Tag Archives: equality

If today you hear God’s voice…

If today you hear her voice, harden not your hearts!

The voice of God is everywhere calling us to a life based on compassion (e.g. here), equality (e.g. here) and depth (e.g. here). She calls to our sense of humanity (e.g. here) and for us to seek wisdom (e.g. here).

All the readings this week decry the life lived according to the lowest common denominator- worldly wealth and worldly success. I don’t want to get stuck into a Spirit vs Body binary, because I think if we focus too much on ideals of “spirit” and the “next life” we can miss the politics of the reign of God, calling us to a meaningful life HERE and NOW.

We feed our spirits, not by neglecting our own bodies but by looking out for the bodies of the others who are Christ in our lives (refugees, homeless people, children from low-income households, disabled people). We invest in God’s eternity not by hiding in warm houses praying and chanting praise while our brothers and sisters freeze, but by remembering that we connect with God through how we treat other members of creation (true images of God).

But in 2016, the logic of tearing down the existing barn to build a larger one to store wealth more than needed for one lifetime does not really even shock us anymore. The greed of hoarding and wasteful living while others suffer is exactly what our society and our economic system are based upon. We are the fools in the parable and Jesus calls us to pursue a different form of enrichment.

Harden not your heart.

Recently I met a woman from interstate who for some years now has been working with refugees: supporting, advocating, seeking, justice. When she heard I was an unemployed single mother she bought a bowl of chips “to share” and placed it in front of my son (who was happy to work hard at emptying the bowl). We had a few views in common so I added her on Facebook. To meet her in the flesh, you would not think of her as a rich woman: she has a hard-working job that pays and average amount. She is well enough to live but not dazzlingly rich.

When I added her on Facebook I got a completely different impression. The friends this woman has! The many culturally diverse and rich in wisdom contacts that share love and insights with her all over her page. I began to see, how my new friend’s life choices HAVE in fact made her dazzlingly rich, but with something better than just money and the paranoia that goes with an overemphasis on money. The same story could be told of many of the people I go to church with. When I look at friends who have chosen to pursue compassion, creativity, tolerance, courageous living, sustainability and love I see rich people.

Greed really is idolatry, as we are told in Colossians. How often do you hear religious-sounding language used about “the economy” and are we treated as heretics if we believe that we ought to preserve values of sharing and supporting each other instead of competition and malignant “growth”. And yet in Christ we are not Indigenous Australians, colonial Australians and asylum seekers; we are not Christians, atheists or Muslims; we are not men, women or trans; we are not hipsters or bogans; private or public school; leafy suburbs or Elizabeth. In Christ we are called to the meaning that is only found through un-othering, through seeing that wealth is what we do toward the reign of God, how we open ourselves to meaning and transformation and above all love.

In an Islamophobic, paranoid, climate-threatened Australia of 2016 so many of us have anxiety disorder and burnout. We spend the whole day working hard, the whole week swelling our bank account to save for the school fees or the holiday or the investment property and then we fear existential angst and can’t sleep at night. Vanity of vanities. Or we have inadequate income and we schedule our dehumanising Centrelink appointments and toss and turn and can’t sleep at night. Vanity again.

We spend thousands of dollars on weddings and funerals, but don’t have time to talk to the elderly relatives or play with the children. We shop to try to dull the pain. We go to the hairdresser every six weeks and the gym or pool twice a week and look so damn beautiful that someone should put us in a movie- but the wrinkles we know will keep upon us and the regrowth shows the grey as well. We are not born to live and glitter forever. Vanity of vanities.

My addictions are reading and writing. Not bad things per se, but at times I retreat into them to try to shut out the world of other people’s needs. I stare at the screen, trying to make my words beautiful so others will like and approve of me. I am intentionally clever, or disingenuously humble or funny, or wise or virtuous as I spill words out hour after hour and lap up the joy of sharing them with others. Vanity.

