands a word that promises to fill valleys, level mountains, straighten crooked paths and smooth out the rough bits.

Despite that, as Fr Thomas Merton* reminds us in Raids of the Unspeakable, there is still no room for the Good News: we are being drowned out by the noise of our obsessions with technology, with what the Government is doing with our taxes while, all the time, being drugged by entertainment.

Some things don’t change: those who are outside the Inns of power still can’t find any room inside. It’s no mistake that Luke is making the point that the Good News is for the drowned-out, the crowded-out, the missed-out, the worn-out and the left-out.

We can get tired of waiting for the changes to come but even those things that are difficult now will become, like many of the other things, a distant memory, footnotes on a larger story of grace and mercy and life.

*Thomas Merton, Trappist monk who died in 1968