Monthly Archives: May 2009

Which way is up?

Sermon for the Ascension of Jesus (24 May 2009)

Eternal God,
the heavens are split asunder
and Christ once crucified is at your side.
As Jesus has opened the way to you for all people,
so may we declare the hope of eternal life
with the energy of the Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Christ the Lord. Amen.

Ephesians 1.15-23

Some years ago, I did something that got me into a little trouble. It was the Sunday after the Ascension, just like today. I took a globe that had been hidden from the congregation behind the big pulpit in this place, and showed it to them.

I said that I had a difficulty with the Ascension as a literal story. My difficulty is: which way is up?

Jesus ascends from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and goes to be with God the Father. But that’s not ‘up’ here in Brisbane. It’s sideways. So if we go ‘up’, we’re going in a completely different direction to Jesus. Can you see my problem: Which way is up?

It makes more sense to talk about Jesus ascending to heaven if the world is flat, as our ancestors believed. Then straight up is the same direction everywhere on earth, and that’s where heaven is. Above each one of us.

But living on a ball in an ever-expanding universe, with ‘up’ meaning an infinite number of directions depending on where you stand on the ball, the very notion of ‘up’ gets, well, a bit complicated.

Of course, Jesus may have ascended as a kind of ‘sign’ to the apostles that something new was happening. He was going to be with God, and he wanted to make it clear. But…

…I still wonder which way is up.

It seems to me that if we look at what the Ascension means, rather than what happened, we might get some clues about just which way is up. We might find that Jesus shows us which way is up.

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The dark side of liberalism

An interesting article by Giles Fraser in Ekklesia on the way liberalism can imagine it exists independently of language, culture and tradition:

Few words are bandied about with such casual abandon as “liberal”. In contemporary theological disputation, it is often assumed that everybody understands what the word means. Yet it can refer to so many different things — connected, perhaps, by family resemblance, but often by little more.

Roughly speaking: to be liberal when it comes to economics is to believe in free trade and a smaller state; to be a liberal in the theological sense is often understood as allowing human reason to stand in judgement over revealed religion; to be a liberal in the philosophical literature is to believe in the possibility of human self-authoring; and so on.

Thus, in the free-trade sense, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the great liberals of the 20th century. On another reading, they were two great anti-liberals.

Or consider Luther: he sought to free the individual to stand alone before God without the mediation of the Roman Church. This was a pivotal move in the development of one form of liberalism. Yet Luther was fierce in his denunciation of human reason’s capacity to judge divine revelation.

What use does a word have that can be so variously applied? One could argue that the common thread in all these senses of liberal is the importance of freedom. There is some truth here, but only to the extent to which we are all liberals these days. The need for freedom from tyranny is a moral given in contemporary Western thought, Christian or otherwise.

Yet this emphasis on freedom has a shadow side. Increasingly, the rejection of any “outside” influence, in the name of individual freedom, has come to be expressed as the idea that I am capable of making myself up. On this account, the values and identity I acquire can be generated by myself alone, by some act of will. Here, I manifest my freedom by cutting myself off from any unchosen influence.

It is rather like deciding to put one’s child in an empty room for all of childhood, passing food through a hatch, and expecting him or her to emerge at 18 with values and iden tities chosen and established. Of course, it is not possible for the child to do this because self-authoring is a nonsense.

We are creatures embedded in language, culture and tradition. The desire to be released from these in the cause of liberal freedom is self-defeating. Culture and traditions are the foundations from which we build; destroying them in the name of freedom robs us of the conditions that make freedom possible. This is the point at which liberalism becomes a threat to the very thing it claims to love.

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The Church of the Gerasene

Mark 5.1-20

Most Uniting Churches are named after their locality—so close by us, we have Kenmore Uniting Church, or Indooroopilly Uniting Church. Here, we’re Centenary Uniting Church because we’re located in the Centenary suburbs. And we all know that Anglican and Catholic Churches usually name themselves after saints—just down the street, we have St Catherine’s, for example.

