Tag Archives: hope

Lip service or life? Called to courageous loving

Preached today to my wonderful community that give me all the support and love and really are a family in faith to me…

As I prayed and reflected on today’s readings, it was very hard for me to separate out the escalating feelings of fear, grief and hurt I have felt over the last week from some of the homophobic comments and lies that are circulating at the moment. As a queer woman, some people would say that I am “going to hell” or am locked out of God’s community, yet I experience God as knowing me better than I know myself and loving me deeply- allowing for my slowness to learn how best to live and encouraging my good intention. I have tried to resist the temptation to make my journey with this week’s readings nothing more than an expression of the pain I feel in this time. Yet I will name the pain because it is there. And then I will try to move on…

The first reading is the last part of a longer discussion about the way that each person owns their own conscience. Within it, a person is not judged by their family, culture or community nor by how others around them choose to live but insofar as they themselves respond to God and do what is right their path will be always into life. This is both a liberating and a troubling concept in our historical context, where we are increasingly facing the reality of climate change that will take more than the actions of a handful of well-meaning individuals to reverse.

And yet this is the reality we live in, things are happening around us that we have limited control to halt or change and we must somehow keep finding hope and meaning. Perhaps what we can find here is an antidote to the sorts of thinking that see decreasing compassion and rising inequality as inevitable. God does not desire our death, the call is always into life. We must embrace hope so that seeing the fallenness, imperfection or powerlessness of ourselves or those around us we must look for the potential for liberation and healing.

In the psalm we cry out to God to be compassionate and to teach us, this echoes both the awareness that things may be wrong and the determination to hope of the first reading. In the verses, God’s nature is revealed to be goodness and kindness, love and compassion. We can and must depend upon that whatever else we are emboldened to do.

The second reading is a sort of counterpoint to the first. Just as in the first reading, each of us was asked to think for ourselves, and to do good even if we are surrounded by wrong-doing, the second reading calls us to be community, to seek harmony and connection with others and to work for the good of others, not just selfishness. Hope then, is no longer a lonely place and we do not stand and judge from a moral high-ground but seek to know and serve whatever is vulnerable in each other.

Thus we come to the gospel, and the difference between giving lip-service to faith and living it. The first son is foolish and rebellious, he does not like to be told. I relate to him a lot and I see my own children in him too. And yet, once he has given his tokenistic resistance to the authority of his “father” he realises that the vineyard is something he is involved in and responsible for and he quietly gets in and works for the harvest. The second son is all performative obedience and moral superiority but when it comes down to it does not contribute to getting the harvest in.

This is a theology that Jesus points out even the religiously impure ones, even the tax collectors and prostitutes, instinctively understand. So what of us? Are we brave and honest enough to argue with the “father” when we do not feel as committed or engaged as we are told we ought to be? Would we dare to refuse to do what we are told…and then give ourselves the chance to rethink what we are really being asked to do, and what our role may be in the vineyard of God.

Or would we opt to look “respectable”, to follow from as great a distance as possible, paying lip-service but avoiding getting our hands dirty? Do we only go along with the call to love and accept the vulnerable so far as they don’t challenge or disgust us? Is there a limit to our ability to transmit God’s grace, or is it simply that we are busy and there are higher priorities than loving? But the first son’s apparently sullen attitude masks a deep love. Sometimes things may be better than they seem at first sight.

All three of the readings seem very sure in telling us that we need to risk being authentic before God. God’s desire is to always keep the option open for us to return and return and return into the heart of the community, into the work of the harvest, into life.

If we are called today, then what is our direction? Let us become aware of God’s love and allow ourselves to be authentic before it. Let us reflect on the readings for a short time and then as is our custom you might share your thoughts with the people sitting near you.

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Only you God can fill me

I remember a long time ago having a lunch with a friend who was a priest. Before eating he said “only you oh God can fill me” or something similarly worded. He said the idea was to not overeat. I can be a bit of a comfort eater myself. If I feel anxious or lonely or bored or guilty or any negative feeling I can imagine that I need something that tastes nice to distract me and then I eat it fast and want more. I thought the words were a good meditation, encouraging me to stop, consider my need for food- for the physical sustenance of it as well as the sensuous pleasure and to remember that food is a good but it is not the ultimate.