Nothing that we do is bad, but if our ONLY focus in life is eating, drinking, adorning ourselves or our homes, performing our talents, gratifying our vanity and escaping into fantasy worlds while our brothers and sisters starve and the overburdened earth weeps then all the good things that we have become dust. It’s a question of where in our lives (and our nation) do we make room for the reign of God?

No “if” about it you will hear his voice today. Will you harden your heart?

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Love one another

I had the opportunity to preach (or offer a reflection if you prefer) this week at my church. As always I felt privileged to do so. This week’s gospel and my reflections on it have been poignant for me because I am very aware that it is the love and generosity of others that puts me back together when I am broken, weak or lost. The liturgy I was privileged to lead today would also have fallen apart without the loving support of a whole lot of people who know more than me and particularly of my youngest son who came back from his “holiday” at his dad’s house just to help me do the liturgy 🙂

For the sake of brevity I am going to pass over two of the readings and dive right into this radical and stirring gospel. Jesus here is teaching us something about relationships, is calling us to a courageous way of relating that involves our trust and the autonomy of the other. If we accept what Jesus is showing and telling us here, it could revolutionise both the structure and working of the church and our personal lives.

Jesus, quite beautifully begins by giving us a glimpse into his own life with God. There is a relationship here that is not about control and obedience but such implicit trust that whatever Jesus does glorifies God and God responds immediately by glorifying Jesus in Godself. We recognise this complete alignment of interests when we refer to Jesus as the “Word” of God. Jesus’ doings and very being constantly express God’s inner thoughts and agenda. Neither seeks to control the other, neither is required to obey, simply the good of one is identical with the good of the other.

We don’t quite achieve this in our relationships with others. We do not have perfect understanding and are reluctant to trust. Sometimes the closer we are to a person, an institution an idea or a way of life the more we are tempted to take ownership over it, to exercise control, to see deem others as inferior in understanding, morals or ability as a way of justifying our own control. At the same time, and particularly for women who get a lot of pressure to consider themselves inferior, there is the opposite temptation to shirk responsibility by clinging to the wisdom, ability or authority of another.

It could be tempting here to see the perfection of union between God and Jesus and decide that this is Ok for them because they are perfect and are always right. But we are not always right and neither are our fellow humans. And yet Jesus moves from this ideal and perfect relationship to turn to us, to flawed and clinging humanity and offer us too that trust and that freedom to breathe and grow.

“Little children” Jesus acknowledges our feelings of vulnerability and ignorance. We face big mysteries like our own mortality, like infinity, like the complex, rich, diverse life of our planet. We try to sort out the important from the trivial but our perspective changes even as individuals. How do we reconcile what we think we know with what others seem to believe? Jesus admits we will feel alone with this, but then Jesus himself will be heard to cry out that God has “abandoned” him.

This is the price of being trusted and treated as an equal. Is it good news? That we cannot stand back and cling to an idea of Jesus doing all the work of salvation and struggle that we are called to. We are invited into an independence of thought an action, to seek to glorify God through our choices in love not in mere obedience. We are called to be so committed to the reign of God, that all of God’s agendas of justice are what glorify us too.

How reckless of Jesus to first pour everything out for us and then trust us with the precious seeds of a better world. Human history is full of our failures as church and society to do this work, to relate in this way. My own personal history mirrors this constant failure in a microcosm. I would expect Jesus to know better than to keep trusting me, but Jesus says “Just as I have loved you, I want you to love one another” not recalling the reckless and trusting love but showing it as a model for how I ought to be.

Those times that we get this right, that we love each other with the reckless and undemanding love of God then we are a powerful sign of God’s reality. The world sees that our discipleship has meaning when we do not turn our backs on abuse victims, or asylum seekers, or the elderly or struggling families. The world sees that we believe in something greater, when we stop trying to control or narrow others and instead work to understand, affirm and liberate all into the good news and justice of God.

