How green is our church

This morning at Collins Street we celebrated our 170th anniversary. As the oldest Baptist church in the nation, we have much to celebrate and even more to be thankful for. We read today from Psalm 1 and I offered some reflections. For those who asked, I’ve included them here.

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As I walk down Collins Street each morning on my way to work, I am often captivated by the plane trees that line the footpaths on either side of the road. They have been there much longer than me and, I am sure, will outlast me by decades. The branches extend high above the street, overhanging the wires, the poles and shop-front awnings. Allow your eye to follow the shape of one of these trees, from the tip of its branches all the way down to its base, and you’ll see the trunk disappear into the concrete below. How do these magnificent things survive in the middle of a city? There’s no dirt to see, no verdant soil to put our hands in. Yet every spring, as predictable as Carlton’s September demise, new green leaves sprout from their branches. They’re alive.

These trees were not there 170 years ago. In fact, though the regimented street form—the Hoddle Grid as we know it—was roughed out on the landscape, Collins Street was nothing more than a glorified dirt track. There was not a sidewalk tree in sight except for the tree stumps that stubbled the road alongside potholes large enough, the historians tell us, to swallow horses. In the summer the constant swirling of dust meant pedestrians had to cover their faces with handkerchiefs, and in the winter, with the dirt turned to a muddy bog, the potholes filled with water and human waste. The fatal outbreaks of dysentery decimated entire neighbourhoods. But somewhere along the line, our forefathers and mothers had the vision to plant trees along the edges of these so-called streets. They were elm trees to begin with. It was an act of hope, believing something into existence that far exceeded what they could see.

So 170 years ago, in 1843, a little band of 16 people stood shoulder to shoulder to form the Collins Street Baptist Church.  In a public meeting hurriedly convened in the Mechanics Hall, today the Athenaeum Theatre, a visiting Baptist preacher called John Ham, on his way to a pastorate in Sydney, gave a lecture with the riveting title The Constitution of the Christian Church at the end of which he gave an altar call. These 16 people responded, inspired to plant a tree, or a church actually, this one. There was no building to meet in, no grand while pillars, no pastor, no pews and no organ, just a shared vision for a community faithful to God’s presence in this fledgling city and an extraordinary belief in God’s ability to bring it to life.

Since then this tree has flourished. Through times of great blessing and growth, times of drought and struggle, times of harmony and others of dissension, this church has persisted. Year in and year out the old leaves die and fall to the ground while new leaves sprout in hope and faith. How can this be so? Why does a church like ours persist? And what does this tell us about our future?

Psalm 1 is an introduction to the psalter, the 150 psalms that express the prayers, longings and faith of God’s people. Psalm 1 sets the scene. It summarizes the way of life to which the people of God are called. It’s a way of being in the world, one that conforms with God’s intentions and depends on God’s grace.  Verse 3 tells that such a life, such a community, is like ‘a sturdy tree planted in rich and life-giving soil. As the tree bears fruit, so its life manifests blessing for others.’

There are two simple truths for us in these words. Firstly, the future of this church depends entirely on the rich and life giving soil in which it’s planted. Its roots go deep into a source that we cannot see and routinely forget. That source is the life of God. According to verse 4, the wicked are without such a source. They have no roots at all. They are driven by the wind, surface chaff blown away so easily. Their lives are entirely self-referenced, consumed with the comfort and wellbeing of now, focused on their own security and prosperity. They are rootless. But that cannot be for the people of God. This is not what makes for a growing and sturdy tree. Our roots reach down for a source beyond our own selves.

Many of you will know that in this church just a few weeks back, we hosted the funeral for Ross Langmead, professor of missiology at Whitley College. Some of you were there. Ross was one of my dearest friends, our offices side by side for 10 years. In his committal, I said these words:

And now we commit his body to the earth
which is gentle to us in the time of death.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In the cycle of life and death
the earth is replenished
and life is eternally renewed.

There is such painful yet profound truth in these words. Life depends on death. The life of faith is never a life consumed with itself, but one lived in community with and dependence upon others, past and present. God’s eco-system is so much larger than one life or even one church. Just as a tree cannot exist in isolation, so the growing church is gathered up in something so much bigger and more significant than itself. What’s more, the continuous cycle of life is what keeps the soil in which we are planted sustaining. We continue to see green leaves today only because of the mulch of yesterday—the lives, the sacrifice and the faith of countless people who have gone before us.

Secondly, the purpose of a tree that bears fruit is the life is makes possible for others. According to psalm 1, the good life, the verdant and green life, is a life lived in response to God’s presence in the world and one that brings blessing to it. Aspiration to ‘the good life’ is a common drive today. Flip through the pages of lifestyle magazines that promote it and its sure to include a beautiful home, luxurious vacations and an abundance of food and wine leisurely imbibed with an urbane circle of good looking friends. But that’s not the good life the psalmist has in mind. Prosperity and growth do not consist in getting what we want for ourselves, but in being connected to the source of life in all creation. We exist for the sake of others. Thomas Merton once said,

A tree gives glory to God by being a tree.
It consents to His creative life.
It expresses an idea which is in God’s mind.
So the more a tree is like itself,
the more it is like him.

For the church to be a church, we must understand what we are and what we are not. We are not a corporation or a franchise. We are not a museum or a concert hall. We are certainly not a club of common interest. We are the church. We are the body of Christ in the world, our branches reaching out into the world. We are a community of faith responding as faithfully as we can to the call of Jesus, ‘follow me.’

It is good today that we celebrate 170 years of life and ministry here on Collins Street. This tree that has grown and flourished on this spot is an extraordinary thing and we are grateful. But we must never forget that we are not here to preserve the tree, but to bear fruit, to offer food and shelter and hope and healing to the world around us.  The tree that disconnects from its environment, from its neighbourhood, and lives for itself alone will die. The church consumed with its own wellbeing and the maintaining of its own traditions will die. It may continue to exist as an institution or a club but it ceases to be a church. ‘As the tree yields fruit, so its life manifests blessing for others.’

