Saturday, May 11, 2013

Freedom in Christian Unity

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in the 10 days between Ascension and Pentecost, in the time where we acknowledge that Jesus is as fully God as he was fully human, and as we wait for the celebration of the beginning of the new community in Christ, the church, in this strange time in our church calendar, we have a strange series of stories in the book of Acts. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of tales where Paul frees a slave-woman from her demons and angers her owners; the owners have Paul and Silas thrown in jail and their jailer begs for the freedom that they know in the midst of their incarceration. It’s an intriguing combination of stories of slavery and freedom, where what we think is slavery and what we think is freedom is turned on their heads.
A woman has the freedom of an unusual gift—the ability to divine the truth—or is that really what the text is saying? This pneuma, this spirit, this pythona, this oracle or perhaps this ventriloquist speaking through its puppet, the slave-girl, is not really a gift of freedom. Someone or something is speaking through this girl and she is not free. Is it her keepers, her owners, the ones who have made her and kept her enslaved? Or is it those who speak through her, the powerful of the city who would be rid of the disruption that Paul and Silas possess? She is not her own person. She is possessed by powers and powerful people. Her cries of apparent knowledge give the illusion of freedom, but she is not free. She is bound into a system that uses women like her as pawns in games played by men who like things just as they are with them in the position of authority.
And Paul releases her. Paul sets her free—from her demons, from her owners for whom she is no longer any use if she will not spout their words, from those who use her to condemn the very people who set her free. Somehow, Paul gives her the freedom to be free; and this gift of freedom comes in the name of Jesus Christ.
But that gift is not given without a cost; and Paul and Silas find themselves the target of a different attack by powerful people—people who no longer hide behind the words of a slave-girl; but who must now show themselves for who they are and declare their interests, their intention to rid themselves of the troublemakers, Paul and Silas.
These powerful people, these could-be slave owners and would-be local authorities have Silas and Paul thrown in jail. These powerful people are trying so hard to show that they are free—by enslaving some and locking others up. It’s a funny kind of freedom that they exhibit, these people who enslave and condemn others.
So Paul and Silas end up in jail. And just when we’re thinking that now Paul and Silas are no longer free, we hear that they are praying and singing to God. What could be freer than that—being in relationship with the living God irrespective of the conditions in which they find themselves? It’s a funny kind of prison into which the powerful people think they have condemned Paul and Silas. For them it is not a place of restriction; but one where they can be free to worship and honour God. What the powerful see as enslavement, Paul and Silas know as freedom. While the powerful are proclaiming their own apparent freedom by condemning Paul and Silas, Paul and Silas are showing just how restricted those would-be freemen are as they worship God in prison.
And the second time that day according to our story, Paul and Silas have the opportunity to open the door to freedom for someone who was in jail—albeit as a jailer, but nonetheless in jail, imprisoned, not free, at the mercy of the behest of the powerful who condemn others to prison. Paul and Silas offer the jailer freedom; and once again that freedom comes in the name of Jesus Christ.
It’s a funny kind of freedom this freedom we have in Christ—the freedom to love God and do what we like, because in loving God, what we like will be the things of God, as God works God’s magic in us, not as puppets of a ventriloquist, but as believers in a reality where everyone matters, and no one should be treated like a slave, or made to do the dirty work of powerful people by keeping those who are really free in jail.
It’s a funny juxtaposition of stories that we hear in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we Christians who are so fond of proclaiming our freedom by dividing ourselves from one another are confronted by the reality that our freedom is not in the ability to do what we like, but in our common calling to love, worship and serve the Triune God. It’s a funny set of stories in this week when we remind ourselves that there is freedom in community, the community of the Spirit. There is freedom in constraints, the constraints of the Gospel. There is hope in proclamation, the proclamation that in Christ all are free as Christ is free—constrained by the wonderful freedom of relationship with God and with each other as the beloved children of God in our own right, not as the puppets or ventriloquist dolls of those who would lord over and control other people even those who belong to God.
It’s an intriguing combination of stories of freedom and slavery where everything we think about slavery and about freedom are turned on their heads and we discover that freedom is not in spouting the words of others, nor in condemning others. Freedom is discovered in God’s recognition of us as beloved children each in our own right; and together, as a diverse and unique, and multi-faceted community who cannot be condemned by others because we know the truth we have in God—that in Christ all are free as Christ is free; in Jesus, we are one because we are in Christ and Christ is in God. 
Surely, this is our freedom. This is our salvation. This is our deliverance. And no-one has the power to enslave the children of God!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Lord is my Shepherd!