Looking around, I see people here who live this reality, and I acknowledge that I have been drawn to Christ and back to Christ repeatedly not by constricting traditions and heavy-handed language about “Lord, Lord” but by the way individuals and families reach out to each other or reach out to me. We are all called to follow the radical call to trust, to liberate and to love. We are fortunate to have each other as examples of how powerfully a kind word or deed can preach hope and life. Let us take up the challenge to glorify God by how we love each other. Let us always seek to broaden our circles of influence, not with control but with trust and support of each other’s discipleship and a determination to bring love to others.

I now invite you to reflect on any aspect of the readings that speaks powerfully to you, and when you turn to speak to the people sitting near you to sense in their loving discipleship the presence of GOD.

Preparing for transformation

I have been feeling a bit uninspired and even (here’s a confession) judgemental as Christmas approaches and all I hear is a whole lot of consumerist drama about presents and food and decorations and which unpleasant relative people are going to half kill themselves in order to please (all while matching the napkins to the baubles and making glittery centrepieces). I wonder that people who usually come across as sensitive and thoughtful suddenly seem to bury themselves in consumerism and stress and as a result some of them (the active ones who have to do all the work) wind up snapping “I hate Christmas”, while the ones who have a high emotional investment in “receiving” a perfect Christmas- gifts, invitations also end up disappointed as the reality can never match the expectation brought to us by that ”John the Baptist” equivalent of the consumerist religion, Santa.

Someone is going to argue with me that “Santa” is actually a Christian figure being based on St Nicholas but when I look at the North pole dwelling, red, no longer unfashionably plump, ruling class business owner and exploiter of elves and reindeer and his hiding in the shadows (making cookies of course), “Mrs Claus” I say “bollocks”. This myth may indeed have come out of an appropriation of  a Christian story but it has morphed so far I think it is even too late for reclaiming. Is noone apart from me uncomfortable with the Christmas pageants where this older (and often depicted as married) man has a sleazy relationship with teenaged beauty queens and Christmas fairies? This is not a version of Christianity I want to subscribe to, nor is the meritocratic lie that the children who get lavish presents are the “good” ones, and the ones with unemployed parents have done something wrong and deserve less. There is a popular movement for parents to “cut down” the number of presents they buy each of their children to FOUR. FOUR?? I only ever bought each child one (and maybe snuck in a book as well because I am naughty that way).

So I have been feeling anger and despair about Christmas, and I don’t like to admit this but I better- I have been looking down on people who think these things are so important- all the presents and hideous decorations and having the right fashionable foods (and too much of them). I have been reading Vandana Shiva (another “john the Baptist” figure but more to my taste) and agreeing that we privileged first-worlders use up the planet for empty crap, we don’t even get enough satisfaction to be worth the plunder and we are unhealthy as anything because of our over-consumption.

But I have survived this year, in a job that has some joyful moments on even the bad days, with one entire day nearly every week that I can devote to my favourite activity in the world of writing and I live with the most thoughtful young person in the universe who alternates getting me a coffee or a hug with his witty humour and undemanding habits. And if I find meaning in quiet times with him (no work for two weeks) and sunsetty evenings at the beach in the wet sand and the chatter of rainbow lorikeets and the company of the same friends who have supported and challenged me all year, and family members who do their best to tolerate me…then it is time to stop and examine my own privilege.

Because not so many years ago there was an impoverished, struggling single mother who felt cut off from relatives and other people alike- who saw judgement and rejection everywhere (even where it wasn’t) and who suffered through grey day after grey day under a burden of anxiety and self-hate and her own inadequacy. I have to remember her, who I was for so many years. And that grey-day woman wanted a bit of colour in her life and used tinsel and fairylights and wrapping paper and cards to try to make some fleeting connection to the rest of the human race and bought too many gadgets and gizmos to try to brighten up the lives of the children who were unfortunate enough to be stuck in her life. And that wasn’t “right” and it didn’t completely “work” but it provided some sort of fleeting relief and that is what it does for all the people who get caught up in commodified Christmases as well as the dating-at-any-price mentality which I think it related: the idea that you can’t be happy unless you have a partner.