God is the ultimate.

I am still a person full of nervous habits- overeating, chewing pens or my own lip, tensing my jaw, tapping things. I still struggle to get a hold of myself and defeat panic and procrastination and the tendency to isolate myself or binge on social networking. I often focus on my flaws and unworthiness. I often obsessively need to be approved of by others, to be seen to be performing well, to be seen as someone gifted or good. I still have willpower issues and sometimes stay at a party too late or drink too much.

So I am not sharing this sentence as a magical “cure” for human frailty but it is a useful sentence nevertheless.

As I have meditated on it, in the context of letting go of a past relationship that was not working, in the context of choosing to accept that I am gay, in the promise to myself that I will say “no” or “maybe” to as many people as I need to rather than rushing desperately into any relationship available I think I have started to grow- not necessarily in virtue but in joy and quality of life. Because only God can fill me, so I can let go of my need for someone else to say “sorry” or to hold me. I can let go of my envy that someone has an easier life than I do. I can let go (slowly) even of my anger at the opportunities I feel I was robbed of, by being raised so fearful. I can let go of anything that demands that I hurt of humiliate others. I can really and truly love without the desperate need for someone to make it “worth it”. I can love as an act of freedom, rather than as a transaction, and I can accept love with gratefulness rather than skepticism or the burden of obligation.

Because only God can fill me.

God is always listening, always breathing with me. Always watching and holding and knowing. God fills up my days with the million things I used to dare not believe in- the phone-call may be from someone who cares about me. The coffee may clear my head. The birds singing may be a sign of a beautiful day to come. There are no guarantees of exactly how the day will unroll, except that God will be there.

Filling me with love. Filling me with joy. Filling me with sacrament.

I woke in horrible flu and asthma pain the other night and thought long and hard about this idea that only God can fill me. And I was filled with tears and snot and desperation for a still space in the night for me to breathe and not be in pain and that space was simply not available. And I saw what a coward I am about pain and I felt that I really couldn’t bear it and I started weeping tears for people on hard inadequate beds on manus island or on the streets. I started weeping for people dying or terminal diseases. I was angry with God, because I wanted to feel joy and love and all the good things and I simply wasn’t feeling anything precious or peaceful or even bearable. All the world felt like it was camped on my chest squishing the life out of me, and since I had run out of ventolin I couldn’t even alleviate my asthma enough to breathe properly.

“I said you were what could fill me God” I said and I was angry because I never asked for snot and horrible feelings. And I thought of Jesus, full of Godness and love being crucified and how horrible it must be to wait for nothing better than death.

I stretched out my arms and there was the box of tissues and water bottle and lozenges that my son had brought to me as part of his “caring about mum” dance of the evening before. I was in pain and angry but I was loved. I am always loved.

It’s hard to put into words what that means because the pain was still pain and I am no damn good with pain. The pain was there but it was not everything, it can never be everything even when it takes over. Even if (God forbid) it had kept going forever or killed me it would not have been everything.

Because only God can fill me.

As I think of the way the environment is dying (which is already causing huge human suffering) and the hate-talk by so many people in society and the way we treat refugees and basically anyone different from us, my heart is more than sore. It is hard to see any hope for a future and I love my children and want them to be able to have children in turn- I want this world to work better so we can continue as a species. It looks pretty bleak I must say.

I see no realistic way anything good will happen.

I see no future for our species at the moment.

People say I am an “idealist” full of crazy hopes because I get political and try to help make a better world but I know the odds are stacked against us. I don’t hope because I am some sort of a naive optimist, or because I am unaware of how powerful the human forces are that keep all the various oppressions in place.

I hope because only God can fill me. Despair is there but it does not fill me.

Only God can fill me.

 

Where’s the good news?

