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Plain talk and prejudice

Australian Suburbia

Sunday of January 1 2012 -  Christmas 1
Gospel: Luke 2:21(22)-40

21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word; 
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

After the familiar story of Christmas, Luke draws us on into a strange world of purification, sacrifice, and aged prophets.

The story is as deliberately and carefully crafted as the story of Christmas night; it is the continuation of his birth, but is almost invisible in Australia, even in church.   We are mostly focussed on the cricket by now, unless we are among those reluctantly going back to work. No one is much interested in obscure Jewish birth rites.

In a week or two, those of us whose major meditations have been Sachin’s failure to make a century of centuries, may begin to think more deeply about the nature of life, as our job calls us back to reality. Those who have no job in the new year will be grimly considering survival strategies. For some, for most of the world in fact, there will have been little or no respite from the struggle to survive.

Luke speaks into this struggle : “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed... [and to be]  a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” To Mary he says, “...a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (35) There is something sombre here which is untouched by all our Christmas lights. Our disinterest is a sign of our luxury, and a condemnation of our complacency.

We have some sense in Australia, of Christmas being about family, and giving, and being thankful. For most of us, that is religious enough. Why spoil Christmas with religion? Only in Australia could a journalist, although deliberately stirring the pot, write these words seriously:

There is plenty to loathe about Christmas; from the tedious rounds of workplace parties, to the obscene garbage we buy as gifts, to the cynical attempts by Christians to hijack the whole fiesta for their own religious ends.

Is that why even we Christians gloss over this week as the schmaltz and the tinsel of Christmas is being stripped away from the story? This family sounds like the sort of family who discomfort us..

Circumcision (21), according to the law of Moses (22), holy to the Lord (23), offering a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord ( 24), and going to the temple to do what is customary under the law (27); these people sound suspiciously like the sober and serious religious visitors who blitzed our street during the week leading up to Christmas, coming back for several days, to make sure they missed none of us. We identify them as wowsers, joyless, and rather strange. Talk about trying to spoil Christmas!

We close the door on such people in haste barely moderated by civility. We avoid them as assiduously as the those with the big signboards outside their churches, which decry the celebration of Christmas, and propagate obscure relationships between the Old Testament and modern wars; or else, like the group of computer gamers who once poured out of a bedroom when some poor religious unfortunate knocked on our door, we mock them.

But the story this week is not about some strange sect. It is from our bible and it is the story of our Lord. The whole point is that his family is orthodox and pious, and to be admired. They are a suitable seedbed for the one who will bring salvation. In Luke’s world, their piety underlines and validates everything Simeon says:

my eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared in the presence of all people
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

Who else but a man upon whom the Holy Spirit rests,(25) or a woman who has devoted herself to prayer and fasting, (37) could see the significance of such a child? It is only in such a family that this child could grow and become strong and filled with wisdom, with the favour of the Lord upon him. (40)

I had misgivings about my first post of this article; I am re-writing from here on. I think I underestimated the anger, and even more, the hurt, which I carry about the place of church in our country. It includes deep anger at myself, and shame.

All my life I have struggled between attraction to the story of Jesus, and revulsion at the stupidity and nastiness of so much of his church. I enjoy my cricket as much as anyone. I revel in a 200km ride. I like my beer. Thank God for the boutique brewers of Australia! Yet all this, on its own, is empty. I need life, meaning, purpose! The story of Jesus has pointed me to this since my teenage years.

But the religious bullshit we tolerate, and even propagate in an attempt to be “faithful,” leaves me squirming. It’s easy to agree with the old church on Cheltenham Road. Someone has turned it into a house, but kept the signboard: “Church of Agnostics. God protect us from your followers.”

We once lived in a Uniting Church manse on a block which had five church buildings. Church Alley, the called it! There was  also a Mormon church two corners away, and three streets away lived an inveterate writer of strange religious missals to the national newspapers. He had his own big signboard in the front yard.

I don’t know if these folk used our whole street for  practice proselytisation, or just knew we were Uniting Church clergy, and were trying to save us. It had its funny side.

Running late for an appointment one Saturday morning, the minister piled into the shower. The minister she is married to, raced out to the shower in the guest flat. Then the religious visitors arrived.

The youngest member of the family solemnly told them Dad was in the shower. When they asked if they could speak to his mother,  he informed them she was also in the shower.

“What did they say then?” we asked him. “Nothing, really. They just looked at each other, and went away.”

Less funny was the time a child stood at the front door and yelled, “Muu-um, the Morons are here!”  I thought it was hilarious at the time, but have since learned the country mocks us all, or hates us, in about equal measure.  We deserve it. We all have our own oddities, which we more or less kindly joke about, but underneath, too much of what we say, and certainly what we communicate, is the same.

There is a sad little church up the road from us, spouting its arcane theologies from behind a seven foot fence topped with barbed wire. I can almost feel sorry for them, and ignore them, but the mainline church around the corner posts a weekly message on its own signboard. I am moving closer to defacing that sign; some of the stuff is truly offensive, and much of it is ridiculous. I know church signs preach mostly to the converted, but the converted in this place must be stupid.

You can see my anger. I was a part of this. I am still a part of a church where misogyny, racism, prejudice against gays and lesbians, and people from the wrong end of town, are frequent sins. Don’t mention the gossip, secretive government, and parroting of doctrine no sane person would believe, if they thought honestly about it. We (and I) take serious gospel from Luke, and the other writers, and turn it into pious trivia and judgemental, hypocritical bigotry.

At the beginning of the year, I am faced with a decision. I can make a New Year’s Resolution. I can decide to embrace the gospel with a solid dose of Australian common sense and scepticism, along with the doctrine of a fair go, or I can retreat into private piety, which will inevitably have someone quite correctly say of me, “the Morons are here.” Private piety that is not earthed in real life, and open to common sense criticism, deserves derision, and is dangerous.

It is not enough to see Luke has begun his gospel with multiple deep links back into the traditions of Israel. It is not enough to proclaim with him that the people of God will be rescued, that this rescue is for the whole world, and that it is coming through the person of Jesus. We also need to read the rest of the gospel with its wholesale attacks on the government and the accepted wisdoms of the day. We need to remember Christmas is the most artificial bubble in our fragile bubbles of freedom and affluence. It bears no relation to real life. Private pieties and jargon which are incomprehensible to those outside are more frothy again.

Mark (the gospel for this year) will challenge the status quo constantly. There will be mystical moments when the lectionary dips into John’s gospel, but Mark (and Luke) is about practical living. He continually reminds us of the agony of life for most of the world. He is constantly challenging Caesar. He is iconoclastic, battering and breaking our ideas of what makes a successful life. He will disrupt our comfort and habits, and turn life upside down. He will cost us.

If we take the words of Mark and Jesus, and the Christmas story of Luke, and project them into some future heaven; if we spiritualise them into a private piety which condemns others, them we are only building a chain mesh fence around our church. We may have the biggest signboard in the suburb, but people will mock our pronouncements. Our deep longings, which have brought us to church, will be unanswered, locked out by the fence. Our prejudice about other churches will apply to us.

What will happen if, instead, we love the Lord with all our heart, mind and soul, and love our neighbour as ourselves? (Mark 12:29ff) Giving, healing, feeding, taking the side of the poor, all these things start the rising and falling of many.  They lift up the broken hearted, and bring the powerful back to size. They are a revelation of what is real, what God wants.

They will make us into a mother of Jesus, a seedbed for the body of Christ. We will feel the sword pierce our own soul too; God help us.

And we will be alive, not trapped behind a fence and defined by a stupid signboard.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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