Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon on Luke 16: Law Books and Love Stories,

A couple of stories to start: some twenty years ago when I was in University chaplaincy in San Francisco I had a student tell me that he “didn’t believe all this religion stuff,” because he would never trust himself to a situation where (1) he “didn’t know all the facts,” and (2) he “didn’t keep control of the situation.” In turn I asked him how his love life and was not surprised to hear it was not real good. When he asked why I had  asked my question, I answered because religion is not like a rule book, rather, it’s a relationship!

According to an early church historian, Tatian, who died around 165, the first Gospel came about when Mark wrote down the stories he remembered Peter telling about Jesus to people as they had need to hear them. So do you see the original background picture, the context for the text here? It’s relationship; people sharing stories of healing and hope, of good news in hard times, of the expectation of love meeting them in particular moments carried in a particular context by particular voices -- that's how it lives and moves -- and then the audience expanding, the list of listeners widening, words written down, more voices telling these stories in different ways and to different people and places over the world all these twenty centuries and here we are!

So, yes, some early parts of the Bible might look like a law code, but the prevailing tone, the dominant melody throughout Scripture is one of courtship: for I am convinced that God calls us, not to a legal partnership, but to be incorporated in a loving relationship as a new being. As St. Augustine wrote in the late fourth century: “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” I take this to mean God is closer to us than our fears, our hopes, our very capacity for understanding. In another place Augustine says we should pray, to God, “Not as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.” Do you see the faithful and intimate mysterious embrace there? So we need to keep it from being too practical, too businesslike; because it is an ongoing love story, and maybe a bit of a detective tale too, one that changes for us in the same way as it changes us.

As context and text evolve, so most Christian biblical scholars would agree that our understanding of the scripture itself has been shaped and changed over the years by a continuing conversation involving tradition, reason and experience. I’ve mentioned Tatian's remembrance of the original context of Mark already.  Then, in their work, Matthew and Luke stretch out to shape Marks saving message anew with re-visioning Jewish history and hope in Matthew, and widening an understanding of Hebrew and Greek philosophy and culture in Luke; in the Gospel of John too the theology of Jesus as the Word, the Logos, moves the understanding of the Messiah into a vocabulary that had been unknown in the earlier years.

To quote Jesus in the Revelation to John, “I make all things new!” And that renewing process can include our ongoing understanding of scripture, because the word ripens in us, the spirit breathes more deeply into the particularities of our lives and circumstances, tried and shared in communities of belief and practice, tested through history and tradition, refined by reason and experience, fired by faith over time.

And in the last few hundred years of critical scholarship and new methods of biblical and cultural exegesis we have come to know much more about first century social customs, economics, land use, law and politics in ways that shed new light on the original biblical texts. We even have access to cultural documents and biblical texts in the original Hebrew and Greek that are older than the ones they knew of in Augustine’s time (who, by the way, had no great skill in  reading biblical Hebrew or Greek — we actually know more than he did about the ancient languages).

So when speaking to our Gospel lesson about the unjust steward-manager  and his landlord for today, Barbara Rossing, a Professor of New Testament, gives needed background from current scholarship when she writes:

“Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law.” New Testament scholar William Herzog writes, "The hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.” And Rossing thinks, “The manipulative steward was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, on top of the 50% layer for the landlord, and the additional payment for Rome.”

So, for Rossing, when the steward reduced the payments, he may have been simply forgiving his own cut of the interest, or just  doing what the law of God in the Hebrew scripture commands, namely forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. As another scholar writes, "To ingratiate himself with the debtors, he had them change the amount they owed on their bills to exactly the amount they borrowed." The rich landlord, likely knowing the Torah teaching against interest, might, suddenly realise he needed at least “to appear to be observing convenantal laws, and ends up commended his steward.” —  who had been mainly motivated by his fear that he might be losing his job and was not strong enough to dig and was ashamed to beg. And maybe there’s the end of this puzzling detective story.