A lot of other people have written good stuff on “the gospels” so I am not going to discuss which parts I think are true/factual and which are made up (my opinion varies anyway) or point out that the significant differences in them, or even nitpick the patriarchal view of any or all of the gospel writers (or gospel writing communities which seems more likely). I do think it is problematic how we often privilege the gospel over the rest of scripture and how that fits with the anti-semitism of the OT/NT world-view. I also think it is problematic how little we dare to criticise the words or deeds of Jesus (as recorded) and tend to assume if it is in the book then it is automatically both good news and true.

And I guess that is where I want to come into the liturgical moment of the “gospel reading” and ask a few hard questions to make sure we are not being sold “fake news” in the guise of “good news”. Even though I like history as much as anybody and more than some, I don’t think the point of history is to look back and find some sort of objective “truth” about exactly what happened and I don’t think the bible is only history in any case- it has mythical status as much as anything else and I neither want to reify nor debunk all that.

But I partly want to debunk the idea that Christ is more present in the official gospel, than in the good news of some of the “Old Testament” readings for example, or the good news of “Acts” or the “epistles” or my life or yours or the rainbow I saw one week on my way to church. All of that is God’s good news, therefore gospel. So I want to wonder aloud about good news- what is it and how do we find it and how do we know we can accept it?

When I studied homiletics, we were warned to ensure we were finding the “good news” even in negative texts. At the time I had a fairly hippy “everything is awesome” view of church and God’s kindom (not that’s not a typo) and a fairly negative view of anything that spoke about “sin” or anything other than God’s unconditional and always redeeming love. I still believe in the kindom of God and that it is built on a foolishly generous and eternally hopeful outpouring of unconditional love by God to all creation, but also that this love may contain strong anger toward injustice, especially the stubborn sort of injustice that refuses persistently to be called to account. That is, I do not think God will punish us (or perhaps anybody) for getting things wrong, but I think the sin that leads to the suffering of humans or of the earth is a real problem for God and one we need to try to address to live faithfully and lovingly with our ultimate friend/lover, God.

So I find the balance trickier now, because I don’t enjoy or find helpful overly positive readings of the world or the text, that try to explain away or erase conflicts and the terrible injustices in our lives (our lives in the broad sense where we are connected to each other). And yet the heart yearns always for hope, hope is the breath of the soul and we asphyxiate when our environment is too polluted by fears, suffering and despair. So the “good news” is still the heart of what we seek in God’s word. We come to God not just to be challenged or debated with but to be loved and affirmed. But then we come not as overtired babies to be simply soothed but as partners who seek also to soothe God and make her comfortable and accepted with us equally to the comfort and acceptance we seek.

So we make ourselves into gospel, into Good News also for God, because in some way maybe God also can be nourished by nothing else. I have been wondering about that as I continue to read Carter Heyward’s “Saving Jesus from those who are right”. How do I make myself and my life “good news” for God? Any grandiose plans where I give everything in some radical way are fleeting because I have children and friends and a job where it matters whether I am fully present, so I begin by being fully present to my near ones and those dependent on me, and also to my gifts. Even that is difficult, even that is a large thing to attempt (and I am not claiming to have achieved it) but then there are the political things we can do- we can band together with others- listen and support and do what we can to choose and change the world we live in. The balance between looking after my small world and my big one is one I never seem to manage. At times I have poured myself out (though not as much as some others I admire) to do things for “good causes” and I have begun to neglect my family and friends or my own health. More recently I have generally erred on the side of allowing myself some personal time and valuing my social contacts and “coffee dates” (and the never-ending conversation of my son) but then who will be an activist or an organiser for anything?

And how/when do I write? And is it just a self-indulgence?

For me it is no simple task to become “gospel” to the cheering of God’s heart but I must remember both that God loves me already and sees all the traces of gospel that I am, even if I am not a great masterpiece. And I must also remember that just as in the text, the bible we are given four “gospels” and just as we can find God’s good news in many places and people and texts so God has all creation to draw her own gospel and her own incentive to kindom from not just “me” the individual.

I will continue to think about that in a world where sometimes “good news” is hard to find and at church when sometimes “good news” is not as apparent in the words we are supposed to assent to as we would like. I will wonder not “where is the good news” but “how can I become part of the good news in this story”.

