The Divine BUT Changes the World!

Have you ever experienced the power of the word ‘BUT’? All looks dim and life is drifting towards an abyss that looks hopeless. There is no possible way out that you can see or imagine then someone steps in with ‘but’. The ‘but’ changes things and opens up new possibilities. ‘But’ is a powerful word – it is also an annoying word. Who hasn’t experienced a child who has a grasp of the annoying power of ‘but’ and intrudes into every conversation with ‘but, but, but’…

Today a colleague reminded a group of us of the power and significance of the word ‘but’ as it appears in our Gospel reading for this week. Luke’s version of the Easter story (Luke 24:1-12) begins with ‘But’. It doesn’t appear in many English translations but sits there like a beacon in the Greek – ‘BUT’. It is the great, Divine ‘BUT’. It is the ‘but’ that changes the world and transforms human life. It is the ‘but’ that speaks life into death, hope into despair and possibility into impossibility. It is the great Divine, intrusive, hopeful ‘BUT!’

Let us look at the context. Jesus is dead and the movement in crisis, dying and lost as its leader lies entombed behind stone. The disciples and followers of Jesus are grieving in a big way. Their friend, mentor, master, hope and God-inspiration is dead – against all expectations, Jesus is dead! Everything they believed and all the hope and expectation they had built up and placed upon Jesus’ shoulders was gone. It lay lifeless and hopeless in the tomb with the beaten body.

The powers of the world – the Roman Empire and Jewish religious system – that dominated their world at different levels worked together to destroy Jesus and his vision of God’s Reign on earth. In this One, they encountered and experienced God in the deepest possible manner but the powers of the world overcame him and killed him. What was left?

The last words of Luke 23, the story of Jesus’ death indicate he was laid in a tomb and the women went to prepare spices for his proper burial after the Sabbath. All that remained was the work of death and to go back to what was. The powers had won; they were victorious. The disciples should have realised Rome was too powerful, even for Jesus. Death’s finality finally embraced them in their despair and hopelessness.

In the midst of this despair, God screams out a Divine ‘BUT!’ That sorrowful story is not the last word! But on the first day of the week the women took spices to the tomb and found the stone rolled away and the grave empty! The Divine BUT intrudes on the work of death and pronouncements from men in the tomb claim that resurrection has brought new life, love has overwhelmed death and God Reigns in heaven and on earth – the eternal Kingdom of love and peace! When everything looks dead and buried, God’s BUT breaks into the world of hopelessness and loss promising something new and profound, something impossible!

Another group of us discussed what it means to live resurrection in our lives now. It soon became clear that we needed to understand what resurrection really meant for the disciples. What happened to them!? As we read the story, we focus on what happened to Jesus. The stories and commentary around Jesus’ resurrection are surprisingly diverse and mysterious – from visions and voices (Paul) to the presence of Jesus in their midst as they break bread (Emmaus journey – Luke 24), to mysterious appearances through locked doors and visual/physical encounters. Paul speaks of a spiritual body of resurrection versus the physical body of earthly life (1 Corinthians 15). Some responses are fearful and others filled with awe and others confused.

But, something happened to the followers of Jesus. What was the nature of the Divine BUT in their lives? Essentially the experience of resurrection said that the powers of the world that had crucified and killed Jesus did not have the final word. Death, destruction, hatred, violence, evil, power did not have the last word. Through the darkness and despair God’s love broke through declaring the love is all-conquering. Love cannot be destroyed: more specifically, God’s love for us cannot be overcome, destroyed or broken. As Paul says, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from God’s love! There are no powers or principalities that can separate us from God’s love, revealed in Jesus!

The disciples and followers of Jesus discovered, in resurrection experience, that God would not lie down and die under the weight of Rome’s might. The disciples and followers of Jesus discovered that nothing in Rome (or even Jerusalem) could overwhelm the love and grace that Jesus promised in God. God’s Reign could not be challenged by any power, anywhere!

