An Upside Down Agenda!

I was dreaming the other day. President Obama was taking the oath of office and I heard some of what he set for his second term agenda. It’s a tough one because he can only do so much. This being an election year for Australia I dreamed of we might hear from Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, presuming they both make the distance. Follow me on this one…

I imagined turning on the evening news and hearing a future Prime Minister set their agenda. Against the backdrop of economic prosperity and growth, lower taxes, climbing the social ladder of success, sharing the affluence and so on, I heard them say that they were going to stand alongside the poorest and most marginalised people in our nation. That single parents struggling to hold together a household – paying rent, buying food, paying for education, electricity, water telephone bills… – without support from their ex-partner would be supported economically and socially. That those who work long hours for basic wages that barely hold the household and family together, will receive more. That people deprived education and the opportunity to reach their potential because of family dysfunction and social deprivation will receive opportunities – if they want them.

The economic system that favours the wealthy and those in particular sectors of the workforce needs to be redressed. We need a just system whereby those who work hard will be fairly remunerated and looked after. Where there is obscenity in remuneration, it needs to stop so that all can share in prosperity of our nation. We will also do our part in sharing resources with the world’s most desperate people, providing resources that help meet and extend our obligations to the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN and signed off by Australia.

I heard an impassioned plea for compassion and openness towards people who live with disabilities and their families who sacrifice much to care for them. There was a commitment to provide real resources to these families torn by the stress of long hours and much energy given to caring for their children and siblings and who receive little respite from their toil of love. There was a commitment to provide resources for families caught up in the confusion and grief of discovering their child was different in some. The endless rounds of medical testing and uncertainty is very difficult and stressful. Often the costs to care for, educate and support these children runs high and parents are caught between giving the child the time they need and finding work to pay the bills!

I heard a call for the community to embrace with tolerance and understanding those who live with mental illness and whose world is often very different from that of most of us. There is tremendous creativity amongst those who see and experience the world differently and they have much to teach us – if we will listen and learn. They have particular needs as people, to be able to live fully within the community in safety and security.

There was a call for us to be welcoming of the stranger in our midst, especially those who are traumatised, confused, angry and fearful because they are seeking refuge from their lands where there is insecurity, warfare, danger… We will welcome people who are refugees and help them settle into a new life, sharing our wealth and prosperity. We will deal with the boats – that is another issue – but make it easier for genuine refugees to find the help, support and compassion they desperately need.

We will work to release those who are captive, people who are caught up in various forms of bondage that debilitate and imprison them. So many people live lives of addiction. Drug addiction and gambling are sources of very significant social stress and dysfunction that do great harm to individuals, families and the broader community. These are illnesses with serious social consequences, often leading to criminal actions. Crimes and acts of violence towards people and property must dealt with through the legal system – there are consequences. Simultaneously we must work to help people become free from the burdens of oppression to addiction, poverty, social exclusion, violence, racism…

In my dream, the speech went on and I sat transfixed, disbelieving. When reality returned I knew that no such speech would ever be uttered because it would be instant political death. A person in power who tried to implement any such agenda would cause revolution and be thrown out of office so quickly.

Ah, a dream! If only…

Then I turned to the Gospel reading for this week – Luke 4:14-21. Jesus’ read from a scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed and chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom, release and pardon to the captives  and a message that will open the eyes of those who can’t see,  to let the oppressed, the used and abused, the burdened and battered go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour – that this is God’s year to act!

This is Luke’s version of Jesus’ inaugural address. This is his mission statement, his agenda for action, his priority in a God-given mission to the world! It speaks of release from various forms of bondage and oppression – economic (poor), physical (lame and crippled), political (condemned), and demonic. In Jesus’ ministry, the forgiveness of sin can therefore be seen as a form of release from bondage to iniquity and its implications – social, economic, spiritual and political.

Recovery of sight is linked to the prophetic vision of the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Jesus is symbolically speaking of himself as a light to the nations – opening eyes that cannot or will not see and setting in motion the agenda of God’s reign amongst people. This is an alternative vision and platform to that of our political and economic systems that benefit some and oppress others.

It is a radical statement that would cause revolution if it was allowed to be enacted – perhaps that’s why they had to kill Jesus??!

I wonder what might happen if someone, today, launched such a platform? Martin Luther King jr, Ghandi, Madella/FW deKlerk…?

I have a dream…

Joyful Celebration!

The season we have just negotiated, that of Christmas/New Year, is in many Australian minds one associated with partying. An endless array of possibilities to eat, drink and be merry offer themselves. There is much fun, frivolity and merriment, even if much is not remembered. For many the opportunity to party and let go of life’s realities for a while is grasped wholeheartedly. As I write thousands of young people are preparing to gather and joyfully dance this very hot day away to a selection of bands at the Big Day Out. For 12 hours or so they will sing, clap, dance. Bounce and celebrate to loud music in the company of thousands of others.