We are the good news to the world and to each other.

Our love and passion always for you, beautiful Wisdom!

Easter Vigil

Such a good rebel I am (sarcasm warning), that when I “run away” from church this is what I do. First I thought about the “new fire” of the Easter Vigil. The words of Christ be out Light by Bernadette Farrell ran through my head as I unwrapped one of the candles my son and I had bought for Earth Hour, placed it in a vase and said a quick prayer to God who as both the “alpha” and the “omega” is best placed to subvert binaries and undo inequities. Then I rewrote the Easter proclamation, leaving out things that seemed either kyriearchal, patriarchal, meaningless or bad theology (yes a subjective judgement but please read the verse in brackets about your right to write a different one if this one doesn’t do it for you). Then it was too short so I reread all nine lessons of the Easter vigil (surprising how many I remembered considering it has been a few years since I went to an Easter vigil) and I wrote a verse or half a verse based on my interpretation and response to each reading (once again you are free to read the readings more carefully and write your own). I tried to stay true to what I think the Easter proclamation and lessons do for us, grounding us in tradition and helping us access the mystery of the resurrection in historically grounded ways (but as usual I had a focus on my place at the margins as a woman and I tried to be mindful that there may be other people at the margins of story too).

So I will post my long poem/proclamation and then I will go shower off all my long journey (I camped at Mt Gambier last night and we climbed a small hill or two on the way home) and I will remember my baptism and birth and the way I passed through waters to be made a part of God’s family that has unlimited access to hope and a constant call to love. And then I will have some dark chocolate and scotch which also follows the pattern of a traditional easter vigil although I wouldn;t really claim it is “Eucharist” since I am doing this alone and more contemplating than celebrating (but I will go to church tomorrow). I can’t be sure that anyone is both estranged enough from church to need an alternative version and has been engaged enough in catholic church life to need or want a revised version. But for anyone else I guess it is a curiosity. Nevertheless to me fire, water and food are powerful symbols of LIFE.

Rejoice heavenly powers, sing out planets, stars and all that is,

take heart creation and join the heavenly dance,

for God’s promise is unbroken, no power can reign over us;

Christ shatters even death to bring all to newness and liberation.

 

Spin slowly earth through light and darkness,

through mornings filled with joy and light and meaningful work,

evenings bringing peace to us and joy to all nocturnal creatures

as light and dark both join hands and embrace the globe together.

 

Open you ears, oh church, to hear the cries of all the oppressed;

open your doors and open wide your hearts to hear,

how Wisdom breaks down binaries and lifts up any we’ve cast down.

Rejoice to learn anew the radical and liberative gospel.

 

(My dearest friends, if you consider me unworthy

to bring these words of praise and hope and happiness

then seek the Easter message in your own hearts and the love you bear

and in creation radiant with the brightness of the colours of God’s depths.)

 

May the resurrected life be with us.

We lift our hearts in hope.

We celebrate the risen life of one who was greater than all oppression

and calls us into liberation.

 

It is truly right,

That with full hearts and minds and voices

We revisit as much of salvation history as we can

To trace the origins of the one who became Jesus of Nazareth and showed radical commitment

bleeding like a woman giving birth, and dying helpless, human to the end.

 

And so we remember our origins, in your breath creator God

who made the heaven and the earth, the waters also the land,

plants, animals, humans in all their variation and diversity. (Gen 1:1-2:2)

 

We had free will, yet we did not always listen to your voice of reason.

We did not live in love with one another and the earth.

We set up systems of oppression, and ways to rule over each other

and would even have sacrificed our own children for power. (Gen 22: 1-18)

 

Your beloved people were enslaved and called to you to rescue them;

You called forth leaders and activists, parted the sea, fed them with bread          (Ex 14:15-15:1 also some reference to subsequent events)

and gave us moral codes so that we would consider how we live.

You came to us as a lover, claimed us as your family

and renewed us in every age again and again.    (Isaiah 54: 5-14)

 

Hope is the eternal pattern of our journey with you

And the reign of evil is never inevitable, and cannot drive you out of us.