And sitting in the relative wealth of Australian society we DO need to look at our consumption and we all need to cut down on it- every household, every individual but especially industry and the military! And I don’t want to return to an uncritical “bread and circuses” attitude to Christmas, granting that the consumerism alleviates a little bit of an existential angst for many people and leaving it at that. The first reading expects more than that from us…we are to point ourselves toward the joy and beauty that God calls us to (which can’t be giftwrapped or sent out for). But in my judgemental attitude I have thought about how to “break their hearts of stone” and I haven’t considered that that is not what I need when I get trapped in escapism and patterns of despair.

How instead do we embrace their hearts and offer them a home? The baby John the Baptist in the canticle is not praised for his incisive criticisms and his rousing hellfire sermons (alas because I think I would make a fantastic old-school preacher). He is told he will prepare Jesus’ way through preaching the “forgiveness of sins” through the loving-kindness (is this hesed?) of God to break upon us like a new dawning. Like finding out that I was a rainbow, not a brokenness. So somehow if we are to accept the impossible mission of John the Baptist (and even here I am mindful of how he ended up once he irritated the ruling class enough), we are to bring peace and loving-kindness and light to the world, not simply threats and criticisms. Do I detect God laughing at me, because she knows how I love a good criticism!

In the second reading, “Paul” (I am never sure when it is the real Paul and when it isn’t but this guy thinks it is) is thanking God for some supportive person/s who have shared the gospel with him. And I think of the people who fill my heart with gratefulness and light whenever I even think of them, and some of them are believers in God, and some are not. But what they all have in common is that they came into my life in a “before” time, when I was more depressed and they have to some degree walked into my darkness to greet me and accept me and show me the light of love. The people who saw something in me before I was ready to see it myself have (cumulatively) changed my life! So if we want to convert the next Paul, or even if we just want a better society then the call is to be prophets of love and light to the world.

And now I am beginning to sound more Christmassy I think which is good because next week is the “joy” week and the drought of advent-waiting will need to be ready to be transformed to a more expectant state then.

So back to the gospel, to our old friend John the Baptist. As an environmentalist I feel horrified shivers at his metaphor, but as a teacher who is interest above all else in social justice I resound with the idea of equalising. Despite the capitalist wisdom of the day “a rising tide floats everyone’s boat” the fact is we live in a world of finite resources, and for one to increase, someone else must pay the price. So to prepare for God’s kingdom, we must raise the status of the poor and the refugee AT THE COST OF THE WEALTHY who need to be made lower. While I feel quite poor still, on a world wide scale I am one of the (smaller) hills that will need to be smoothed down to exalt the real valleys.Isn’t it tempting to water down the redistributive demand of God’s revolution here and to say that all God really wants us to do is be “nice” and “moral” and “caring” in a bland way that doesn’t offend anybody.

But no! God’s demanding Word asks for nothing less than a complete overhaul of our social landscape to smooth out mountains and valleys into equality. Yes that is hard, hard work! But that is what it will take to have God’s reign in our lives. We can’t achieve this purely as individuals, we can’t just make ourselves “good” and “holy” people inside there is a social project and a struggle implicit in bringing God. “All flesh” are to see this salvation together, not singly while leaving brothers and sisters to suffer outside the gate.

So that is the Christmas to prepare for, the radical challenge that God’s word always brings to the powers that be. Prepare to be offensive to the Herods and the Pilates of the world when Jesus comes- prepare to be no friend to the wealthy Pharisees and to be seen on a par with tax-collectors and prostitutes. The restitutive, redistributive world of God’s Holy Wisdom is going to make a few changes around here. And we get to be part of that!

Actively being saved, the resurrection and putting in the hard yards

Wow what rich readings this week. It’s hard to put it all together and say anything new, I can tell this week is going to be a wrestling match. When looking at the first reading I got to the description of Jonathan as a “brother” whose love “surpassing the love of women” seems to call for my queer lens.