This year Josh and I signed on as foundation members of the Western Sydney Wanderers and have attended their games at Parramatta Stadium. It has been fascinating to experience the development of the Red and Black Block – the fanatical supporter groups of this football team. They sing and shout constantly throughout the game. They have choreographed moves and engage both the eastern and western grandstands with songs, chants and arm waving.

I recently watched some video of them journeying to the Sydney Football Stadium for the cross-city rival clash with Sydney FC. They gathered at Parramatta Station. They sang and danced their way onto the platform and then the train. They marched, sang and danced their way to the stadium. They took up their position  and went about out-singing, out-shouting and dancing the opposition supporters. Win, lose or draw, the Red and Black Block are there singing, chanting and dancing – enjoying the football and exuding passion for their team.

Celebration and joy are vital elements of our humanity. We need to feel and express joy; we need to celebrate. Sometimes it is very easy to become bogged down in the realities of life – the stresses, the pains the struggles, of ourselves and others. Sometimes there is a sense of guilt as we realise that others are suffering: ‘How can we celebrate whilst others are suffering?’

I read a story this week of a minister who received a phone call at a wedding reception from a member of their congregation telling them that a friend and member had died. The person was known to many of those at the wedding. He wrestled with whether he should pass on the news or keep silent. What would it do to the celebration? Was it the right or wrong thing? Finally, heeding to his wife’s advice, he chose to remain silent. There would be time for grieving tomorrow; now was the time for celebration for this couple and their family.

In the midst of the celebrating and expressions of joy all around me I sometimes wonder: Is it deep, arising from the deep places in one’s being? Or, is it shallow celebration – more of a hopeful, wishful searching for something truly joyous? Was Christmas filled with joy that touched us deeply within of a fun tie that faded all too quickly? Were the New Year’s Eve celebrations a bit of fun that lasted a few hours or something that was a response to a year lived and another hoped for?

Where does our joy come from? What is it based in? How is it given expression and what does it hope for? I love the Red and Black Block. They have made the Western Sydney Wanderer games entertaining, fun and passionate. I join in and follow the game on web sites but after all has faded, it is still a football game. Teams I have supported in the past have won and lost – some won championships. It has been a great moment but not really life-changing. Is our joy ultimately built in something that is life-changing? Is our celebration attached to that which moves us deeply, changes our perspective and is truly life-giving and gracious?

In our Gospel reading this week from John 2:1-11, we read of an occasion to celebrate – a wedding. Jesus, his mother and disciples seem to have been invited guests. When they ran out of wine the host was in danger of deep embarrassment and shame. This was a significant symbolic moment for the couple – their wedding banquet ran out of celebratory wine. What did that suggest for their future? It was a very bad start and a deeply shameful social taboo.

Jesus’ mother took him aside suggested he do something. In a story that conjures many responses Jesus is said to have turned water (in jars used to purify people according to Jewish requirements) into wine. A surprising miracle – or sign, as the gospel writer suggests. The host tastes the wine and is amazed – it is the finest quality.

This story is filled with various symbols that point to God’s lavish, over-abundant generosity! The jars they filled were actually jars for the water of purification and these contained around 900 litres between them. The Jewish traditions indicated that one glass of water was enough to purify 100 people for worship. Therefore, this picture of 6 large jars holding 900 litres symbolically holds enough water to cleanse the whole world! No longer, however, will people be purified by water but the wine is symbolic of the Eucharist – Jesus’ dying for God’s promised salvation and peace of the world. Put another way, this is about God’s promised salvation for the whole world. The new wine is a symbol of God’s new age arriving, the age of shalom. The sign of good wine stands alongside the feeding of the 5000 in John’s Gospel. Both point to God’s embracing all people and feeding us – body, mind and spirit. The wonder of the steward when he tries the new wine also symbolises God’s abundant grace that gives us the very best. God’s love is abundantly present to all of us and reaches out to the world with lavish, generous grace.

This story is situated in the midst of the ordinary events of human life. It is a celebration where Jesus blesses the gathering, the event, and offers the intimate presence of God. Do we experience blessing in the simple but profound moments of our lives? Do we experience the profound wonder of God’s lavish generosity in the midst of human life? Do we recognise that God’s abundant love and grace are ever-present? We don’t need to hoard and accumulate, because grace is readily available – to everyone!

We are encouraged to respond generously and graciously – to give as we have received! This is joyful celebration that is deep and enduring. It is gracious and inclusive. It is for the whole world and sustains us in joy or despair!

Bushfire of the Soul??!