The Lord is my Shepherd. The Lord is my Shepherd. The Lord is my Shepherd. How easily the words roll off our tongues. They are so familiar. The Lord is my Shepherd.
And we have inherited cute little images of fluffy little white lambs being led by strong upright young men over rich green pastures from Anglo-Celtic and European heritages to go with those words. But Israel is a desert and shepherds were not the most well-liked people in the country even if they were necessary for its economy. Shepherds had a reputation for being vagabonds, thieves and cowards, rogues and opportunists - itinerant workers with no roots. After all you never knew just what people like them would get up to out there in the wilderness with nothing but themselves and the sheep and the sky. And if there were a few sheep missing who knew whether it was the wolves or not.
Shepherds, sheep herders, were not the most important people in their society and certainly not the most trusted. They were part of the mass of nobodies of their society—not like temple priests or court officials or kings and queens. They did one of the more menial tasks in their society and earned one of the lowest wages. Once upon a time, shepherds had been the backbone of Israel, ensuring economic stability and even the very survival of the people themselves. But now Israel was a settled nation, a people concerned more with trade than with grazing.
It was true, Israelite society was born of people such as these. The nation's ancestors were nomadic herders who wandered from waterhole to waterhole searching for food for their animals. But in a settled nation which had formulated rules about possession of land and property, they were peripheral, on the edge, unimportant and not to be trusted.
Sure Israel had its romantic myths about its origins about people such as David who rose from shepherd boy to King but that's the catch. David was depicted as rising from the very dregs of society to become the premier person in the nation - God's chosen and anointed ruler of the people of God—a log cabin to Whitehouse; or grocer’s daughter to Prime Minister kind of tale.
That's why the image of God as Shepherd was so powerful. It was cutting across both the images of shepherds and the imagery of God. It was saying to the people that the real idea of a Shepherd was their idea of God - of one who would provide for them, protect them and ultimately care for them. And that the real idea of God was their idea of Shepherd - one who did the menial tasks in their society, one who was the servant of all and yet neglected and ignored by most, taken for granted. It was an affirmation that reliance upon God meant a relationship with God based in trust. It was an affirmation that God, far from being hierarchical monarch, was rather, humble servant of the people of God. The ultimate relationship which people could experience was their relationship with God and the ultimate relationship which God could be a part of was a relationship with humanity as their servant.
Now as if this wasn't provocative enough in itself, in our Gospel reading, we have this guy called Jesus from the obscure village of Nazareth saying that he was the shepherd, the good one; that he was the very model of the Shepherd that they had affirmed God as being; that he was the very model of the God that they had talked about in the statement "The Lord is my Shepherd". And that was bound to cause all kinds of problems.
It was bound to cause problems because in that very statement, in that very imaging of himself as good Shepherd, Jesus is proclaimed as God and he definitely was not the sort of person that a lot of Israelites had envisaged as revealing God, as showing the nature of God. It was bound to cause problems because in that very statement, Jesus was affirming again that the nature of God was not overbearing tyrant but humble servant—a shepherd or a carpenter no less.
And it’s still an affront to many understandings of God today. We humans like to have a "heavy" around - someone who will take upon broad shoulders all the responsibility that is ours; all the responsibility that we would have shifted from our own puny limbs. But that is not the nature of the God who created us, nor of the God who redeems us, nor indeed of the one who empowers us for our life and work in the world. And the Gospel of John is determined to make this point. For the passage where Jesus claims the role of the Good Shepherd is also the passage where those who listen to the words of Jesus are promised that they will have life—the real fullness and richness of life; that if they can just grasp the truth the Jesus is Shepherd that they would be grasping the real nature of God; and really experiencing proper relationship with God: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life.” (John 10:27 - 28)