As we move into the 171st year of life at Collins Street, I pray that we will do so with gratitude and courage, feeding deeply in the rich soil of God’s grace, and ever more determined to be a tree of blessing to the city of Melbourne and far beyond.

Amen

The desire for love

A reflection on Psalm 63.1-8

As a young pastor, I befriended a young man whose life had become a tragic series of disappointments. His name was Stuart. Stuart’s drug addiction had alienated his already dysfunctional family. His move to Victoria from northern Queensland had separated him from his fragile support networks. Since his arrival in Melbourne, his repellant behaviour had soured the few friendships he had made. He was alone and reduced to living in a back room of a sex shop in St Kilda where he worked during the day and slept at night.

In order to see Stuart, I had to go to the shop at night and sit with him on his sleeping bag laid out on the floor. I remember on my first visit, sitting nervously in my car just outside the shop door. It was a busy road and there was no back entrance. I was convinced that as soon as I got out of the car to enter, a deacon from my church would drive by. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

I had never before nor have I since sat with someone for whom the absence of love was so tragically evident, nor for whom the longing for love was so palpable. Stuart would sit so close to me on the floor I was often uncomfortable yet his need for human warmth was painfully clear. When I led his funeral six months later, the consequence of an overdose, I was the only one there.

51ytNspXvBLFor the last five Sundays, we have been reflecting together on the desires that drive us, the longings that compel us forward in life. Guided by Hugh Mackay’s book What Makes Us Tick?, we’ve explored the desire for something to believe in, the desire for ‘my place,’ the desire to be useful, the desire to belong, and the desire for more. Today we conclude with the desire for love.

In the very last paragraph of his book, Mackay describes the desire for love as the deepest and most profound of all our desires, the one that sits beneath and within every longing we know. Indeed, the longing for love is a defining element of what it means to be human. From a Christian perspective, this desire flows directly from the fact that we are created in the image of a loving God. As God loves, so we love. As God craves our love in return, so we crave love in response to our own. It’s because of this that the thought of saying anything helpful about love is overwhelming. Love is such an all-encompassing thing, such a deeply complex and emotionally loaded business that speaking of it in any meaningful way is fraught with difficulty.

It’s a bit like Mothers Day. When all is well and life is ideal, celebrating a day like this one comes easily. But life is hardly ever entirely well or ideal. The airbrushed images of motherly love, of maternal dreams and longings realized, of tender embraces and perfect smiles, don’t often match the reality of our lives. For days like today can be unwelcome reminders of what we have lost or never known, of what has be taken from us or failed us, of our own unmet longings or disappointments. While some of us can rejoice on days like today, and we should, others cannot.

As Mackay says so well, when it comes to the love of family there is the ideal and there is reality. In the ideal, love begins in our mother’s arms and continues in a family of perfect security. It is here we learn the nature of unconditional love; we learn of love unearned but given freely and without reserve. It is here we experience the appropriate intimacy of love and the healing power of touch and refuge. And it is here that we experience the life-giving connection between faith and love, embraced by those who believe in us unreservedly and who stand beside us no matter what. All of this, however, describes an ideal, a picture of love at its best. The reality is often quite different. Tragically for some, the ideal is almost entirely absent and days like today are nothing but a cruel reminder of this fact.

So it is, too, with romantic love–love with that special someone. We long for it, we aspire to it, we idealize it, we thrill to it and hold it tenaciously when we find it, feeling things in its grip we have never felt before. And yet when this same love fails us, eludes us, crumbles beneath us or is defined by society as out of bounds, we feel a pain that cuts so deeply we can barely function. It can leave us bruised, scarred, exhausted. Still, no matter how bruised, our desire for it never lessens. The truth is, no matter how many years pass, no matter how wrinkled the skin or sparse the hair, our need for love–our desire to express it and feel it in return–remains as strong as it has ever been. As Mackay says:

‘There is no evidence to suggest that as we age and mature, the desire for love diminishes. We still need the affirmation of love, the comfort of love, the reassurance of love, the rich reward of having our offer of love accepted, the particular form of emotional security that only comes from being loved.’

Despite the dominant images in our media–the ones that define love as overwhelmingly youthful–the longing for love is universal. No matter our age, our gender, our sexuality, our life experience, education or personality, what we all have in common is a desire for love. It is with us for life. In the words of Mother Teresa, the need for love is ‘a hunger much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.’ The desire for love runs deep. It was so for my friend Stuart, and it is so for us.

Psalm 63 is a psalm of David. It was written long ago from the wilderness of Judah, a place of exile and isolation for its author. Bereft of friends and family, suffering under the weight of his own moral failure and surrounded by enemies ready to gloat over his defeat, David expresses his need for love. He thirsts for it. His flesh faints for it. To quench this thirst, he calls upon the love of God, the only love he knows to be secure and dependable: ‘your steadfast love is better than life,’ he declares, though in the thick of his own tears I imagine. David nestles down into the shadow of God’s wings as he clings to this love. And it is here that he finds the resources to return to the challenges of his life and relationships, restored and empowered.

There are three things about the desire for love that I want to simply underline this morning.

Firstly, our desire for love is both gift and burden. It is gift because through it we discover the beauty and richness of life. Through it we are healed and enabled as David was. Through it we find our reason for being in the world and we can face whatever life holds. But the desire for love is also our burden. For living in love is the most demanding and costly calling. Many of you know that first hand. Our love can be refused, abused, taken for granted, misunderstood or thrown in our face. Our thirst for it can cause such anguish of heart that we sometimes wish we could be done with it. Our endless yearning for it can send us into addictive behaviours that cast shadows over our lives and relationships. At its best, love can give the deepest joy; at its worst, the deepest pain. It is both gift and burden.