 

You bid us listen to you and enjoy food and water without having to pay;

You filled up your barns and set your tables and invited us to feast;

You bid us feed each other, abandoning corruption and competition

and then sent your Word that cannot return without fulfilling itself. (Isaiah 55: 1-11)

 

You bade us seek Wisdom and cling to her, (Baruch 3: 9-15; 32-4:4)

To see her move among us on the earth which she co-authored with you.

You gathered us together from where we were scattered and quarrelling

And you bade us know that we are yours and you are ours. (Ezekiel 36: 16-28)

 

Like a deer that longs for running streams, my soul thirsts for you

The music wells up within me when you draw near and touch me             (Ps: 41)

With Easter joy.

 

In our human life we are baptised, born through water

and touch your life as you touched ours

You showed solidarity and love in walking with, touching us

and dying with us.

We will follow you through our lives and deaths and beyond. (Rom 6: 3-11)

 

This is the night, when we remember Mary of Magdala’s grief; (Matthew 28: 1-10)

Her deep love and loyalty to come to tend to you

when all hope seemed gone.

 

We remember the guards, tools of the Empire, shaken and scattered,

the stumbling-block, every inequality rolled away,

the faces of angels who took her hand and affirmed her ministry

so that she went and called her sisters and together they saw…

 

The Risen One,

The rebirth of all their hopes,

The triumph of the creative powers of God,

and the sacred continuation of their love and power to touch the mystery.

 

Jesus sent the women to tell all the apostles,

ahe apostles to tell all the world

and us to continue to preach the gospel of tombs opened, oppression undone

and a great feeding regardless of ability to pay.

 

Therefore God our creator, receive with Jesus our thanks

as we move from contemplating what has hurt us

to remembering that you come to heal and renew us in yourself.

 

Accept this Easter candle, symbol of the fire in our hearts

undimmable spirit you have placed in us,

unquenchable inevitability that we will always break our chains,

also our willingness to break the chains of others

 

Let it mingle with the lights of the stars you created

mirroring the love of Jesus who broke all boundaries

even opening up the boundary between death and life

to call us back into right relationship with God.

 

Jesus, Sophia, the morning star that never sets,

will shine in our hearts this night and always,

will guide us and all creation into your peace

and call us more deeply than ever into life and love.

 

Amen.

 

Chloe’s people, John’s people, Jesus’ people and the call to me

I am not in the mood to pretend that I feel “enlightened” or full of hope. I think it is a big mistake when people use Christianity as an opium for themselves as an individual or for the masses. If what is wrong with the world ceases to hurt in the euphoric escapism of being “saved” then God is a great big ecstasy tablet and the believer is some sort of socio-path. Because real life and the earth and human bodies matter a lot. We live in that pre-salvation darkness when we let families be locked up on Manus, when we make selfish and life-denying decisions, when we let greed and fear rule our world.

“For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.”

We can hope in this vision of the reign of God, but we are deluded if we see it as already fully realised. But it does give us a hint about which prophets to believe, and where to look for the authentic Wisdom in a world of competing truths and wisdoms. God does not deny the yoke that oppresses us but SMASHES it, radically works to undo and make impossible the oppression of her people. “Saving” is not some sort of magical act, but is liberation, removing the unjust power of whatever enslaves us (and our unjust power to enslave others). Wherever there is true liberation, there is the action of God. Wherever we (or anyone) are still being oppressed the light is yet to shine.

In the psalm I “believe” in the goodness of God. If this goodness in my life was already fully realised I would not have to believe any more than I have to “believe” in the roof over my head or the food in my bowl. I “believe” because there is something of God’s effect over my life that still exists as potential energy, poised to unfold in some way I may not grasp. Courage and stoutheartedness is needed as we wait (and these are in me, in short supply I confess).