The experience of the Divine BUT for the disciples was that everything Jesus had done and said was still valid and alive because God was still God and Jesus was alive in God (however we might understand that in the light of the stories!?). The fear of grief and death; the fear of the world’s powers; the fear of violence and the overwhelming struggle of life all around them no longer had power over them. They experienced freedom in God and God’s love.

So resurrection (the Divine BUT) and us… What does it mean to practice resurrection in our lives? For a start it means to live without the fear that continually threatens to overwhelm us. In God’s love there is no need to fear. If God is for us, who can be against us? Life, nor death nor powers nor principalities – nothing can separate us from God’ love!

To practice resurrection therefore means to live with courage and hope in the face of overwhelming powers. It isn’t reckless or naïve but stands against all that is wrong and unjust and counters violence and hatred in the love of God. The resurrection life is about relationships that broaden and deepen as we share life with each other. It doesn’t allow materialism, greed and power to intervene and distort love and create alienated lives. Resurrection living has no room for jealousy or petty conflicts but seeks to bring out the best in one another and work together for the common good of the world. Resurrection living is hopeful because it knows God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, is with us and will sustain and guide us. Resurrection life knows that God will not let us go but sends us into dark places to radiate light and love.

The Divine BUT changes everything!

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Standing Against the Powers…

I have just begun watching a video of Bill Moyers, a US journalist who has his own show called Moyers and Company. In this particular episode he interviews Chris Hedges, a former NY Times journalist and Bureau Chief who covered wars in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East. He resigned from the NY Times after receiving a reprimand for publicly denouncing the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Hedges wrote a book with graphic artist and journalist Joe Sacco. It is a confronting conversation as Chris Hedges takes us behind the façade of capitalism run amok in middle America. Giant companies write the rules and influence state legislation, despite coming in to devour the world of ordinary people to claim mega-profits. They leave communities uninhabitable akin to ghost towns where anyone living has no work and is threatened with disease as the immense pollution in land, sky and water poisons them. The ordinary people who inhabit these areas grow poorer as these companies rampage through mountains and forest turning them into a wasteland of hopelessness and despair. Hedges describes them as sacrifice zones.

This show was aired in the midst of last year’s US election campaign. The political leaders did battle over issues that were far removed from these ordinary people and their lives that were slipping away with big company profits. Whilst potential leaders fought each other and ducked and weaved against each other’s jabs, people were and are suffering.

I have only begun the video (which you can view by using this URL: http://vimeo.com/46079178) and it is confronting, challenging and illuminating.

The image of leaders squabbling over unimportant and inane issues whilst people are left to struggle and suffer is not lost on us this week. The shenanigans of our own parliament leave most of us weary, disinterested and frustrated. The lack of substantial leadership that provides a strong visionary response to the realities of everyday life in our world is sadly lacking on both sides of the political divide.

I have the sense that many people feel alienated from the political processes and let down by leaders who do not understand and who do not want to understand. For most of us life is not difficult, when compared to that which millions in our world experience as daily struggle and hard toil to simply live. Never-the-less, we feel a sense of confusion and helplessness at the state of the world. We are overwhelmed by situations we see in living colour daily on television news. We want things to be different but don’t know how it can be, who will do it and where we fit in. We feel so small before a huge system that just seems to roll along swamping us and all else in its path.

Where do the little ones of the earth find a voice? Where do the ordinary people of the world find the power to act and make a difference? Who or what will unite us to make a stand and change the world? Chris Hedges, in the video, makes the sobering point that ‘all the true correctives to American democracy came from movements that never achieved formal political power.’ In other words, true change and transformation doesn’t come from the ‘top down’ but from the ‘bottom up’. The source of transformation comes from ordinary people drawn together into movements that empower them to act and find a common voice for the common good!

This weekend marks the beginning of Holy Week in the Christian Church. It begins with that day referred to as ‘Palm Sunday’ and moves through the final week of Jesus’ life to his crucifixion on Good Friday and into the stories of the mystery of resurrection on Easter Day.

Palm Sunday draws its name from some versions of the story where people waved palm branches as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem. It’s a great story as this rabbi from the rural north comes to Jerusalem and rides in on a donkey, a symbol of peace. In churches children will wave palm branches and we will sing hosanna, which is a cry for salvation, for release and hope in God.