For the past week the annual images of bushfires have filled TV screens and media announcements. Each year the heat waves roll in on northerly winds and swirl up fires – some spontaneously lit and others deliberately lit. The devastation of these firestorms is incomprehensible. I remember reading a story that described the great wall of fire many metres high roaring through bush. It had such intense heat that trees exploded and all in its path was consumed.

I cannot comprehend what the experience of living through bushfires would be like. I cannot comprehend the horror, the powerlessness and the devastation of bushfires. Nor can I comprehend the experience of losing everything as the fire roars through your life reducing all your material belongings to ash. It is sobering as we watch the images and hears the stories. We cannot comprehend the extent of pain, loss or hopelessness many people experience.

It was against these images of walls of fire roaring through Australian countryside devastating all in the path, that I read this week’s gospel. It is Luke’s version of the Baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:15-22). In this brief story we encounter this strange prophet who drifts into the story of Jesus breathing fire and judgement upon people’s lives. John is no meek, shy or gentle preacher. He’s the real deal in fire-breathing prophets who hold nothing back. His words are aimed at anyone and everyone who will listen. In the earlier verses he calls for repentance, a turning from ways of injustice back to God and offers baptism as a sign of this repentance, of turning life around and orienting one’s self towards God.

There seems to have been some following for John and perhaps people were drawn to him as the possible saviour and deliverer of Israel – he certainly spoke the right language. He didn’t hold back on anyone and ultimately lost his head (literally) because he took to King Herod (Son of Herod the Great and local ruler of Judea), rebuking him for taking his brother’s wife. John quickly quashes that theory saying that he is baptising with water and calls for repentance from sin.

Most surprisingly for me, however, is how John describes the ‘Coming One’ – Jesus. He is one who will baptise with the Spirit and with fire. He has a winnowing fork in his hand and will gather the chaff and burn it with unquenchable fire. As one contemporary translator put it:

“He’ll baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He’s ready to start with his flame thrower in hand. He’ll release an uncontrollable fire into the dry bushland of your lives, completely incinerating the rubbish and germinating the good seeds that lie in wait for that day.” © 2001 Nathan Nettleton

At first glance it is a disturbing image against the backdrop of unfolding tragedy of bushfire. It is more disturbing to hear that the source potential suffering and fire will be the One who promises life! The threshing floor; the winnowing fork separating grain from chaff; the unquenchable fire that destroys! Luke announces this as part of John’s Good News to the people!

Sometimes it is hard to see the good in the midst of pain and struggle. It is difficult to believe that good exist when all around seems struggle and hardship. In the aftermath of bushfire the devastation of bushland leaves a charred desolate landscape. I have looked out at such scenes and lamented the loss of so much only to be amazed when just a few months later the landscape is alive with new growth.

When we were involved in bush regeneration in the local bushland a few years ago, fire was used to burn weeds and rubbish. It also unleashed the potential of seeds embedded in the soil. These seeds had tough, waxy exteriors and the fire melted it off allowing moisture to begin the process of germination and new life.

In the story the Good News that John announces is that all people have the potential of new beginnings, new life. The chaff that is burned is not people but the rubbish, the baggage, the excess within each of us that holds us back and stops us being who we can truly be. The separation purifies that within each person that is truly good, loving, just and gracious from that within us that is not. It is a cleansing, liberation and the promise of new life in God. That is what Jesus will proclaim and live out; that is what he will bring.

The one we experience in Jesus is conspicuously different from images of judgement and destruction we encounter in John’s words. He submits to John’s baptism. He enters the waters and is raised into the Divine embrace of belovedness. He is of God and God’s love surrounds him in his mission to bring new life and hope to the world.

It is a simple story but one filled with radical hope in a world that yearned for God’s salvation and liberation. The hopes of the common people increasingly turned to God to liberate them from the oppression and struggle they felt under Rome and Jerusalem. John’s powerful preaching raised some hopes but it was Jesus to whom Luke points in this story. The one who comes is not a warrior leader, a king or powerful figure who will defeat Rome and rule in justice and righteousness. He comes to sift through human hearts and liberate us from ourselves and our captivity to culture and expectation, to the status quo. Ultimately the mission of Jesus confronts economic and political systems that are unjust and uncaring. Where greed and the lust for power motivate and consume people, Jesus confronts them with a new possibility for themselves and the world around them – the fire that liberates and generates new life.

The bushfires of NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, WA and elsewhere are horrific – even moreso where they are deliberately lit and involve loss of life. The pain and tragedy cannot be underestimated and it is perhaps in the midst of this unfolding crisis we glimpse another reality. Perhaps as we ponder the fleeting and fragile nature of our lives, we may be challenged to consider something deeper and more sustaining in life. Perhaps, like those who came to John in hope as they were confronted with the reality and vulnerability of life, we can have our gaze redirected to God who is love. Perhaps we might be moved to experience a bushfire of the soul that renews our vision, our hope and redirects our life in God’s love.