Secondly, in our desire for love we cannot have the gift without the burden. We cannot know love in all its liberating, life-giving grace without the experiences of pain and struggle. To walk away from the burden is to walk away from the gift. David could only plumb the depths of God’s love because he had known the depths of despair. As painful as love can be, as demanding as it is, as consuming that our longing for it can become, the only alternative to bearing the pain is to shut ourselves down and harden our hearts. And what profit is that, to ourselves or to others? The joint commandments to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves depend entirely on our willingness to remain open to love, to have hearts that can sore the heights and navigate the depths. We cannot know the gift apart from the burden.

Thirdly, this desire for love is God given and common to us all. To desire love and intimacy is part-and-parcel of what it means to be human … for all of us.  The debate in our society about the rights of the Gay and Lesbian community to the ritual of marriage is far from resolved. Even here in this church we are not uniform on this question. Thankfully what we do agree on is the basic Baptist commitment to freedom of conscience in our approach to an issue like this one, our commitment to name injustice when we see it, and our determination to stand on the side of the marginalized. The freedom you give Carolyn and I to speak out on issues like these is a great gift and soon Carolyn will take her place in a very public event on this very issue. Whatever our views on marriage equality, let me say this. For the church to actively promote the expression of fidelity and faithfulness in love between two people while at the same time denouncing all expressions of covenant love between two people with a different sexuality raises some critical questions for the church. If we are created with an inbuilt need for love and intimacy in our lives, all of us, then to cheer on the expression of that love for the majority while having nothing to say to the minority but the exhortation to ‘stop it,’ seems to run counter to our resounding affirmation of God’s love for all humanity.

My friend Stuart craved love. Through his actions and choices, he inadvertently pushed away the very thing he longed for. His unmet longing led him to an early death. I can only believe that the steadfast and enduring love of God received him into the love he so desired all his life and that there he rests today. But you and I are still here, craving love just as deeply–to experience it and to express it. That is at it should be. We are made for love. May you know its gift from God and may you never cease to bear its burdens with faith and hope.

Conclusion

As we draw this series of reflections to a close, I want to suggest that we reframe this idea of ‘desires that drive us’ to ‘longings that inspire us.’ We know that every human drive has as much potential for darkness as for light, but as people of faith we believe in the transforming power of God’s Spirit. Rather than being held captive to the drives of selfishness and personal gain, we aspire to the resurrection life of God. In Christ these drives are reshaped into God-given longings: the longing for something bigger than ourselves to believe in and live for; the longing for experiences of home, community and belonging that include all people; the longing to know our worth in God and not in the fickleness of our own achievements; the longing for more of all that is good, just and life-giving in the world; and the longing for love that gives and receives in equal measure.

May God lift our vision and entice us forward into the fulness of life.

Amen.

‘My place’

A reflection on John 14.1-7

the-wizard-of-oz-originalYou may not have been there in 1939 when that glorious film The Wizard of Oz was first screened. Chances are, though, you’ll recognize its music and know its story in detail. Who can forget a young Judy Garland looking wistfully across the Kansas cornfields singing those dream-like words ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’? The film version is based on L. Frank Baum’s story by the same name. It’s a good read. Not long after Dorothy’s arrival in the land of Oz and at the beginning of her journey along the yellow brick road, Baum recounts a conversation between Dorothy and her new friend, the Scarecrow.

‘Tell me something about yourself, and the country you come from,’ said the Scarecrow, when she had finished her dinner. So she told him all about Kansas, and how grey everything was there, and how the cyclone had carried her to this queer land of Oz. The Scarecrow listened carefully, and said, ‘I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, grey place you call Kansas.’ ‘That is because you have no brains,’ answered the girl. ‘No matter how dreary and grey our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.’ ‘Of course I cannot understand it,’ he said. ‘If your heads were all stuffed with straw like mine, you would probably all live in beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.’

‘There is no place like home.’ Home is a potent word, a word that carries such a weight of meaning, memory and longing that our ability to articulate it is rare. That’s because the idea of home speaks out of and into the deepest part of who we are as human beings. Its beauty and meaning are not measured so much by what we see but by how we feel and who we are when we are there.

51ytNspXvBLIn his book, What Makes Us Tick?, the social researcher Hugh Mackay details ten desires that drive us. Based upon decades of listening to ordinary Australians talk about their hopes and beliefs, Mackay holds up a mirror, helping us to see the longings that most define our daily lives. In this series, we are exploring six of these desires from the perspective of Christian faith–evaluating and critiquing these desires in light of our belief that life is a gift given to us by God. Last Sunday we explored the desire for something to believe in, and today, the desire for ‘my place.’

Mackay describes home as a ‘multilayered concept,’ invested with a host of meanings and associations. Home might speak of where we currently live, or our place of origin–a house or neighbourhood from childhood. It might describe a particular set of relationships to which we return periodically. It might have to do with a sense of personal territory or comfort, a back shed, a Sunday pew, a park bench to which we return again and again–a place in which we feel secure and at home. In the land of the great Australian dream, the aspiration to home ownership is deeply connected to our sense of citizenship and belonging in a way that is almost unparalleled in the rest of the world. According to Mackay, this longing for home, whatever form it takes, is ‘a desire for a place that is unambiguously ours; a place that is in harmony with us; that welcomes and comforts us; that says things about us we’re pleased to have said.’ Mackay describes it as an anchor in our lives, a refuge, a stable reference point in a world that is complex and constantly changing. At its best, it’s a place of belonging, identity and security. For Mackay, the desire for a place to call our own sits at the heart of what it means to be human. It is only when we are deprived of such a place we begin to understand its importance. It’s all this that makes the experience of homelessness so violating.

