Flinders Ranges under cloud Nov 2014. North of Merna Mora on the way to Brachina, looking east.

One Man's Web

With John's handing over1, another prophet is silenced. Everything in the world goes on, as it has always gone on. The Empire remains in control. Yet into this, into Galilee2 itself, comes Jesus, proclaiming victory3 (euangelion) over Empire. He says the time for this is now.4  He proclaims the victory of the kingdom of God, a new way of being human, a new culture5. Change the direction of your living. Step out of the culture of Rome, out of Empire; trust6 the way of God, leave the old way of being.

He found fishermen embedded in the culture of Rome7, beholden to Empire, pawns of its economy, seeking a life. They trusted him and left— went away. 8 They followed him.

What is it that they trusted? What is good news about this euangelion? Where— how— is it victory?

The victory is the end of the victim9. The culture of God is a world where the last lost sheep is found and restored.10 No one is left behind. The world works without losers. This new world is the opposite of a trump game where power always wins, where power always arranges its own advantage, and makes its own truth, at the expense of victims. The very structure of human reality is changed.11 This is at hand; not yet visible to many people, but ready to be entered for those who will trust it as a reality.12 .... Read on >>>>

The multi-storey flats at the end of our street are surrounded by enormous fig trees with a smattering of Gums and Kurrajongs. A man was immersed in a slow and careful search of the underbrush and the deep leaf litter as we left on our evening walk. Our dog was full of energy in the cool after our recent heatwave, and we were away much longer than we intended. As we came home in the almost dark, I saw the same man, now on the other side of that huge compound, still searching. There was something obsessive and lost in his demeanour. My wife wondered if he even knew what he was searching for, but then said that, probably, he would know it when he found it.

I wondered where this man might take me as I considered Nathanael under his fig tree. Our local Nathanael reminded me of my great frustration in theological college, which was that few of the books they gave me to read, helped my searching. I seemed, instead, to find by accident, texts that were much more helpful, and which came alive. That accidental experience has continued life-long in taking me in unexpected directions... Read on >>>>

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. (Luke 2:34-35)

When we became aware of ourselves, we were already here. We were already part of a picture which is larger than we know. We are inside the picture. To reflect upon life in any serious way is to seek to understand a bigger picture than we can know, or prove. Critical thinking has its place; it refines our intuitions, and helps us find our fallacies. But our critical faculties are themselves formed within a world-view or paradigm. Our critique of our reality is already framed by assumptions which limit our discernment. The best of our thinking always has blind spots. We are creatures who do not know what we are. (Alison) To live, we first of all faith. That is, we necessarily trust that our intuitions are somewhere near reality. Even the atheist lives by faith.

In all this, nothing is more certain, yet more uncertain, than death. From one perspective, we are each driven to be our own little, and equally futile, Ozymandias. Why do we bother to do anything when all will be undone? Given that all will be undone, why not just enjoy it while, or if, we can? My observation is that life has been better for facing that which confounds me, and for questioning that which seems to be obvious and settled, or even insoluble. It not only gives me a certain pleasure, and helps me enjoy my existence— this might be my personal 'ozymandying'— but seems also to make me less objectionable— and even helpful— to others. My intuition is that this matters. What makes "us" as a whole, "better" and "happier" seems to me to be more important than what merely serves me.

My basic philosophy of life, even before talking about religion, is that human life flourishes in community, and that what fulfilment we may find as persons comes as part of the fulfilment of community rather than looking after 'Number One.' This is of course, also a profoundly Christian understanding; our intuitions of life are unavoidably spiral in their development; there can be no bedrock, unassailable, and un-interpreted facts from which we can begin. We learn and revise as we go.

So, very provisionally, here is my history of death:

In the beginning, death was not talked about; there were whispers about some parents who died during primary school, but no public acknowledgement.   A school mate was killed in a Year 12 car crash, and two uni friends died in sporting accidents. Each of these events was full of grief, but did not translate into fear of my own mortality, or even any consideration of it that I can remember.  Any fear of death was thoroughly repressed. I remember, years later, being told very seriously by a six year old, that he was not going to die. I'm not sure that I had even reached that level of conscious denial!... Read on >>>>

What makes the world turn, and keeps things going?