If we decided to give ourselves a saint’s name, I’d like it to be an unusual kind of saint: Id like us to be the Church of the Gerasene. Why the Church of the Gerasene? Why on earth call a church after the man we usually refer to as the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’? Because this is a community in which we should be ‘clothed and in our right minds’.

That’s how the man we call the Gerasene Demoniac finishes up—with his kit on and seeing things clearly. But he doesn’t start out that way, no way.

We first meet him held at arm’s length by the townspeople of Gerasa—naked, self-harming and living among the graves. Not clothed. Not in his right mind.

Why was he like this? Was he mad, bad or sad? Maybe he was a very sensitive soul.

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Budget: still waiting for social inclusion

Yesterday, I drew attention to Eureka St’s take on the Budget, with three principles for it to be good news for the poor. It looks to be a disappointment.

Frank Quinlan, Director of Catholic Social Services Australia, was allowed into the ‘lock-up’ for journos (where no doubt he saw David Koch salivating over his papers). He writes that he looked through the 30 cm-thick papers and the:

…in the ‘Budget Overview’ document, I found the section on social inclusion and my heart sank. I quote it directly:

‘Downturn or not, there will always be people in our society who suffer disadvantage. Through National Partnerships, the government is working to improve the social inclusion of the disadvantaged on a range of fronts, including homelessness, disability services, low socio economic status schools and Indigenous outcomes.’

Later, the detailed document indicated that the government has ‘sought further advice’ from the Social Inclusion Board.

After all that we have heard about the social inclusion agenda, after all we have heard about a new way of working with the community sector, after all the evidence we have presented that the community services sector will face unprecedented demand over the next two years … No comprehensive strategies to lift people out their immediate poverty. No coherent strategy to strengthen and support the community services sector.

While the government is prepared to spend only cautiously on a politically acceptable selection of the people that use our services, and while government is prepared to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into industries as globally uncompetitive as the car industry or as patently unproductive as the banking and finance ‘industry’ or on ventures as speculative and risky as carbon sequestration, we have not been able to convince government to invest directly and strategically in an industry as essential and as effective as the community service sector.

I wrote in response to the first Rudd Labor Budget that we may have turned a corner, towards a fairer Australia and a more sustainable community sector, but that only time would tell. After all the scripted theatre of pre-budget leaks, secure lock-ups and dazzling announcements are stripped away, the 2009–10 Budget seems to indicate that we may well be waiting for a long time yet.

Read the rest here, weep, pray & act.


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Budget day

The federal Budget comes down today, and it’ll be a toughy.

Eureka St’s John Warhurst has a great article in the final hours before the budget is delievered, which has these three principles from a Catholic (and I would say, simply Christian) viewpoint:

  • Catering for the needs and aspirations of all members of the community (the ‘common good’);
  • Ensuring any economic burdens imposed are proportionate to the person’s capacity to pay (distributive justice);
  • Always giving priority to enhancing the lives of the most disadvantaged (preferential option for the poor).

It will be good to see how the Budget stacks up.

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Faith, hope and love—for a eunuch

Sermon for Easter 5 (10 May 2009)

Acts 8.26-40
1 John 4.7-21

…faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This comes from 1 Corinthians 13, one of the best-known chapters of the New Testament. It’s been called ‘the love chapter’ and is often heard at weddings—and since Princess Di’s funeral, sometimes there too. Do you remember it? You know it—it’s the one that goes

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

Remember it now? Let’s hear that verse again, 1 Corinthians 13.13:

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Faith, hope and love. The Ethiopian Eunuch in today’s first reading knew something about faith, hope and love. Let’s try to see how.

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Chickening out from judgement

Andrew Hamilton has another good piece in Eureka St on whether God sends disaster in response to human wrongdoing. It seems to me that this is one of a number of areas in which there is a discussion within scripture, a discussion that consistently tends towards seeing God in a relationship of love towards the whole creation.


On blaming God for swine flu


Danny NalliahIt was reported last week that an American priest had told a Canberra Church that swine flu was God’s punishment for sin. The report seems to have been a beat-up. The reporter’s ‘usually reliable source’ proved to be the usual tendentious and unchecked source.