The Palm Sunday story (this year, Luke 19:28-40) is more than a nice story of praise for Jesus and an expression of hope as he enters the city. It is a political drama that subverts the Roman powers and calls people into a movement under God’s Reign. What is assumed in the gospels and therefore not articulated is that on the other side of the city Pontius Pilate, the Governor under Rome entered the city. He came in pomp and ceremony, riding on a war horse with a squadron or two of Roman soldiers. The power and might of Rome were on full display as they warned off troubled-makers in Jerusalem for the religious festival of Passover.

Against this backdrop of Roman power in the city for a festival that celebrated the liberation of the God’s people from slavery and oppression in Egypt, Jesus organised his own entry into Jerusalem. His was one that both sent up Rome and its power and offered an alternative in God. Jesus proclaimed a peaceful alternative that welcomed all people and was built around the hopes and dreams of ordinary and marginalised people. He set himself against the political and religious powers of the world and confronted them in the power of God – love!

The movement that grew around Jesus unified ordinary people in a hopeful campaign for justice and freedom. There were, amongst his followers, those who wanted and believed him to be a warrior king come to rule and fight off the Romans – they didn’t understand Jesus of the way of God! Others were caught up in a leader who seemed to hear and understand their plight and offered something real for them. They had a voice and rallied around him crying ‘Hosanna! Hosanna!’ (save us).

As the week unfolds we discover that Jesus was despised and feared by the religious leaders and ultimately condemned by Rome to die as a political prisoner, a would-be king who incited riots and uprisings. The powers of the world gathered to condemn and destroy him and he died on a cross, a sacrifice for the sake of God and God’s Reign.

Love lay dying and abandoned but God’s love overcomes death and all that is violent, abusive and evil. God’s love inspires us to stand against that which is wrong, to unite together and be a voice of transforming love and hope against the world’s despair and confusion. We need to hear and respond to this voice of love!

Who/What Do You Sing For?

I stumbled onto something in this last year, something that has been quite remarkable and about which I ponder and wonder. Back in August Josh and I decided to respond to a deal to become foundation members of a new football (soccer) club – it offered a cheap price for 13 home games to be played in Parramatta. The new franchise was hurriedly brought together and well behind the other nine who were already in training. In the lead up to this club forming they went into the communities of Western Sydney amongst football clubs and the wider community to ask questions about values and hopes for a new club. They had surveys about colours and name and these were voted on by prospective members. They invited a new coach to lead the team and he brought together a squad – they were all together by the start of the season. I was away for the first home game so Josh and Katelyn went and reported back on a great night.

I went to the second game, not knowing what to expect. There was red and black everywhere! Throughout the game there was singing and chanting – it was great fun! The team lost but it was great fun!

Gradually the excitement levels have increased. Each week the supporters group called the Red and Black Block add to their singing, chanting and general entertainment. They invite everyone else into the excitement with call and response cries: ‘Who do you sing for?’ ‘We sing for Wanderers (the team)!’ There are songs of deep commitment: ‘…We will follow you forever. Always will we be by your side…’  These members meet early and march through Parramatta to the ground. They stand for 2 hours singing, dancing and chanting – sometimes in the rain! They plan the next game, organise themselves and even plan interstate trips for away games – they set a record for the most away tickets purchased for a Melbourne game. They’re obsessive supporters who live for the game!

It is interesting to ponder what is going on. As I listen to the social commentary around the games and events it is bigger than football. It is about Western Sydney and the way it all too often finds itself the subject of condescension and judgement in the media. There is an expectation of trouble occurring in Western Sydney that would not occur elsewhere. It is the focus of social problems that are concentrated amidst the relative poverty and social need. The people of Western Sydney often feel judged or put down. This team is partly about pride in who we are as people from Western Sydney. The fact that is has been extraordinarily competitive despite the rushed beginnings has been marvellous and added effect.