It reminds me of T. S. Eliot's writing that the greatest treason is doing the right thing for the wrong reason but it leaves me with a question: how can God be in the centre of these transactions, how does the Gospel come here and change lives? I've preached on this text before and the question stays with me. My working answer for today, subject to revision, is this: would it be too simple to say, "When we act like we are in love, the grace of love lifts us up into new life?"

Like Luke’s earlier story of the prodigal son returning to the Father with a canned repentance speech and hoping to get accepted as a slave, the steward does better than he expects or perhaps deserves; does better than the law and instead abides in a surprising charity to be accepted as a member of a renewed community. Is that the good news? Who knows what can come our way when we do the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, and love lets us come home -- and that just might be the moral of this story.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says the truth will make you free, I would add that it just might kill you along the way, but, as the prodigal son, the steward and the landowner may all have found out, the traveling can turn you into a person you’ve never been before. Maybe that’s where the Good News is today — the surprise of the Gospel, refined by tradition, restored in community and renewing reason with an experience of peace that passes understanding, all finally freeing you to live a new way, to be a new creation of love.

Welcome to God’s love story!  In the name of Christ.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A funeral homily at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta

Until about ten years ago this large figure behind the high altar, a Christus Rex, or "Christ the King of creation", was backed with a heavy blue velvet cloth. Then this “Tree of Life” tapestry was commissioned, woven and hung behind it. The range of colours are linked to the windows over the main entrance, modern stained glass picturing life in Wangaratta, that you'll see as you leave the building. I take it as weaving together the lesson that Christ, the picture of God’s love, happens here and now in the midst of nature and culture and commerce, in our work and art and sport, in thought and word and deed and  life and death every single day. It’s a sign that says both, “ I am to be found here” and “All will be well.”

But there are other crosses around here as well: crucifixes, representations of a man dying or dead on a cross; you can see one above the pulpit to my right, and it’s important to note these crosses too because they mark an equally common crossroad in the human condition: the days when it gets worse, when we suffer and die, or when we come together under tragic circumstances like today.

For when a person dies too soon, or when a death is violent or seems senseless and leaves you wondering, “what if?” and “if only,” or when we feel sad and angry and regretful -- knowing that everybody did their best but still  someone you knew and loved got lost, went missing -- then the tragedy multiplies; and any religious optimism that says it gets better can seem a kind of double cross avoiding the disparity between the hypocrisy of cheap and hopeful God talk on one hand, and the deep fragility, the tragedy, the sad music of human life and death on the other.

But the strange thing is, once you’re there, caught in that reality, between two paradoxical realities then the man on the crucifix can make some sense. Because, maybe, Jesus hanging, suffering, dying there on the cross is a sign that the God, the eternal compassion, love, longing and light who might have made the universe (not just then but now), is also hanging around here in the middle of what looks like the worst deal in town -- saying “I'm here too;" with you, and with me, and with R.... Because in Jesus, God might just be saying, “I know what it is to die too young, I know what it is to feel like the world is against me, I know what it is to feel like love is losing, I know what it is to weep, I know what it is to want it all to be taken away; and I can meet you there too!”

It’s a hard truth to swallow and it is far easier to find a “happy clappy" Jesus and that may be easier in the short run, but there are still these other moments when the sky gets dark and the shadow of death is near when family and friends feel far away and life can seem like the ultimate cheat and we really need to know that love can live there too. I'll grant you it’s a big ask, and such a set of beliefs can seems absurd some days, but it still bears watching and wondering: “What if it all hangs together that close? What if love and compassion can live right there in the shadow of pain and death as well?”

I try taking that chance myself: to let a little faith light that way with some hope: “For now we see… dimly, but then we will see face to face. [For] Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” This might be the way through the very middle of the tragedy to a new way home.

Just keep looking at, looking through, that crucifix, and the other cross too: keep that hope on the horizon, that place between these two crosses, the place where we see the poor in spirit, the hungry , the meek and mourning, where we see Rick and all the rest of us here; found by, a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

May R... now know that hope, that love, that peace: and may we as well.   Amen.