468273_largeWho can ever forget the fires of Black Saturday here in Victoria. Night after night we heard on the television news the stories of those who suffered such terrible loss. We wept with those who stood awkwardly before the television cameras, their decimated homes still smouldering behind them. Repeatedly we heard these brave people dismiss the loss of their homes and possessions as nothing compared to the sacredness of life itself: ‘At least we’re still here; that’s what matters,’ they said. Of course, they were right and profoundly so. Yet as they turned away from the cameras to look back at what was gone, the tears and bewilderment betrayed the fact that it did matter, and deeply so. Places count. Bricks and mortar they may be, but our homes are us. They speak deeply of who we are and where we belong.

From a Christian perspective, the importance of home is only underlined. Certainly, in the biblical narrative the idea of home features prominently from beginning to end. The story begins in Genesis with the garden of Eden, a place given by God to humankind, a home in which to flourish and prosper. The story of the people of Israel is a journey from nothing to nationhood, from homelessness to the promised land, a place flowing with milk and honey in which the people find their identity and security. In today’s reading, Jesus reassures his bewildered followers that he goes to prepare a place for them, a house with many rooms. It’s a grounded promise, a promise that understands our need for place and belonging. What’s more, Jesus’ story of the prodigal son returning home to the embrace of his waiting father is the moving story of salvation for all humankind:

‘Come home, come home,
you who are weary, come home;
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling, o sinner, come home!’

And in Revelation, the final book of the bible, we have described that place of eternal home, a neighbourhood lined with houses and trees and its streets paved in gold. From beginning to end, according to the scriptures, we are made for place; we are made for home, at home in Christ and destined for homecoming.

But this affirmation of home and our in-built need for it is not the full story from a biblical perspective. Neither is it for Mackay. Mackay goes on to say that our sense of home is only complete when we understand that our desires for ‘my place’ and ‘our place’ are linked. The needs for home and community go hand in hand. Home is never home in isolation. According to Mackay, ‘If we lose our sense of being connected to a local community, we lose a significant part of our sense of home.’ If our sense of home is only about what happens within the four walls of a house, or within the walls of memory or personal security, then home becomes a fortress, a place defined more by fear and boundary than by relationship and community.

tumblr_m7u2rt8FcG1qg4knbThe rise of gated communities is testament to this; people retreating behind walls and secured gates for the sake of personal safety. The result, however, according to the most recent studies, is not a greater sense of security for these residents but an even more heightened sense of fear. While the residents of such communities attests to a very positive feeling of security while at home, whenever they venture beyond the gates their perceived fears skyrocket.

An old maxim of the urban planning community is that as we shape our neighbourhoods, so our neighbourhoods are shaping us. According to Mackay, ‘This is why local neighbourhoods–the actual places where we share the experiences of living in communities–play such a crucial role in our moral formation. The local neighbourhood is the test-bed our our values.’ Similarly in our Christian calling, the most fundamental ethic of the home is that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves, that we should love those beyond the front door as intentionally as we love those behind it.

In his celebrated book Sense of Place, Sense of Time, the late and respected social geographer John Brinkerhoff Jackson describes the role of the home using the metaphor of the hand:

‘It is the hand we raise to indicate our presence; it is the hand that protects and holds what is its own; the home or hand creates its own small world; it is the visible expression of our identity and our intentions. It is the hand which reaches out to establish and confirm relationship. Without it we are never complete social beings.’

Jackson’s metaphor is helpful. The purpose of a good metaphor is that it helps us get a handle on something difficult to grasp. It helps us understand better the roles that the home plays in our lives and, even more, the interconnectedness of these roles. First the home is the hand we raise to indicate our presence in the neighbourhood; it’s an expression of our identity as a household or family. Second, its the hand that enfolds and protects; its a place of refuge, healing and connection for those who live there. And thirdly, its the hand that reaches out to initiate and confirm relationship with those around it; its an inclusive place of invitation, hospitality and welcome. The first two expressions of home are not difficult for us to embrace: the hand that we raise as an expression of our identity; the hand with which we enfold those within. It is perhaps the third that we find more challenging; the hand that reaches out and beyond.

renovation-nationA few years back, the cultural analyst from the University of Western Sydney, Fiona Allon, released the fascinating book Renovation Nation. In it she documents Australia’s longstanding obsession with homeownership. This obsession, she argues, is now surpassed by our infatuation with home renovations. To a degree unmatched anywhere else in the world, we are preoccupied with improving and changing what we have—upgrading, extending and modernizing. Allon cites a recent report that surveyed 2000 homeowners across Australia. The report found that 90% of homeowners are currently renovating their homes or have specific plans to do so. On average we have up to five renovation projects on the go at any one time. The two most common motivations for home renovations are increasing resale value, and enhancing our quality of life. And it seems we are prepared to spend significant amounts to make it happen. Just under 70% of home renovators are spending in excess of $60,000.

While Allon has no religious barrow to push, she expresses concern with what drives this infatuation. Perhaps in the face of fear, terror and uncertainty, we are retreating ever deeper into our homes, obsessively feathering our own nests, cacooning ourselves from the threats of diversity and difference that push in on every side. Ultimately, Allon says, ‘renovations engage our imaginations but narrow our horizons; it excites our vision but limits what we see.‘ And in the process, we collectively pull up the draw bridge and secure the boundaries.

Allon’s words are important for us to hear. While the desire for home is strong and, according to scripture, God-given, it can so easily be reduced to a very self-serving, self-protecting drive that ignores its essential connection to community and neighbourhood. In our 5pm service today, we are exploring the Christian response to asylum seekers, those who come to our shores looking for a sense of home and belonging. Its a contentious issue in our society. If the church, like the home, is a hand we raise in identity, a hand by which we enfold those within, offering a refuge of healing and renewal, and hand that we extend to those most in need beyond our front doors, then what does this mean for our response to those who come to this land from other shores, often broken and without any sense of belonging or home? These are important questions to ask. In our reading today, Jesus is reassuring his fearful disciples, telling them of the home he goes to prepare for them, but he does so in the context of commissioning them for mission. Security and challenge go hand in hand, and no less for us today.