I can’t say I completely resound with what Paul is on about in the second reading. Granted it is disheartening and counter-productive how often churches and other communities of hope become splintered as people polarise over some issue and refuse to work together. What is equally hurtful however is the false unity that makes invisible any minority or less privileged group. I am currently reading New Feminist Christianity and finding it full of diverse and oftentimes critical voices of various groups of WOC, queer folk (once again varied and diverse), workers in DV prevention and healing, people from various church traditions. They don’t all say the same thing, but they make up a wonderful patchwork of views that turn into a polyphonic dialogue that never intends to be completed or closed.

Instead churches and other organisations often opt for a “unity” that is hegemonic, restrictive, exclusive or downright abusive. Rivalries and petty politics ARE every bit as bad as Paul says, but I want to remind him of Jeremiah 6:14, and warn him that sweeping differences under a carpet is NOT a way forward. Simply putting Christ in the centre in a kyriearchal way is more problematic than I think we often like to admit. He is “the Lord” and simply trumps everyone else is an easy answer but not a real solution. Once again I am indebted to the book I mentioned above, quite a few of the theologians have challenged me to look beyond kyriearchal, individualist interpretations of the “Jesus story” to the “everyone else stories” that Wisdom has always woven through (being the sort of girl who goes exactly where she wants and won’t stay put). Wisdom (although I have a borderline problematic tendency to anthropomorphise her) is in fact neither male, female not in any way human and her story is not the story of an individual. If she is revealed “in” the historical man, Jesus (I would agree that she is) then she is also more than this historical individual.

But having asked for caution when demanding too much from Jesus and his story I nevertheless read the gospel with interest. John has been arrested and instead of falling to pieces in some way Jesus rolls up his sleeves and gets on with John’s work. Remember “repent” was John’s slogan wasn’t it? Jesus affirms John’s ministry by grounding the beginnings of his own in continuing it. He may or may not make some departures from John’s teaching or develop his thinking further but he shows the respect to his forerunner to accept the work that has already been done. Also as with a literature review in a piece of research this places Jesus’ work within the already established work of John as a continuation. Jesus is both respectful and strategic in positioning his ministry in this way, however it also undermines our tendency to want to see Jesus as a peerless exceptional superhero. Jesus himself seems to be implying he is part of a tradition of critique and struggle, a continuation of good work that can happen before (and by implication after) his time on earth.

Jesus also aligns himself with a criminal, a trouble-maker- not charismatic John that Herod liked but arrested John that threatens the state. I am liking this Jesus. In this context “come after me” to the fishermen makes it clear once again that Jesus is not seeking for personal followers and fame, but to expand the work that is being done to continue the struggle and to have it continue beyond him. Right at the start he is already asking for help…needing “others” to ensure his vision will eventuate. We cannot do these things (like ministry) alone.

So he calls some fishermen (a working class movement perhaps, not one for elites) but does he also call housewives baking and mending and sweeping? We can’t assume he did not just because the patriarchal text masks our view of the women at the back of the stage.Paul clearly has as working relationship with “Chloe’s people” whoever they were. Jesus’ inclusion or otherwise of women remains invisible- not interesting enough to the male historians of the time (but that’s a familiar scenario).

Perhaps in the end the “great light” that dawns on the people is that it is not up to the exceptional individual like John the Baptist, or even to Jesus to actualise salvation for us all. It is not something I can do on my own and also not something I ought to leave to stronger or better others to do for me. We are all invited to leave our mundane concerns and go kindom building with Jesus, with the interweaving of Wisdom with a relentlessness that survives all sorts of suffering and crosses every gap.

 

Being patient- the “not yet” of Christmas.

“The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.”

As a metaphor this is a beautiful idea, that the wasteland and disappointed places inside myself have transformative potential at the coming of Sophia. But there is a chilling side to this metaphor in the year when we have had such a wet and abundant spring that everyone has harvested record breaking vegetables and roses (this in Australia) meanwhile the North Pole is fast disappearing (and how many species with it?)
But…
“Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

All the limits we feel in our bodies and in our places in society will be overcome by the one who comes to “vindicate” the weak and frightened. There is radical hope here. How to read the hope together with the despair of a burdened earth? The psalm reminds us (as scripture does again and again and again) of God’s agenda, nothing to do with what you believe or who you sleep with but justice, relief, healing, sanctuary. God offers these to the poor and oppressed and calls us to be part of the movement of actualising her offers. I’d like to take that psalm on as a creed. The God I worship and call to is the God who does all those things. The hair-splitting theological points become irrelevant as God in this psalm, elsewhere in scripture and in the world rolls up her sleeves (shades of Washerwoman God here) and sets to work cleaning the house, nesting, making ready for baby Wisdom at Christmas and demands that as members of the household, the economy/oikonomia of God we do the same.