In Jesus' time the answer, in one word, was Caesar. Yes there were gods, but when push came to shove, what counted was money and political power. Today we have Trump and Putin, and upstarts like China. Nothing has changed. As now, the rulers of Jesus time used the gods and religion when it suited them.

What really counted was staying on top. And the tragedy is that the bullets used by the tyrants are the same bullets, made by the same companies, used by the good presidents. There is something about us people, some endless cycle of violence from which we can never escape. We think that by using violence we can fix violence.

We may like Obama more than Trump; we may prefer the Queen, but they are all part of the same endless violence and struggle for supremacy which means the ordinary people and the poor suffer just as they did in Jesus' time.

The Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke is "a point by point refutation" of all the propaganda of the Caesars. 
Luke says Jesus is the son of the most high. 
And that Jesus is the saviour of the world. Jesus is Lord.
All these terms are the language that the Caesars like to use for themselves. 
Even gospel— good news— was a term they used to describe their victories over their enemies!

In Luke's story, Jesus' name means God saves
And his kingdom never ends; not like the Roman Empire, which no longer exists; not like the thousand year Reich, or Realm, which lasted only 12 years; not like the United States, which is falling apart inside, despite all its military power.

Really? Jesus Kingdom never ends? Here is where the gospel is completely counter-intuitive; where it turns everything upside down. Because Luke, who tells us all this, over and over again, who tells us Jesus' kingdom will never end, then tells us the story of a man who was dead in three years, or less. Killed by Caesar.... Read on >>>

I spent half of Sunday in the Acute Medical Ward with my sister and my Mum. It was a place of astonishing humanity mixed in with gritty practicality. During Handover to the new shift I heard this:

"Now, Mrs. 'Smith' is 95. She's an absolute sweetie. Just lovely. You'll enjoy talking with her. And she's completely incontinent, poor Dear, so… …"

The next patient was very clearly not as easy to live with as Mrs Smith. Yet the Shift Coordinator listed the practicalities of caring for them with professional restraint, and a certain compassion.

Just before Mum's ambulance finally arrived, two nurses from the Emergency Department breezed in to say goodbye to her. They'd treated her when she came in the day before, and had missed saying goodbye then, because Mum had been shifted up to AMW while they were on a meal break. I don't think Mum could remember them, but the grace she's practiced for so long allowed her to receive them with all the ease of the Queen herself. And that grace, of course, is what lets folk like Mum, and Mrs Smith, feel like they are being treated like the Queen: the staff warm to the gift of human compassion from those they care for, and the love builds upon itself. At the very gritty end of life, when Scripture says "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it," it means that even when our mind is failing, the light still shines.

I was reminded this morning of one of my favourite quotations, with which Paul Nuechterlein begins his Christmas reflections. Walter Wink said

God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.” (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, p. 102; and a parallel in The Human Being, p. 26)

In the hospitals, we see extraordinary glimpses of our humanness, even though it is a humanness which we can only grasp partially in life's emergency wards, and even when we feel rather like one of my colleagues who wrote this week: "I am feeling particularly fried this year, worse than usual, which is saying a lot." My partner Wendy spent most of Saturday in a different hospital's emergency department with her mother. Both of our pastoral charges have been more than usually challenging. I'm not sure if the relentless cheerfulness and excess of the shopping centres is denial of one of the most painful times of year, or compensation for its pain. But I noticed the Blue Christmas Tree at Flinders was festooned with prayer cards; on Saturday we printed off another hundred cards for the tree Wendy looks after at the Lyell Mac.

And now it's Christmas week!... Read on >>>>

Reading: John 1:6-9, 19-28

A Sermon which notes that all the bits of the reading about Jesus in verses 9-18 are cut out by the lectionary. It asks us to look at John.

Have you ever noticed something odd about your minister? I have a colleague who sometimes stops in the middle of his sermon, to think, and places his hand on his head… like this…  You can tell me better than I can, what little quirks I have!