There have been some truly wonderful truths expressed by the supporters of this team. They point to the multi-cultural nature of the supporters group. They represent every continent and people from many other countries. They represent cultures, creeds and customs that are diverse and often the cause of conflict elsewhere but here, work side by side. They stand up for each other and welcome each other as part of the ‘family’.

I also sense that there has been a yearning in the hearts of many of these people. It is a yearning for community, to belong to something bigger that unites and gives some purpose and meaning to their lives. It is something to give themselves to with passion and energy – and they do!

As I thought about this, I wondered what other people have to which to give themselves? I wondered what there is in the lives of many people to which they might give energy, passion and time? What is there that brings people together in community and unites them into something bigger with purpose?

A few years ago Jim Wallis the prophetic, evangelical church leader who speaks out on issues of justice in America released a new book. On his book tour of the US he said thousands of young people turned up and were passionately involved, asking questions and wanting help to be involved in creating a new world. He realised that young people really wanted something worth living and dying for and they simply didn’t find it in much of middle class western existence – including the church!

What are you willing to give your life to and what does that mean? Do you have something worth living and dying for? Most would probably say ‘family’, some their property and what they own but is there something bigger, communal? Is there something beyond yourself that you will give yourself to with passion, energy and determination day in, day out? If so, what is it and how does it play out in your life? As a church, what do we give ourselves to with absolute passion and conviction – not an idea or something of personal self-interest but an ideal that transforms the world? What do we believe in beyond our own spiritual well-being? Are we caught up in something that draws us in, carries us along, energises us and gets us out of bed each day? Is there something that unites people into a cause that is just and good and brings life and hope to the world?

We are currently in Lent and moving towards Easter. We remember Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem and imminent death on a cross. He walked deliberately and passionately proclaiming God’s transformative Reign amongst us. He gave his life for this program of God – something worth living and dying for!

One of the readings for this Sunday is from Philippians 3:4-14. In it Paul the Apostle speaks of how he was once a passionate and zealous Pharisee (Jewish religious leader) who persecuted Christians. He experienced and transformative moment and gave his whole being to following Jesus and bringing the hope and life of God to all people. Paul had amazing energy and passion. He endured all manner of struggles and suffering for the sake of spreading Jesus’ message and living his life. He ultimately died as a result of his faith and faithfulness. It was something worth living and dying for! He describes it as like a race where he is striving for the goal and won’t let it out of sight.

Paul has experienced something so profound, so deep and wonderful that he gives everything he is and has to live it out in his life. He is deeply gripped by God’s deep love and has to share this hope and joy with everyone.

I wonder: Who/what do you sing for? To what do you/will you give your life, you energy and passion?

Deep, Profound, Love Unending…

Some years ago I listened to the anguish of a father speaking about his daughter. The man had been a minister of a different denomination and now worked in various para-church roles. He was looked up to and considered effective in his pastoral and missional work for the church and beyond. Never-the-less, he had this deep pain in his being. His beloved daughter had been raped in her teens and it deeply and profoundly affected her emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. It is impossible for most of us to comprehend what she experienced or how it affected her life. Despite deep love, care and support from her family and various professional people, she didn’t recover and descended into drugs to cover and hide her deep inner pain. She engaged in all manner of abusive and self-destructive relationships and became involved in prostitution. I could not even begin to wonder about what this poor girl’s life was like. I cannot begin to comprehend what she experienced and how she lived with the complex range of emotions and psychological responses to such profound evil.

All the while, her parents, with deep grief and pain watched from the sidelines, offering her as much love and support as they possibly could. They felt absolutely powerless and helpless to make a real difference in this young adult woman’s life. As a pastor, this man felt the sad reality that he was able to walk with many others and even offer transformative help but could not do so for his own daughter. The countless prayers and various ministries of the church did nothing to change the deep and painful psychology of this woman.

As I listened to this man’s story I felt his complete helplessness, even despair. I also saw in him a person whose love for his girl was stronger and more deeply present than ever. His love for her was as intense as it felt powerless. No matter what she did or how low she descended his love never wavered – perhaps it grew stronger the more she needed it. All he could do was wait and be there, to jump in at any moment ready to pick her up again and get her through another major crisis. His deepest hope and dream was that one day she would ‘come home’ and find peace and joy in her life away from the self-destructive behaviour.