The second reading calls for patience (like every Mum ever talking to her small children about Christmas coming). Apparently we can’t hurry grace. We are also asked to stop complaining about each other, I would not think this refers to people who cry out against the genuine oppressions that God abhors but rather the nitpickers who judge other people’s sexual morality, spending habits or lifestyles and completely miss the point that God is coming to spread radical hope and justice and above all LOVE. We can all be a little bit mean-minded and judgemental at times, we all know better than others how they ought to live their lives. God doesn’t seem to have time for all that though because there are real things to be put into order (strangers to be protected and widows and orphans to be sustained).

The gospel could be read simply as part of the story of John the Baptist, a great prophet one who called people to repent back toward God and tried to open them up for the radical possibilities in Christ. There is also the bigger picture of reading the signs of the times. We keep wanting more and more and more proof and certainty before we make any decision or act. Jesus here seems to be advocating a boldness in the gospel. Don’t follow every reeed swayed by the wind, don’t expect your prophets packaged more perfectly. There are already voices of prophecy telling us about our times (there are the plants telling us the climate is skewed, there are the refugees telling us capitalism has failed the world). Take on the news you don’s wish to hear (that we must all repent radically and immediately) in order to make way for the Word that we do want, the hope and salvation of the world.

So pressed for time energy and money this year, so bereft of hope I do not know what I can bring to the table of celebration, in what way to connect with God in this coming season of Christmas. Patient waiting with the pregnant Mary is all the action I can offer at this stage, but also accepting the refocussing and repentance of the advent readings, to prepare myself for hope, for tiny baby-voice Wisdom to wrap delicate but insistent fingers around my finger and bring me back down to her level. To first steps not yet taken; to angels singing in Luke’s remembrance of the beginning or mysterious gifts and sudden journeys that are Christmas in the gospel of Matthew. And John reminds us to open our hearts to the Word- full of grace and truth. If we already had all the answers I guess we wouldn’t need Christmas.

Justice shall flourish … and fullness of peace for ever.