But stories about preachers who attribute disaster to divine punishment for sin have been in the news lately. And they have a long history.

Danny Nalliah (pictured), of Catch the Fire Ministries, attributed the Victorian bushfires to God withdrawing protection after the passing of abortion laws. In Austria, Gerhard Wagner withdrew after being nominated Auxiliary Bishop of Linz. He had claimed in a newsletter that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for sexual permissiveness.

This line of preaching has drawn fire since Jesuit missionary Gabriel Malagrida was exiled from Portugal in the 18th century for preaching that the Lisbon earthquake was God’s punishment for sin. Voltaire famously ridiculed the argument.

For Christians the issue is complex. The idea that God might use natural disasters to punish people for general sinfulness or particular sins is repugnant. But at first glance the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, do seem to represent God as doing just that. This tension bears reflection.

On examination the Scriptures are more equivocal about attributing disasters to a punishing God than might appear. They certainly represent the popular view that God uses natural events as rewards and punishments for individuals and nations. But in their representation of God they also stand at an angle to this view.

In stories like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the great flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah, God threatens annihilation but relents and spares humanity. When it comes to bargaining, God is a soft touch.

The prophets display the same complexity. They attribute disasters like military defeat to sin and the abandonment of God. But this sin has to do with misrule that crushes and impoverishes ordinary people. The disasters suffered by the nation are not simply inflicted from without but result naturally from a corrupted polity. And within this bleak picture, God is still presented as wanting to restore the people to prosperity and happiness

Two Old Testament books, in particular, subvert the popular nexus between sin, God’s punishment and disaster. In the Book of Job, Job’s comforters press him to acknowledge that his sins caused his calamities. The reader knows that Job is correct in refusing this connection. In the book of Jonah, too, the grumpy prophet finishes up furious that yet again God has chickened out of delivering on threats of destruction.

The New Testament also subverts the popular account of a judicial God. Its central message is that God loves sinners, that in Jesus God joins and dies for sinners. This view certainly insists on the catastrophic character of human sin. But God’s response to it is anything but punitive. Jesus, too, refuses to blame the death of people in a building collapse either on their own sin or that of past generations.

The Scriptures then represent a prevailing view of a God who uses natural and military disasters to sanction bad behaviour. But they also undermine this view by describing God as concerned above all with relationships and as acting more as lover than judge. It is this image of God as lover that should control the way we speak of God’s response to sin and involvement in disasters.

By these criteria it is not only unreasonable but also doubtfully Christian to attribute disasters to sinfulness in general. It is even more questionable to attribute them to particular sins.

The principal difficulty arises from the consistent movement in Scripture to define God in terms of relationship and not in terms of abstract theories of retribution. A God whose abiding disposition is one of love, and whose consistent focus is on the individual person and on their good, could not consider disasters an appropriate recompense for evil doing. Disasters are impersonal and indiscriminate. They kill the innocent whom God loves.

This becomes clear if we imagine a God sending the plague on a nation whose parliament has legalised same sex unions. It would be impossible to believe this God had the personal and special love for the poor, sinners and excluded of the world, as does the God we know in Jesus Christ. For the plague would generally spare the wealthy legislators who were well-nourished, could buy medicines and lived in hygienic surroundings. It would target precisely the poor people for whom Jesus had a special concern and who had no say in the legislation.

Another difficulty in attributing disasters to God’s intention to punish sinners is that it assumes that you know the mind of God. The Old Testament prophets could claim this knowledge. But Christians have no warrant for making such a claim. Dreams and apparitions simply underline the point.

The more precise the knowledge claimed, the less credible becomes the claim. If a meteor struck the Sydney CBD, for example, how would you know whether it was to punish the practice of contraception, the pressure to legalise same sex marriages and abortions, galloping secularism, disregard of the environment, discrimination against asylum seekers, crass consumerism or the greed of banks?

The idea that we might know the mind of a God who sends disasters as punishment for particular sins is sub-Christian and sub-rational.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

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