In my early twenties I was a regular visitor to a Benedictine monastery, a community of brothers committed to a lifetime of living, working and praying together. I would stay for a few days at a time in a small room sparsely but neatly furnished with a single bed and a small wooden desk. After several of these visits I noticed an old and yellowed piece of paper mounted in a cheap plastic frame on the back of the door. It was a prayer of dedication that a Benedictine prayed as he moved into his ‘cell.’ I copied the words into my journal and have used it in all the years since as my own prayer. By simply replacing the word cell with the word home, it became mine in a very moving and helpful way. I close with its words this morning:

Lord, this house
is to be my home.
May you holy power
furnish it in peace
and decorate its four walls
with holiness
so that your sacred presence
will also abide here.

Lord, it is not large or grand
but it is to be my living place.
May I find within its close quarters
refreshment and your sacred space.

May your spirit of prayer
be my frequent guest
and welcome housemate.
May the spirit of praise
guide every task and
deed performed here.

Lord, this home will be a place
for living, sleeping, praying;
it will be a shrine
and a place for healing.

May my door stand open
to all who are in need—
as a sign of the posture
of my heart.

May peace, love and beauty
flow out from this home of mine
in all four directions
and up and down.

May your silent echo be heard
by all of those who lives surround me.

The birds of the air have nests;
foxes have dens;
may this home of mine
be blessed by you, my God
as a home for me …
and for you as well.

Amen

A desire for something to believe in

A reflection on John 20.19-31

385862-3x2-940x627On Good Friday, some 4,000 people walked the streets of Melbourne behind a large wooden cross. I was one of them. Perhaps you were too. By any account, it is an odd thing to do, to traipse along the city streets behind a symbol of death, chanting prayers and reading the morbid story of a man executed in a far off place more than 2000 years ago. Not only that, but two days later, Easter Sunday, churches like this one overflowed with people celebrating the incredulous, some would say ridiculous, story of this same man supposedly come back to life. Why? Why, in this age of science and reason, does faith like this persist?

It has been said that the 20th century was a 100-year argument against the existence of God. It was the century of war on unprecedented scale, the horrors of camps and gulags, of the most atrocious racial cleansing and genocide, and the development and deployment of hideous weapons of mass destruction. Surely if ever there was a case that put to rest belief in an all-powerful Deity who pronounces everything good, it has been made. What’s more, the 20th century was one of both sophisticated and popular philosophies that sought to debunk the notions of religious faith. Karl Marx argued persuasively that religion did not even need to be refuted by logic. Its necessity would simply fade away as people found their needs met through hard work and material prosperity. In the midst of all this, science seemed to confirm routinely that God was no longer necessary; even theologians began proclaiming the death of God.

But here we are in 2013, the beginnings of the 21st century, and statistics tell us in no uncertain terms that God is back; or more accurately, that belief in God never went away. According to the most recent data from the World Religion Database, only 2 percent of the global population identify as atheists. At least three quarters of the human race hold a theistic belief. The overwhelming majority of people in the world continue to believe. Why?

51ytNspXvBLIn his book, What Makes Us Tick? the Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay explores the basic desires that drive us, those longings that compel us forward as human beings. He is not concerned with abstract desires–the yearnings for truth, beauty or justice. He’s more interested in what he calls our ‘social desires’–those drives related to our sense of personal identity, our relationships with each other, and our place in society. These social drives, Mackay says, influence our approach to love and friendship, to family life and work, and to our connections in neighbourhoods and communities. Indeed, they infiltrate every aspect of our lives. In his book, Mackay identified ten such desires. In this six-week series, our task is to consider just six of them, but to do so from a faith perspective–to explore, evaluate and critique these desires in light of our Christian faith and our belief in life as God’s gift to us. Today it’s ‘the desire for something to believe in.’

Back to our question: Why does faith persist? According to Mackay, it is as though we are made for it. For the past three decades, Mackay has been sitting down with ordinary Australians and asking them questions about life, relationships and belief. He concludes that within each of us is ‘a powerful human desire to believe in something.’ We share a universal need to at least express the questions, Who are we? What are we here for? and What is life about? We seek sources of comfort and consolation when life is hard to understand, when grief and confusion overtake us and when we feel deeply our own fragility. In all of this, we reach for something beyond ourselves.

Mackay describes himself as a spiritual pilgrim, personally unsure about religious belief but open to the possibility. In contrast, the philosopher Alain de Botton is a decided Atheist. Regardless, in his book Religion for Atheists, de Botton is concerned for what is lost to society when religious belief and its associated rituals are eradicated.

‘ … we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions …’

For both Mackay and de Botton, belief is natural, even vital to human existence. In Mackay’s words:

‘Even the most sceptical of us find we have to resist the desire to believe, as if we are believers by nature, whether that desire is satisfied by conventional religious faith and practice or in some other way entirely … in fervent deification of science, or an almost mystical belief in the inherent integrity of the free market, or passionate atheism.’

All belief, not matter what form it takes, it a way to make sense of things, to understand, and to discern our own reason for being. It strives for something bigger than just me, a broader narrative in which my own story finds its place. In that sense, perhaps the longings of science and the longings of religion are not as different as they might seem. The writer Annie Dillard in her wonderful essay Teaching a Stone to Talk writes: ‘What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us. … What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?’