The Utopian vision in Isaiah’s first reading, gives us some idea of what was wrong with the world in the time this text was developed. The writer is longing for the world to be ruled by “wisdom and understanding…counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge an the fear of the lord”. This vision involves a radical sort of justice that looks beyond the shallow and the popular to the deep experiences of the oppressed. Nature itself will put off its need to compete and destroy each other with animals lying together peacefully and safely.
In 2016 a rationalist age of markets and worship of “the economy” and the image of each special individual this both soothes and attracts us but also fails to seem achievable. Of course lions eat lambs, that is natural and we ascribe to “nature” a whole host of negative human behaviours besides. But within the Jewish roots of our Christian tradition is an idealistic call to challenge the current view of “nature”, the essentialist and inevitable acceptance of injustice and inequity. As the people of God, our work is to achieve a more peaceful, wise and just world. The advent call is the call by a vulnerable baby that in Matthew’s gospel overstepped national boundaries to be recognised by foreigners (magi), and hated by the status quo (Herod), that is our Christmas movement to become uncomfortable for the unjust powers of the world and to break boundaries in radical inclusion and openness. If we are lions, we need to pull back from devouring; in so far as we are lambs we need to be courageous and visionary.
Even though the psalm talks about a “king” bringing God back in line with the ruling class, there is an idealistic view here of a king who is ruling for the poor and afflicted. Kingship in this ideal is not the exploitative relationship we often see in the privileged and the powerful of our world, but is a radical challenge to the greedy and the exploitative. “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever”.
This is a useful ideal to aspire to in so far as we are “kings”, in our relationships of leadership and power in our worlds. How do we treat our own children? Our elderly? Our employees or student? How do we “rule” over a group of people, who do we advocate for in our decision making and what values underpin our pronouncements? This is also an ideal worth holding our own leaders to. No-one can rule or govern forever but people and the times they live in go down in history as more or less peaceful and abundant.
The second reading from Romans encourages us to go to the scriptures for instruction, seeing the scriptures as sources of hope and practice. It also advocates harmony between believers, which at times gets interpreted by the powerful in the church as a sort of obedient group-think, but I don’t believe the idea here is to stifle debate and questioning, just for everyone to be considerate and ready to accept compromise so that life and liturgy together may be possible.
The reference to the “circumcised” and the “patriarchs” is broken open by a sudden appeal to the Gentiles, to be welcomed and “at one-ed” with also. The writer here claims that the idea of broadening out the inclusive vision was already written into the heart of the tradition, so the sort of change that accepts the challenge of the other is in no way a departure from the tradition we hold dear but the most faithful following of it. Who are the “Gentiles” of our time? Who do we seek to keep out? Muslims? LGBTIQ+ people? Women who have a vocation to ministry? Single mothers? It is someone who challenges our sure knowledge about the right way to live and the hegemony of our own way of life.
Having focused ourselves on justice and inclusivity by these readings, the gospel sweeps in the voice of John the Baptist giving us our advent call to “repent”. People often seem to think repenting means feeling sorry or guilty but in fact it isn’t a feeling at all it is an action of achieving radical change within ourselves, of turning around and facing the opposite direction to the negative one. Last advent I reflected on the unacknowledged need in me for so many years to “repent” of my heterosexuality, which is not to imply that people who are heterosexual are wrong, but that it was wrong for me and not what God had created me for, I always knew this deeply but in the cowardly way of a child began a path of obedience to my cultural context instead of my calling. Repentance is finding those spots of wrongness inside us, not necessarily “sin” in the sense of doing wrong, but the blockages from God’s grace and hope and the inability to respond to God’s call to live what we were created.
John the Baptist is concerned with more than personal identity-work of course, he is a huge threat to the status quo which is why he is ultimately put to death. But he also reminds us that it is our repentance, the ways we choose to radically alter our way of life toward hope and justice that prepares the way for Jesus/Wisdom to enter the world. John’s radical asceticism is unattractive to the modern gaze. He wears itchy, dirty clothing and eats an inadequate diet. I don’t want to emulate quite the minimalism of his lifestyle but instead I want to let him refocus me on what really matters, not always having the finest materials next to the skin or the prettiest appearance or the most tantalising foods (no not even at Christmas when we hear the call of the “economy” to spoil ourselves and others in this way) but what deeply matters is the repentance that leads to radical justice and hope, the world-altering growth that welcomes into the world God’s Word.
John also reminds us to be wary of relying on our religious pedigree, our alliance with an institutional church and reminds us the survival of the institution is NOT THE POINT since God can raise up believers from the very stones (a theme that is alluded to at Palm Sunday and other places). Our call is to “produce good fruit as evidence of [our] repentance” to actualise God’s reign not to get right a series of rituals and self-aggrandisements. John gives us a terrifying view of a purifying, cleansing, judging God to come- speaking back into the first readings preoccupation of fear of God. The point I take from that is not that God is terrifying and punitive but that there is an implied threat/warning to those who continue to oppress others, especially in God’s name. We can read all the grace and forgiveness and rehabilitation of the sinner in the mission of Jesus (and I do take comfort from this) nevertheless a call to repentance remains and it is a strong demand from God not a half-hearted suggestion. We may repent imperfectly and be forgiven but we outright ignore God and God’s beloved poor (the earth may be included in this) at our peril!
In conclusion I circle back to that beautiful vision of the first reading, of buds and shoots and new growth where we thought we saw decay. The jacarandas were late to blossom this year but they got there. Life wants to spring up and live abundantly. Let us embrace life as we enact and expect the radical transformation of the world from the vulnerable baby who is also the Word.