But I felt ambivalent about on the one hand an obvious possibility for a queer reading, on the other hand with Sedgwick’s Epistomology of the Closet still ringing in my (metaphorical ears) I wondered if I should respect David enough to leave him in his closet. I also felt ambivalent about whether this possible, closetted, open secret was in fact liberating from a female reader’s perspective in light of Sedgewick’s scholarship about the role of the (male) closet in keeping women out of the centre even of the heterosexual relationships that supposedly define them. David did have an awful lot of wives and concubines after all.

But if you are interested in the idea of David and Jonathan being lovers, here is a fairly clear laying out of the argument for, and here is a perfect example of a circular argument against the idea that David could possibly be a dirty queer in God’s sacred text (the bible does not contain dirty queers because dirty queers are not anywhere in the bible because they are dirty unlike God’s clean bible that doesn’t contain dirty queers). The bible of course is nothing more or less than the handbook of how to be a good fundamentalist.

What strikes me a lot more than the possible queerness, is the waste of human life. These kings generate war, war equals death and tears are the result (I have this conversation with my kindergarteners about unkind-play and stick-play almost every day: some of them – unlike some powerful adults- are starting to understand the cause and effect). David here mourns the deaths of such close friends, and yet the next time we see him I am sure he will be off “slaying” someone again or putting a loyal friend in the frontline so that he can get with his wife perhaps (I still don’t understand how the possible respectful gay relationship we could speculate about David having had is a greater moral problem than his dealing with Bathsheba and Uriah).

But staying with David’s genuine grief and emotional pain for the time being, the psalm says it all. Out of the depths we do cry. We do want God to come along and redeem our nation from all its iniquities. We want David in the story to find a better way forward. We yearn for that utopian dream that some of us may call the “kingdom of God”. I relate to the cold, bored and yet burdened with massive responsibility watchman longing to go off shift. Yes God hurry up…but this is where my agnosticism sets in. I don’t frankly believe that just waiting around for some sort of salvific act as reliable as the passing of time itself (unless we mean the extinction of our species– which frankly I am not waiting for so eagerly) is a morally defensible strategy in the depths of the despair of a plundered, besieged, unjust, neoliberal world. Stay with me though, I am about to do something uncharacteristic and agree with a Pope!

I wasn’t really seeing much to work with in the second reading until I read this (note the author saying that Paul echoes Pope Francis’ sentiments, while I loved the article in general this expression made me give a shout of laughter which almost got me kicked out of the library). I won’t paraphrase Anderson’s excellent argument, or Pope Francis’ clear thinking on the topic of the environment but if we do read the second reading as arguing for radical redistribution (including the Christ-like courage to become poor to enrich others and restore a “fair balance”) then this seems to show a much more real and urgent way “out of the depths” than passively waiting. There’s resurrection thinking here, a way modelled by Jesus but like all real resurrection thinking it demands we put in the hard yards (What did you think resurrection meant? A fairy godmother waving a wand? If only!)

Is this how God redeems us from all our iniquities? It’s inadequate when you consider that the more powerful have the choice not to be transformed by this word and this teaching. The little people are going to have to do more than count on the generosity of the ruling class. But we are also not the smallest of the little people. We do need to use our relative power and privilege to achieve this redistribution “for the relief of others”.

Let’s take those readings as baggage and stow them aboard ready to cross over again to the other side with Jesus (cf last week) into this week’s gospel. This week’s gospel suggests to me both an obvious feminist reading (about the interruption of the invisible, unacceptable woman in the middle and Jesus’ deliberate action in making her visible) and troubles me with its portrayal of Jesus as the male savior of helpless, inferior women. I can read the hemorrhaging woman as active in her own healing, and I like the way this calls into question Jesus’ performance of his gender. But the consent-nazi in me is still troubled when we reconceive Jesus (almost as a trans man) as the next installment in the character of the once female Wisdom, who is kind of like a sexy exotic dancer “asking for it” (Yes Jesus affirms the women grasping at him and Wisdom constantly invited everyone to visit, seek and pursue her but…troubling). Also if we begin to reconceive Jesus’ healing in a different way, saving as an erotic game-play (I am indebted for this idea to a speech I heard ages ago by a lesbian theology scholar who claimed she doesn’t want to be “saved” by anyone at all…then she added in a more playful voice that maybe a woman in a white horse could save her. I always felt a bit uncomfortable with the gender dynamics and implication of power in the idea of being “saved” so this idea stayed with me) even then there is a problem because Jairus’ daughter is both underage and too unconscious to agree to be in the game.