And that's not the end of the scandal because worst of all, of course in this whole mess of confusion, Jesus, in his identification as the Good Shepherd says that shepherds are okay. Jesus says that those ignored and despised ones of the society should actually be regarded as having meaningful contributions to make to that society, and not just by doing the dirty work. The least in our world can show us what God is like. And that not only upsets everybody's theological understandings it also upsets our notions of social systems, and that more than anything gets everyone worked up because you can say almost anything you like about God except when what you say means that people have to change the way they live.
If you suggest that we need to understand God differently, thereby inferring that we need to order our lives differently and understand people differently, then you are really in hot water up to your chin. Because everybody likes things the way they are. Everybody knows his or her place and role in life. Everybody likes to know that you look up to priests and down to shepherds, that a far-off God transcends anything that we can experience in the tangible world and that the fullness of life can be gained very simply. But that's not the message of the Jesus who affirms himself as Shepherd.
The message of Jesus as Shepherd is one that says God is in our midst, closer than breathing, nearer than a heartbeat. The message of Jesus as Shepherd says that no-one holds rank over another by virtue of their social position. We are all travelling on a journey together, working with each other, serving each other and serving with each other. The message of Jesus as Shepherd says that the richness and fullness of life means not being content with the way things are, but listening for God's will for our lives, hearing the voice of the Shepherd, obeying and fulfilling the role of a servant.
So when those Jews corner Jesus and tell him to tell them if he is the Messiah, Jesus has really given them something to think about and something to be angry about because Jesus has indicated that he is equal with God and he has affirmed that God is servant. For the religious leaders, it was blasphemy, a stoneable offense and the very next verse following today's reading indicates that that's just what they intended to do.
You see to say the Lord is my Shepherd is not a sweet innocuous phrase nor is it a gentle reassuring phrase, it is provocative. The Lord is my Shepherd. God is the one in whom I put my trust. And God is the one who honours that trust. God does not fail to lead me home by being my servant. The important thing is not the political system, nor the religious institution but God as servant—it’s a very provocative statement indeed. It’s too provocative a statement to just let the words roll off our tongues as if they only indicated something simple and pure and holy when in fact they are cutting and profound and thought-provoking. The Lord is my Shepherd. I have everything I need.
In the mid-70's, it was fashionable for Christian young people to sport stickers saying "Jesus Christ is the real thing." It was an attempt to take a phrase "the real thing" which Coca-Cola had captured for their own purposes and to affirm that the real things in life were of far more consequence than Coca-Cola or the multinational company and the consumerist economy behind and around that familiar name. The real thing in life was, is Christ; and Christ was what reality was all about. That 1970s slogan is just like the statement "The Lord is my Shepherd" in the 23rd Psalm. It was and is an affirmation that the real service in life is God's and that that service is like a Shepherd's (not glamorous and not sought after and mostly not even recognised).
What image of God might confront us as profoundly today? The Lord is my plumber; or perhaps my teacher. The Lord is my garbage collector; my cleaner or even my housekeeper.
The Lord is the keeper of my house. She prepares a place for me to sleep and ensures that I am fed and clothed. She cares for the home in which I live because she loves the people who live there. Even though I take her for granted she is still there faithfully serving her family. Although the world is a scary place, I know that a retreat is prepared for me, a place of rest and regeneration. Surely, this is goodness and this is mercy and they are with me all the days of my life—everywhere I look and right in front of me!
The Lord is my Shepherd. I have everything I need. Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lament for the Uniting Church