All belief, religious or otherwise, arises out of a longing to understand: to understand life’s meaning and to understand our own place in it. The trouble with the new Atheism is that it wants to eradicate mystery from the equation altogether. It posits the possibility that all mystery can ultimately be solved, than any sense of the beyond in life is just a matter of time. They are of the assumption that once they can discredit the historicity of the bible, point out the logical flaws in its creeds and the social irrelevance of its commands, and demonstrate the fallibility of its institutions, the motivation to believe will be quenched. But they are wrong. At the end of the day, my belief is not in a book or a creed, not in a set of propositions or commands, not even in the institution of the church. My faith is first in a person, the person symbolised by that empty cross I followed through the streets of Melbourne.

In our gospel reading today, we have heard the story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples behind closed doors. He stands among them with nail pierced hands and says, ‘Peace be with you.’ He then breaths upon them the Holy Spirit and commissions them to go and live as he lived, a life of self-giving and grace. According to John’s story, it was Thomas, the doubting one, who was not present when Jesus first appeared in that upper room. When the other disciples told him the good news, he simply could not believe: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my hand in his side,’ Thomas said, ‘I will not believe.’ Did Thomas want to believe? Of course he did. But sometimes the desire to believe is challenged. Even we people of faith must deal with the weight of reason and logic and so we should. Our faith is not blind faith. Questions can and must be asked. Our belief must be interrogated and tested. And therefore we must expect that at times our faith will be shaken. Mine certainly has been. To be perfectly frank with you, there have been times, in fact there are times, when I ask myself is this all just an illusion? Are we kidding ourselves? But then I come back to the story of Jesus, to the person of Jesus, and I believe.

On the news in the last week, we have heard the story of Nelson Mandela’s illness and hospitalization. We have watched the grief of the South African people even at the thought of his passing. For so long now, Mandela has been the embodiment of hope and liberty for the people of that land, and indeed for people around the world. His story has enfolded the story of a nation. His is the public story in which all the other untold stories find their voice. He has carried his own cross and the cross of his people and so symbolizes the best of what it means to be South African, the best of what it means to be human. And we believe.

It was when Jesus appeared to Thomas, and Thomas touched his pierced hands and his wounded side, that he finally responded, ‘My Lord and my God.’ Like Thomas, my faith is in Jesus and the great mystery of his life, death and resurrection. My faith is in the crucified saviour who stands even today with the wounds of self-sacrifice still evident in his hands and feet, the one who bore his own cross and mine, the one who bore the pain and struggle of all humankind, the one in whose story every human story is embodied. My belief is in the one who so enfleshes the mystery of God’s love and grace, that I am compelled to live differently as a consequence.

I believe. I believe in Jesus.

Amen.

'The incredulity of Saint Thomas' by Caravaggio

‘The incredulity of Saint Thomas’ by Caravaggio

Through weakness …

Paradox copy

Paradox #4

Through weakness we are strong
Luke 9.18-27

A few years back, I lost a dear friend. She had been a youth leader in one of my early ministries. Not long after the birth of her second child, she was diagnosed with a particularly virulent cancer.  Her fight to stay alive was brief and her early death neither fair nor right.

As I sat in the funeral service, my daughter Ali sat next to me, her arm linked through mine. I felt deeply for the husband sitting in the front row and the two small children beside him. I felt angry that such an injustice could be allowed. More than anything, I felt sad and eventually the tears came. As they did, I felt Ali press in closer. I looked down to see her staring up at me, eyes wide with a mixture of concern and disbelief. After a few startled moments, she buried her face in my arm. Later that day, as we stood together at the graveside apart from the crowd, she said, ‘Dad, you sacred me. I’ve never seen you cry before. You’ve always been so strong.’

It is a fact that mixing images of strength with tears is as culturally challenging as blending oil and water. Like Ali, we have learned to see the two as contradictory. As a young man growing up in a family of men, I certainly learnt early on that my own bent to tears was a hindrance to the prized development of strength. In the journey from weakness to strength, from boyhood to manhood, tears were a backward step.

In this season of Lent, we are exploring the paradoxes of Jesus’ teaching in his journey to crucifixion. According to my dictionary, a paradox is ‘a statement or proposition that leads to a conclusion that appears to be absurd, senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.’ There are many of them in the gospel story: in losing life we find it; in fasting we feast; in foolishness we are wise; in poverty we are rich; in humility we are exalted; in dying we live. Absurd, senseless and contradictory statements every one of them, yet infused with such truth, Jesus says, that in surrendering to them our lives are transformed.

Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel is no different; full of absurd contradictions.  Here is Jesus alone with his disciples, pressing them to know what the people make of him: ‘John the Baptist, Elijah, an ancient prophet,’ they say, passing on what they have heard among the crowds. ‘And what about you,’ Jesus prods, ‘Who do you think I am?’ It’s Peter who answers: ‘The Messiah of God!’ he declares. In Matthew’s gospel, Peter’s faith is rewarded with one of the great affirmations of scripture, ‘Blessed are you Peter. Upon you and your faith I will build my church.’ But not here. In Luke’s account, Jesus’ response is ‘Ssshhhh!  Be quiet; tell no one.’

While Matthew is keen to trumpet the Divine calling of Jesus from the rooftops, Luke’s purpose is entirely different. Luke wants to remind his readers of the extraordinary cost at which that calling comes.  Peter is right to identify Jesus as the ‘Messiah.’ That he is, but Peter has no clue as to what this vocation means.  Like all Jews, the disciples lived in expectation of the coming Messiah, the one who will free the people of Israel from the tyranny of the Roman Empire. They imagined a great conqueror riding in with his army, swords in hand, to smite the oppressor and lead the people to a new age of victory and liberation. For the Jews, there was no more potent image than that of Messiah, the embodiment of strength and power without equal; an image in which they invested their hopes and longings for the future.