But let's imagine the hand on the head stuff is me. You've seen this a hundred times, and one day, I put my hand on my head, and for some reason, it really irritates you. It gets right under your skin and you feel quite grumpy.

Is there something bad about a hand on the head? Why did it bother you this time, when mostly you just smile to yourself— "that's Andrew, hand on his head again… no wonder he's getting a bald spot."

I find… that when things set me off, it's actually not usually the person and what they've done, … but it's something in me. Something about what they did pressed a button, or touched a sore spot in me— nothing to do with them, actually, and I get grumpy.

Now here's the important thing— let's turn this around: if you… remind me… of my sore spot that was hurt long ago, but I get grumpy at you… what does that achieve?

What I need to deal with is the sore spot… maybe the fact that I'm channelling the way I used to feel at school when someone said something hurtful.  If I externalise… my problem, if I project it… onto you, the problem stays unhealed in me, and I visit a violence upon you when I blame you… for something that's about me… for something you didn't do!  Just like our old cat, who used to get into trouble for jumping up on the table, and each time she got into trouble for that, she went and beat up the other cat— every time. That's externalising.   All she needed to do was stay off the table... Read on >>>>

There are times when the Revised Common Lectionary bemuses me.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness, to witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to witness to the light.

But the lectionary then removes the actual witness to the Light by John the Writer and John the Baptiser, which is contained in verses 9 to 18, and goes on to repeat John the Baptiser's statement that he himself was not the light which had come into the world. Repetition in scripture is always important; it cries Look here!  Now if it were the case that disciples of John the Baptiser were leafleting my congregation, and claiming that it was John who was the Messiah, then there would be obvious sense in this week's reading and its exclusions. But our problem is not that we think John the Baptiser is the Messiah. Our problem is that we think we know and understand the Light of the world; that is, it's we who do the leafleting. Too often, we proselytise particularities of doctrine which are anything but light. Too often our good news of the Kingdom is subverted by the mores and hopes of Empire, so that the Christ light is disastrously filtered.... Read on >>>>

Life goes on. Like yesterday. Just another prophet in the Judean wilderness. More bad behaviour by the Emperor. More column inches. But nothing changes. Ministers and priests will explain the significance of Mark and Genesis beginning with the same word, they will remind us that Elijah the Tishbite was a hairy man with a leather belt, and perhaps even suggest that gospel, the third word of Mark, already appropriates the jargon of Empire, but life goes on. Manses already exhausted by the year wonder if they can do more than simply endure the three remaining weeks. Some secretly rejoice at Church Council's decision to focus on a Sunday Christmas Eve service and forgo Monday morning. Others wonder if Advent will ever be heard above the inundation of the entire suburb by this year's over-amplified Community Christmas Carols which predominately celebrated the Feast of Christ the Consumer. Nothing changes here... Read on >>>>

As my friend Yvonne and I entered the platform at Mawson Lakes, a young woman rushed up to us in a terrified panic, and thrust her phone into my hands crying, "Please talk to my father!" She'd left the temporary bus service from Adelaide to discover she'd been followed across two buses by a man who had been standing far too close.

We escorted her to Salisbury, and things ended as well as something like this can end.

Yvonne and I debriefed each other a little on the way to her station.

"It's good that she had someone to ring," she said.

We talked about how hard it must have been to run up to another unknown man, even though being a man and woman together with pushbikes must have made us look a lot less threatening than other choices.

And then Yvonne said, "The trouble is, some people have no one to ring."

I thought about that as I rode home. Maybe that's what we are supposed to be about as a church. Not doctrine, not getting more bums on seats, and not fitting someone's idea of being successful. We're meant to be the family you can ring when you've got no one else to ring.

And it is a whole family thing, not just the minister. I had swung into action— told the Dad to ring SAPOL, identified the man concerned, tried to talk to her later about making sure she rang the police if she ever saw him again— all that stuff. But Yvonne talked about being scared, and children, and needing a dog to walk in the street. Woman to woman, and gentle and healing. We're meant to be the family you can ring when you've got no one else to ring.

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