I’ve over it, O God! I’ve over the pettiness and the bureaucracy and the hypocrisy. I’m over the short-sightedness and the bloody-mindedness. I’m over the ignorance and the arrogance and the close-mindedmess. I’ve over the disrespect and the power games, the corporatisation, and all of the running after the latest shining bauble that glistens in any bright young thing’s corner of an eye. I’ve over the Uniting church and there is no reason for you to wonder why!

It was a dream, O God—a dream of a connected church, a visionary people, a community who would be a light to the nation and a beacon for ecumenism. We danced in the shopping centres and shivered in the June wind at its birth because it was a sign of hope, a portent of the future, a new thing that you were doing or so we thought.

But it seems to have turned out to be just the same old, same old—maybe in a slightly different guise. So instead of stultifying “traditions” that have very little to do with the real Tradition, we have everyone’s latest idea plucked out of the air as “the new” irrespective of its history or antecedents, and a disdain for “tradition” that does not know enough about Tradition to know when the baby has disappeared down the plughole with the bathwater. I’m over it, O God!

I’ve over the disrespect for ordination and ordained ministry. I’m over the expectation that anyone has the right and the ability to form the people of God, “overturn tradition” and re-invent the wheel. I’m over the ignorance that does not know that entering the story is more than knowing how to read.

We do not teach our people theology, O God; and our people do not want to learn it. They are content with the blasphemy of violence that passes as sacrificial atonement theory; or the paucity of mystery that satisfies the liberally historically-minded. People seem happy to worship the words in a book reprinted a million times over without discerning how they stand in relation to the Word who entered history, embodied, enfleshed, incarnate.

I’ve over it, O God! I’m over the “I love Jesus” romantic hit parade—as if Jesus were just another Justin Bieber not the “Thou” of Martin Buber. I’m over the surprise that worship might be more than puppy-dog eyes cast upon an Adonis of a Saviour. Where some may once have worshipped Bacchus and other Apollo, our redeemers are buff young men with bedroom eyes and bedroom voice—poor substitutes for a broken, wounded Christ “of Middle-Eastern appearance”.

We cannot self-actualise ourselves into a heaven made in the image of Bondi, nor “boot-camp” our way into a realm made up only of the robust and the strong. We have no power to manipulate our way into the fulfilment of the eschaton. We have only you—utterly loving, utterly relational, utterly hopeful, utterly patient, still waiting for your prodigal people to come to our senses and head for home.

I’m over it, O God! And sometimes that makes we think I’m over you, but I’m not…

I’m not over a God who calls us into a community of imperfection to muddle our way through as the perfect flawed glorious Creation we are. I’m not over a people called to be pilgrim, struggling on a journey of promise. I’m not over the hope that you offer in the call to servanthood and I’ve not over the body of Christ… we poor pale imitations of what it means to a communion of the Spirit.

Yet we are your people, well of part of them anyway; and our election is not of our own making. It is an undeserved, unmerited, unwarranted gift bestowed by you.

And so, we journey onwards, but not always in the right direction and mostly not even in the same direction at once—we could-be prodigals, would-be pilgrims, not noticing that we must be prodigal to be pilgrims at all; and yet always under the holy, wholly, sheltering wings of you, O God. You cannot, you will not, you shall not let us go for, fortunately, you are never over us, O God! 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Some Madeleines!

The first thing that you need to know may be obvious to some but not to all. The name MAD-e-Lena is derived from the name “Madeleine” which, in turn, is derived from the name “Magdalene” as in Mary Magdalene, i.e. Mary of Magdala.

Paul claims the place as a “late-born” or perhaps even an “abortion” of an apostle, depending on your interpretation of the text. Mary Magdalene is the apostle who is seldom acknowledged (at least in Western, and particularly Protestant) Christianity. She is the elder sister to the prodigal Paul, if you will.
Often confused with the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet (Luke 7), Mary is identified as a penitent prostitute, but that woman is never named. Mary, rather, is depicted as being healed from seven demons and as a follower of Jesus just like the twelve (Luke 8). Most importantly, she is the first witness to the resurrection (John 20).

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she is identified as isapostolos “equal to the apostles”. In the West, theologians like Abelard talked of her as apostolarum apostola “apostle to the apostles”. The apostle that should never have been, which many Christians never realise ever was, is in fact a model for effective discipleship.

The second thing that you need to know is that Mary Magdalene’s day is my birthday, 22 July.
Other than the fact of this date co-incidence, why would I identify with Mary? There are times when I aspire to Mary’s witness and have been times when I have felt as maligned as Mary has been.
Chip on my shoulder? Maybe. Trying to work through some of the realities of what it means to be a creative, feminist Christian thinker? Definitely.