Ssshhh! Jesus says. He doesn’t deny his identify, refute it or walk away from it. Messiah indeed, but understand this, he says in the words to follow, the Son of Man must now suffer, be rejected and die. Resurrection will come, victory will be ours, but only through the cross. Victory through defeat; triumph through tragedy, strength through weakness. It is absurd; it is senseless; it is contradictory, it goes against everything that Peter and his like have come to believe, and yet it is truth.

If Peter is not knocked off his feet already, then what follows is even more challenging. “If you want to be my follower, then understand this,’ Jesus says, ‘to do so you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me.’  If the blow to the collective Jewish ego was not hard enough, this more personal thud to the stomach comes with a debilitating force. This paradox is not only mine, Jesus says, it is yours as well. Only through weakness is there strength to last; only through defeat is there any victory that really counts.

It is heavy stuff, these words of Jesus. Like all the paradoxes we deal with in this season of Lent, this one is both convicting and compelling. The challenge, of course, is in how we live it.  How many times have your heard these words of Jesus? How many sermons have stirred your commitment and unsettled your heart? But it’s the living of it that is so wretchedly difficult. For to live it we have to make it concrete. We have to move from the shelf of grand and pious propositions to the one labeled ‘things to do today.’  If real and lasting strength is only found in vulnerability and weakness, if discipleship is only lived in self-denial and sacrifice, then what difference will that make tomorrow.

I can only tell you what difference it will make for me tomorrow.

It means I will need to resist the temptation to hide behind titles and positions, Messiah or otherwise. In her own gentle way, my wife has reminded me in my few moments of grand achievement: ‘You know, Simon, being admired is easy. It’s being known that takes courage.’ It’s true: titles and positions provide nice pedestals on which to sit and enjoy the admiration of the crowd, but it’s only in the vulnerability of relationship, getting down off the pillar and getting dirt under our nails that we have a lasting impact on the lives of others.  The Messiah is not the Messiah through title but through suffering.  Coming out from behind our titles and credentials is compromising and messy and prone to misunderstanding, but it’s what makes a real difference.  For only through weakness is there strength.

It means embracing the struggles of tomorrow as part and parcel of the journey.  Not everything is a problem to be solved, a mountain to be scaled or a challenge to overcome.  Indeed, tomorrow’s humility is found in accepting that there are challenges I will never overcome, as much a part of my own humanity as they are of others. This business of taking up my cross is not a once-only proposition but a daily embracing of my weaknesses, limitations and brokenness and in allowing them to be gathered up in what I offer to God and to you each day.  For only through weakness is there strength.

It means the purpose of today is not personal happiness but the giving of myself for the sake of others.  Despite what all the self-help books say, the ultimate aim of a Jesus follower is not the realization of my true self, the transcending of my limitations, or to soar on the winds of self-actualization. My ultimate aim is to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and love my neighbour as I love myself.  As Christians, we are defined and saved through self-giving not self-fulfillment.  For only through weakness is there strength.

It means being free to weep with those who weep, to struggle alongside those who struggle, to stand resolutely with those who are diminished or defeated by life. Being associated with success and celebrity is one of the great temptations of life and no less so for people of faith. Following Jesus tomorrow means I cannot favour those who look good or make me look good. My calling is to heal as much as to be healed, to hold as much as to be held. And in so doing I offer myself, my own story, my own struggles, my own vulnerability to those who need it most, for only in weakness is there strength.

In this Lenten season, we follow Jesus all the way to the cross. The story of Jesus is one of extraordinary vulnerability.  The Messiah? Yes, come to bring release to the captives, sight to the blind and hope to the downtrodden. But an armoured knight riding on a white horse? No. Instead, a suffering, bleeding servant, rejected, defeated, crucified and buried.  Resurrection will come. Death will give way to life, but only through the valleys of self-giving and surrender, for only in weakness are we strong. In this confounding paradox is the wisdom of God. What’s more, in it is the call of God to you and to me: deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. May we find the courage to do so.

Amen.

A Morning Prayer for Lent

Lord Jesus Christ
I commit today
to following you.
Grant me strength
to deny all that is self-seeking,
to take up your burdens
of love and justice,
and to walk every step
in response to your call.
Amen.

Feasting & Fasting

This past Sunday at Collins Street, the second Sunday of Lent, we explored the next of our Lenten paradoxes. There were some requests for the text. I usually shy away from putting things like this on the blog. Sermons are not everyone’s cup of tea, and might even send some readers running for the hills. Still, you can always click away to something more interesting!

Paradox #2: Through fasting we feast … through feasting we fast

(Luke 5.27-35 & Luke 9.10-17)

Here we are on the second Sunday of Lent. In the season of Lent we commit 40 days (46 including Sundays) to follow the story of Jesus from his testing in the wilderness to his execution in Jerusalem. It’s an arduous journey as we watch Jesus move progressively closer to his death.

The most commonly asked question of this season is ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Traditionally it’s a season of austerity and self-denial. We want to identify with Jesus, to share his vulnerability and sacrifice, to take up our crosses and follow him. And so we give things up in a symbolic way–coffee perhaps, chocolate, wine, Facebook or food. Lent is the season for sackcloth and ashes. It’s a time to give up. It’s a time to fast.

ImageBut here’s the thing. This coming Thursday night, right slap bang in the middle of Lent, we are launching an art exhibition that’s all about food. To coincide with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, that annual celebration of gluttonous sensuality (!), we’re set to display artworks here in the church that celebrate the pleasures of the feast. No sackcloth in sight. Is it just a case of bad timing, or is it a more serious disregard for the spirit of the Lenten season? Wouldn’t we be better to strip the gallery walls, defrost the fridges, close the cafes and sit quietly in the corner with our stale bread and water? It’s a fair question.