There was really nothing this girl could do, say or think that would dissolve or destroy her parent’s love for her!

I wondered about their other children and how the impact of their sister’s life affected them and their lives. I imagined that they felt a broad mixture of feelings and that their lives were, at times, intricately connected with their sister’s experiences and life. I wondered how they felt at times when their parent’s focus and attention would have been so deeply and profoundly focussed on their sister because she needed it. I wondered if they understood, felt neglected or a mixture of both. I wondered if they ever resented their sister for the attention and the force of emotion she provoked in her parents that was always more intense than that which they received. I wonder if they wished the whole situation away – not just because their sister experienced such deep and horrific evil but because it so adversely affected them, their lives and their experience of family? I don’t know and it wasn’t appropriate for me to ask such questions.

These memories and ponderings come on the back of reading this week’s Gospel story, the very well-known story often called the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32). It is an unbelievable story of a son who gains access to his inheritance up-front and wastes it in reckless living. That is the provocative means through which the boy’s life descends into chaos. In this story it is his own choice with profound implications. Does it really matter whether it was his choice or not? The point is the boy was lost, ‘dead’ and completely dysfunctional in his decisions and lost in his life. How one gets to this place is not the point. In Jesus’ version the fact of the boy’s own choice only intensifies the issues for the father in the story.

The father never stops loving the son. As he perhaps hears rumours or wonders at the state of his son and what he is up to, his love only intensifies. He cannot stop loving his son! Each day he wanders out to the road and looks down hoping for a vision that will bring joy and peace to his broken heart. His love for the lost son only grows as the distance and time and possibility grows longer and deeper.

The boy presumably descends through the adrenaline rush and testosterone-driven  possibilities for a young man with money. Perhaps friends aplenty, women, wine and song…? Parties, drunken orgies… who knows? The result is always the same – a life that becomes the reality of the drunken hangover. No money, no friends, no hope and only despair and desperation. Isn’t this the story of many in our society? Do we despise them because they are homeless, wasteful, dirty and disgusting, inhuman…? Do we look down upon them and believe it is their own fault and therefore their problem to fix? Do we despise the fact that many in our society receive help when they clearly waste that money on drugs and alcohol, gambling…?  Do we reject the support that so many people who seem so hopeless receive, even though it doesn’t seem to make a difference? I wonder what people mean when they complain about ‘those who’ receive support (handouts) – would they change places with people in that group – homeless, single mums, refugees, aboriginals, unemployed?

We have entered the territory of the older brother in Jesus’ story, the one who has never known the horrors of the underside of his brother’s experience. He may not have experienced the supposed ecstasy that may seem exciting until one realises that it was a momentary wonder with a dark downside that was destructive and oppressive. This brother has lived in comfort and love each day. He has had his work, a comfortable home, security, a loving father, food… Everything the father has is his but still he complains when the father is so relieved, so overwhelmed with love and joy, when his son comes home. Do we, who have so much, complain when others whose lives are wretched receive support and care, even if they waste it?

The fathers in the stories are remarkable in their deep and profound love for their children. There is nothing, it would seem, they wouldn’t do to give their children real life, hope, joy and peace. So it is with God and you and I!

Strangers in a New Land…

I’m sitting here contemplating ancient words from Isaiah over 2,500 years ago to people who are exiled in a foreign land. Their situation is one of being conquered and taken into exile to a strange place with different customs and culture, language and religion. Everything was different and there are indications of depression, hopelessness and despair. As

the decades passed by, Babylon became their home. With the overthrow of the Babylonian regime by the Persians there is a renewed hope of freedom. They are on the verge of returning to their ancestral home – one this generation had never seen or known.

I can only wonder what it is like to be a people dispossessed of home, family, culture and context. If I am attentive to the world around there is an abundance of examples all around me. On ABC radio this morning there are stories of asylum seekers. Some condemn Scott Morrison’s puerile response about identifying to neighbourhoods where asylum seekers might live ‘to protect Australians from these people.’ Others tell stories of fear and anger at people they identify as illegal immigrants or asylum seekers who have acted anti-socially.