And that’s where the third thing you need to know comes in: the reason for the unusual spelling of Madelena.
As many people discover, when you try to get an internet designation related to your name or preferred concept, somebody else has already inevitably claimed it. So, you begin to play with alternative ways of producing a similar result.

One of my ongoing concerns has been with the MAD-ness of the experienced world: MAD-ness as in Multiplicity (the multiplication of significations from the one sign), Ambiguity (the disparate significations received from the one sign) and Diversity (the variety of signs and symbols around, together with the variety of interpreters). That is essentially what my doctoral thesis is about—that and how to justify a feminist voice in the midst of the MAD-ness in a theological context.

e-lena” – well “E-Laner” what else can I say? It was a statement about the particular means of communication that a blog offered a would-be Magdalene.

I only aspire to Magdalene’s faithfulness both in following and in proclaiming the risen Christ, but I am a beneficiary of the healing power of the grace of God; and maybe, just maybe, I have some good news to proclaim from time to time in my own MAD way.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

MAD-e-Lena Reborn!

MAD-e-Lena began in the closing days of my time as Lecturer in Liturgy & Theology at United Theological College. I’d been wanting to start an ongoing blog since I took to the phenomenon during my study leave in 2006. Then, it had been a way of letting friends and family know what I was up to and of reflecting on my experiences. More than 3 years passed before MAD-e-Lena emerged.

While I was minister for the Armidale Congregation of the Uniting Church, the content was easy—sermons and the occasional prayer written in the course of my work. What should it evolve to now that I am Principal of Grace College? The sermons are less frequent; and that makes the content both more open to other possibilities and more reliant on focussed attention to the blog as blog.

It has never been my intention to let it lapse. Apart from anything else, my biggest fan and self-appointed President of my Fan Club, Doug H. at Nambucca would not allow it! Ah, the pressures of celebrity status?! Satisfied that I have at least one “Gladdie” out there in the listening audience for my version of “Late Night Live”, I am encouraged to continue. And as it happens MAD-e-Lena is about to be resurrected just in time for Easter and in my third month of a new placement (rather than “on the third day”). There is something about the ancient rhythms and routines of the faith that govern our lives despite our best worst efforts.

So, I shall begin with a tale of madeleines (another not so ancient tradition of writers—this times of those with Proustian pretensions who do not know when to stop!). With apologies to Doug for the fact that MAD-e-Lena may never quite be the same again, let me tell you the story of the origin of the name.

Acknowledgement of First Peoples

We acknowledge the Jagera and Turrabal people,
the first inhabitants of this place, part of God’s good creation.
We honour them for their custodianship of the land,
on which we gather today.
You set humanity at the heart of your creation, O God;
charging us with stewardship of all you have made.
We give thanks for those who have heeded your call.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Word Breaks Through: An Act of Wisdom