It’s the question Jesus was asked in today’s first reading from Luke’s gospel. Fresh from his own 40-day fast in the desert, Jesus moves almost immediately to the feast. In fact once Jesus leaves the desert behind, he spends most of his time at the table, eating and drinking all the way to Jerusalem and often in the most dubious company. The Pharisees are horrified. ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ they keep asking him. ‘Why are your followers feasting when they should be fasting?’ Their exasperation with Jesus’ eating habits grows as the chapters progress. In anger they brand Jesus a glutton and a drunkard. So offensive is his table behaviour they begin scheming for ways to get rid of him. My sense is these Pharisees would be none too pleased with our little art exhibition.

It’s an odd thing, this seamless movement of Jesus from fasting to feasting. For the Pharisees, there can be no such movement: ‘Choose this day whom you will serve … will you fast your way to righteousness or will you feast you way to damnation?’ For the Pharisees, feasting and fasting are polar opposites. But for Jesus feasting and fasting are two sides to the one coin. And there is our paradox: for Jesus, it is through fasting that we feast and through feasting that we fast.

Both fasting and feasting have a noble history among God’s people. At their best, both have sacrifice at their core. Fasting is a practice of personal sacrifice, part of an intense commitment to prayer, confession and devotion. In fasting we sacrifice the body’s most pressing physical needs to signal our surrender to God’s call. This is certainly the case for Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness. Through fasting Jesus is saying, right at the beginning of his ministry, ‘I am in need of grace; I am completely and utterly dependent upon God.’ Feasting, on the other hand, is an act of communal sacrifice. Through the feast we sacrifice our personal interests to the covenant obligations of relationship with God and with each other. We say in unison at the feast, ‘We are in need of grace; we are completely and utterly dependent upon God and each other.’ Theologian Norman Wirzba argues that both practices of fasting and feasting are at their best when they embody a ‘sacrificial sensibility.’ Jesus can move so easily from fasting to feasting because both are expressions of the same self-giving and sacrifice, both lead us to the same place of surrender and devotion.

But not so for the Pharisees. You get the distinct impression that these deeply religious blokes have a very complex relationship with food. Indeed for them both fasting and feasting have become so compromised they can no longer discern a relationship between them. Fasting has become a way of demonstrating their piety for others to see, an act of self-promotion for the religiously insecure. In the process fasting gets loaded with so many rules, codes, footnotes and sub-clauses. Like today’s supermarket shoppers who stand for hours in the isles reading the fine print on every tin and packet, any residual joy in the practice goes down the toilet. Rather than an act of surrender, fasting is an act of anxiety. So too with feasting; what was meant to be an act of community celebration and mutual self-giving becomes one of exclusion and self-protection. The dinner table for the Pharisee has become a closely guarded place to keep the religiously impure at a distance. It’s why they are so deeply offended by Jesus’ willingness to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes. Because for them feasting is now the primary means of separation and self-preservation.

As a young apprentice cook with a stint in a large hotel, I spent much of my brief tenure preparing feasts of various kinds; large, extravagant feasts for large, extravagant people. In the hotel’s Grand Ballroom our task was to impress. Glorious, illuminated ice sculptures rising dramatically from centre stage with the most opulent displays of seafood, crushed ice and cascading champagne flowing down to the buffet below. Beautiful chauffuard meats, rich desserts, intricate chocolate lace work, decadent creams and displays of the most gorgeous seasonal fruits you can imagine. For the most part these feasts were arranged and paid for by those who wanted to impress, arriving at the venue in their stretch limousines and decked out in Chanel. There’s no doubt, feasting has a long history as an act of indulgence and ego. History is littered with those who have used the feast to claim glory, to exercise power, and to enforce elegantly veneered but brutal systems of social exclusion. When the feast is reduced to such a self-serving act of conspicuous consumption, it is nothing more than gluttony. The truth is, both feasting and fasting can lead us to heaven or pave the way to destruction. Disconnect either from the fundamental value of sacrifice and it becomes nothing more than empty show.

The second gospel reading is the very familiar story that we often call the feeding of the 5,000. Frankly, this does a serious injustice to the women and children present, likely many more thousands than the men. On the hillsides outside Bethsaida, Jesus spends the day with a great mass of people, healing the sick and teaching about the kingdom of God, both obviously spiritual activities, very Lenten really. But then, as the sun begins to set, tummies start to growl, the crowds become restless and hungry. Assuming that their spiritual work is done, the disciples are keen to announce the benediction. ‘Send them away now Jesus,’ the disciples say. But Jesus wont. There is no division for Jesus between physical need and spiritual need, no boundary between spiritual disciplines and material ones, no demarcation between the church service and lunch. Fasting and feasting are one and the same. ‘You give them something to eat!’ he says.

What follows is an extraordinary demonstration of Kingdom values, of a table that is open to all with an abundance to share and still there are leftovers. There’s no fasting here, yet as this motley crowd picnics together on the abundance of God’s provision, they are gathered up in something deeply spiritual and deeply sacrificial. No conspicuous consumption, just conspicuous grace. No self-protection or self-promotion, just this extraordinary experience of community and communal dependence upon God.

Today we have welcomed into our community a group of people committed to the feast, a group of people living here in Central House who will welcome people to the Credo table each and every day. In so doing they provide a tangible embodiment of grace to those for whom grace is rare. In order to feast with us here at Collins Street, they have had to let other possibilities and opportunities go. This feasting is a sacrificial act, not only on their part but on the part of those who come each day: surrendering and embracing; giving up and enfolding; fasting and feasting.

There is something awkward about feasting in the midst of Lent, but it’s an awkwardness I am more than happy to live with. As we take our place in Melbourne’s celebration of food and wine we do so with a distinctive voice, a sacrificial sensibility, a unique perspective on the role of food and the table in our lives. We do so holding the paradox that Jesus embodied in his journey to the cross: through fasting we feast, and through feasting we fast.

Amen.