So I am uncomfortable with the gender and power discourses I can take out of here. I am uncomfortable with queerying the gender and turning the “saving” into erotic play. I know the function of the bible isn’t to make me feel cosy, but this is too uncomfortable. What if I latch onto the word “daughter”? If I see Jesus’ relationship to the two women as parental, then I am still a bit troubled by “his” gender (in terms of theirs), but I can see him in a feminised role, similar to my role as a mother and a preschool teacher constantly getting interrupted and called for and jostled and grabbed at. And now immediately (to borrow Mark’s hyper-activity) I am drawn into the text as Jesus (very appropriate in terms of what Paul says about Jesus’ action becoming the model for our action).

And if I am called to be Jesus, not called to be saved by Jesus then I don’t need to unpack the gender roles so much but just follow Mark’s immediacy (see how many times Mark uses “immediately or actions rapidly following and interrupting each other) and get on with the job. Jesus has too much to do, he is called from every side and his never shrinking to-do list is complicated by immediacies where even his cloak is pulled at. The temptation must be to ignore the interruption and continue, or to growl at the woman who drained something from the already stretched Jesus. He stops, publically notes and affirms her action and then calmly continues onto the next healing. The next healing is occurring in the home of already privileged people and he asks for secrecy. I feel I am once more detecting Magnificat movement where the private and marginalised are publically affirmed, and the popular and central are refocused on the domestic (feeding their daughter) instead of given more celebrity status. Jesus here again is concerned with fair balance.

Here finally I run into a real brick wall, because I am neither as energetic as the Markan Jesus, nor as serene in the face of so many people wanting or needing a piece of me. Here the “good news” is more daunting than empowering. Am I really supposed to be constantly poured out for the good of others? Am I really called to act powerfully to address imbalances with a kind and healing word for everyone and anyone? No wonder the guy died in his mid 30s.

This gospel makes me want to be Jonah and throw myself into the belly of a big fish to escape my impossible vocation (but isn’t that pretty much what I have already wasted my life doing?) This gospel makes me cry with grief, guilt and frustration and look for a loophole. Because by myself I AM NOT JESUS. I am not all this. I am not a whole body of Christ within myself. The body of Christ is always and eternally supposed to be community. There is supposed to be a church around me, empowering, supporting and informing my potential for ministry. And there bloody well isn’t!

But before I let anger, guilt and grief turn into self-pity and self-pity hurl me back into the endless abyss of depression let me try to refocus myself on the cracks in the cement of the patriarchal women-hating (no that is not too strong an expression) church. I am not the only “other”, there are other “others” with their vocations twisted or wasted (I moved a church that technically ordains women but like many others found the language and practice still oppressively patriarchal). Some have learned to survive/thrive and nurture others, to channel away the toxins of their own feelings of betrayal and bitterness- referring to the truth of their pain only in ways that heal the “others” like me, who have failed to overcome their sense of alienation and find a place.

The church has failed me, but God knew that would happen and called me anyway. I do realize that I have failed God. Like David I am caught up in the system that causes my deep grief and I am not an innocent, but like the watchman perhaps there is a shift change coming. There are others who have even less privilege than me, and they must be my focus for fair balance- not myself and my self-pity.  There is still a Jesus who crosses to my side, who tells me to come out of the crowd and touch and be acknowledged and healed, who calls me to sit up and eat, who is the one I must become, not just the one I can be passively saved by.

I have often felt that my vocation and even my faith was dead “why trouble the teacher further”? But Jesus keeps insisting stubbornly that it is only sleeping. How then do I awake?