In 1980, the workers in Poland had been struggling for a decade or more to establish the right to collective organising, the right to trade unions. Their struggle was not just to meet together or to be able to bargain collectively. It was the struggle to have their voices heard at all in a regime governed by a bureaucratic communist elite. On their own, the would-be trade unionists were small pieces in the Polish system of government. They and their families were at the mercy of policies and legislation completely out of their reach to influence. Together, there was the possibility of making a real difference.
The struggle had taken its toll. As a result of various strikes prior to 1980, workers had lost their jobs, the livelihoods and their lives. Lech Walesa was just another worker active in the struggle, although not very active at work. He’d lost successive jobs because of his activism.
In mid-1980, a further price rise on food led to desperate workers staging another strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. Walesa was not among them. He was not a worker at the yard. Some reports say that enthusiasm for the strike was waning. Certainly, the strikers would have been under immense pressure politically, economically and psychologically. Many recountings of the story suggest that the strike wasn’t going anywhere, but then…
On 14 August 1980, Lech Walesa climbed the shipyard fence to get inside to join those who were fighting for their rights, even though he was not at the time a worker there. He’d been fired for political agitation.
Well, any of you old enough to have lived through that period will have at least a vague idea of what happened next. Other workplaces joined the strike action. The Inter-Plant Strike Committee was established to coordinate the action. The workers won their right to strike (to collectively withdraw their labour in protest of unfair employment practices) and to have an independent trade union. The coordinating committee became the National Coordinating Committee for Solidarność (Solidarity) Free Trade Union. Wałęsa was chosen as its chairperson. And Poland was on its way to democratisation—all because someone outside of the action dared to climb the fence to become part of it. All because someone had the courage to make an intervention.
I remember hearing about Walesa’s unique ability to intervene in group action to direct or re-direct its purpose in helpful ways in my first year of sociology at the University of Queensland. It was nearly 30 years and just a few years after the birth of Solidarity. The story caught my attention. The ability to analyse what was going on in a group, the imagination to know what to do to achieve a re-direction and the courage to take that action to intervene in a group situation sounded like an act not just of knowledge and awareness, but of wisdom—a timely intervention that changed the course of history.
Interventions are all the rage today in politics and counselling, preventative medicine and social policy. They’re meant to stop people doing harmful things, change the nature of society or the outlook of an individual, fix things up, speed things up or slow things down—“an intentional intercession or act to bring about change” (Opt & Gring 2009).
Our world looks for interventions that will help us battle disease and poverty, redistribute resources, make our communities healthier, happier and safer. We look for interventions that will heal us, help us, make us well, that will save us.
Today, as Christians, we celebrate what must be for us the intervention of all interventions—the mother of interventions—an intentional intercession or act that brought and continues to bring about change in our lives individually, as communities, as the wonderful, damaged Creation of God. This act, this intervention, this intercession is literally an act of God. It is God’s intervention in God’s very own Creation in and for the sake of that Creation. It is incarnation—God becoming human, God becoming creaturely, God, the Creator entering the Creation in order to bring about change; in order that we might understand a little, just a little something of what God is all about; in order that we might turn again to God who is the author of our being and our redemption; in order that we might be enfolded into real relationship with God—“our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made [hu]man… [so] shall his love be fully showed, and we shall then be lost in God” in the words of Charles Wesley (Together in Song 305).
This intervention was and is a real breakthrough. God reveals God’s self completely in the person of Jesus, a vulnerable baby, a teacher and healer, a prophet, a persistent problem for the authorities, a victim of Roman crucifixion, and the firstborn child of the new Creation, resurrected from the dead. In God becoming one of us, we are enfolded again into God. We are redeemed as God’s glorious Creation and re-commissioned in God’s service. It is a real breakthrough and in it, we are offered real change—change that wants the world to honour God which means loving God, loving our neighbours including our enemies, and caring for the whole of God’s Creation; change that means we know that it’s not all about us or all up to us, but that everything and everyone is in the hands of God; change that means the whole Creation will know peace and reconciliation with God our Creator. This intervention is an act of Wisdom bar none.
This intervention is an act, a movement, an complete experience—full immersion in the very thing that God has made. “[T]he Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Theologians have wrestled with the concept from the very beginning of Christianity. God speaks and it happens. God’s Word, God’s intention is always embodied, always enacted, always alive and active. God’s Word is not just heard or seen, God’s Word is demonstrated and experienced.
And today, Christmas Day, we are invited to enter into the full experience of this intervention again—to dare to wait at the fringes of the birth scene, knowing that it is not just a glimpse that is promised, but a close-up encounter, a real life relationship with the Creator of All, a real life experience with the greatest intervention of all, the very Wisdom/Word of God; to dare to take a step forward into the scene and marvel that our God chooses to be made vulnerable in order to communicate God’s very self with us; to dare to pick up the baby and nurse it and comfort it for that is God demonstrating the greatest Wisdom of all; and even more to dare to let that baby grow up, to teach and to heal, to love and to care, to laugh and to cry, to live and to die on a cross prepared for the One who knew what any real intervention would take to bring real change for a wonderful, damaged, redeemable Creation—“our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made [hu]man” for the sake of the whole Creation.