In my involvement with the Sydney Alliance Parramatta District in particular, I hear stories from those who are working with people who are refugees from other nations, people seeking freedom, a new life and somewhere safe to live. I hear from those who support these people and the horrendous experiences they have to deal with. There is fear, an inability to communicate easily in a strange land without friends and family. They speak of the desperation of such people and the despair – but also the hope and gratitude.

I also hear from those who are trade union officials who are trying to stand up for and support migrant people who are abused and used by inscrutable employers who take advantage of them. They work long hours in poor conditions for little money but feel there is no choice.

I wonder what it is like to travel across the seas to a new land, not by shear choice but through fear and desperation? Our congregation has become involved with the Tamil Uniting Church and their support of Tamil asylum seekers in our local community. These are people released on bridging visas but who aren’t allowed to work, despite being desperate to do so. Our connections are new but we are hearing stories that are moving and hard. I cannot comprehend the lives of these people. Here are a couple of people’s stories:

 

Stories Of The New Arrivals

Sri Lanka, once the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’, after the British left became a ‘Tear Drop’, then, beginning in the 1960s, ended up becoming a ‘Blood drop’. The political aspirations of the Sinhala majority led to discrimination of the minority Tamils and Tamil speaking people. There were violent attacks and pogroms towards innocent civilians instigated by the state itself. The freedom fight since 1980s staged by Liberation Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) eventually became a civil war with a de facto Government in the north east of the country. The victims of violence fled the country at different stages and in the late 1990s asylum seekers started to escape the terror and death by boat.

 

Jegan was living with his family in the northwest of the country at a place called Vanni, under the LTTE control. In the late 1990s he was studying HSC. Sporadic attacks by  government forces killed many of his family members, friends and villagers. Eventually, when the final attack took place, 300,000 people had to flee the war zone and were taken by the government forces into internment camps where the young girls and boys were raped, tortured, detained and killed. Jegan was interrogated to find out whether he had anything to do with the Tigers and was tortured. His relatives bribed the authorities, took him out and quickly organised a path to flee the country. Australia became the target as we have signed the UN 1951 Refugee Convention.

 

Nages lived in Udappu where most of the people were fisherfolk. After the war began, it was difficult to go to sea because of the harassment by the Sri Lankan Naval Force. He was taken in for questioning several times along with others.  The Armed Forces suspected him of assisting and supporting the LTTE and started following him wherever he went. When they arrested him, they wanted him to sign a blank piece of paper to say he was a Tiger, which he refused.  He was beaten and tortured. His uncle, who was influential in the area, heard about it. He bribed the authorities, got him out and sent him out of the country with the help of ‘agents.’

Sathy was born in a country area in the Sri Lankan east. In 2002 when he was 18 years old, there was a split in the LTTE movement. The leader in the east fell out with the LTTE head and there was unprecedented violence and killing among themselves.  The leader in the east, Karuna, who eventually became a minister in the cabinet, was used by the armed forces to trace the Tiger supporters in the east. Those who were suspected as supporters of the LTTE leader Prabaharan, suffered at the hands of the armed forces and the dissenters – arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and killing. Impunity reigned everywhere.  Sathy fled with his family to Malaysia in 2008 but could not survive with police arrests, bribery and detention even with the UNHCR approval card. This forced the family to jump on a boat.

 

As I listened to people responding on radio, there were some sympathetic and others hostile. People have had their own experiences of refugee groups – some positive and others negative. It is easy to see, from these 3 stories, that these people are wounded and hurting, lonely and afraid. Many have been treated like criminals in their own country and then again when they seek to flee to safety. How do we respond to such human need and desperation? How do we understand what the real situation for these people is, if all we hear is political-speak or ignorant assertions and opinion?

What does God invite and challenge us to be and do in response to real and deep human need? What does it mean to live out love towards our neighbour when our neighbour is different, desperate and lost in a foreign land?