Loving the Least – God in our Midst!

There are many people who are invisible in our society and world.  For some, disability or illness, physical or mental, means they are restricted from forays into the public spaces.  Some simply cannot manage to get there or move around easily in shopping malls, busy main streets or other public spaces where they might be seen.  Others avoid contact with other people out of anxiety, fear or an inability to engage or communicate.  There are many reasons why some people remain invisible.

There are also people who are always before us but seem invisible to most people.  The homeless guy wandering along a street may be seen but not really noticed.  The lonely, insecure young person who appears a little different can go by relatively unnoticed in school, neglected and left alone.  The poor are often invisible because their resources are limited and we may not even realise their poverty.  They can’t engage in regular activities that others take for granted and therefore don’t participate.

There are invisible people everywhere and of course they are not seen.  As I read the stories of Jesus I become aware of some people who are invisible.  It is interesting that as I read of his interactions with various people they come to life much like a photograph taken on film being developed.  It gradually appears and so do these invisible people in the stories of Jesus.  There’s a woman of little consequence who was caught in adultery (the man doesn’t seem to have been caught???) and they want to stone her.  Jesus sees her and opens to her and offers her life.  There is a Samaritan woman by a well, a somewhat outcast woman of a different faith who was an enemy.  Jesus saw her, stopped and crossed the taboos and spoke to her.  Her gave her life.  There were lepers and outcasts and poor and marginalised and little ones and neglected ones and disposable ones.  Jesus seems to have seen the invisible and brought them into light by loving them.  It is as if these people develop into 3D, real people through their encounters with him and the stories turn them into real, loved people.

There’s a story about a hyperactive, evangelical, sociologist preacher called Tony Campolo.  He finds himself in all manner of interesting and strange situations.  One was when he was walking down the main street of the city where he lives.  Up ahead was a homeless man, a derelict who was grubby in tattered clothes and wih food caked into his long straggly beard.  Tony noticed him but in a way that sees but doesn’t see.  He saw his grubbiness and was really about to recalibrate his direction to veer away for the man when something happened.  The man looked u from his coffee and their eyes met.  That is the point of connection when the invisible begin to take form as real people.  Tony was not able to shift his gaze and the homeless man locked onto him.  He changed his trajectory to intercept Tony and there was nothing to be done but stop and engage the man.  The truth is that Tony could have been very rude and ignored the man but he simply couldn’t avoid the reality that this invisible person was becoming a real live human before him.  When they stopped the homeless guy reached out his hand with his coffee cup and offered Tony some of his coffee.  The last thing Tony wanted was to drink from the already grubby cup with who-knows-what mixed into the coffee but he took a small sip and made a big deal of it.  He thanked the man for his generosity and asked why he was giving his coffee away.  ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘When God gives you something good I think you should share it. The coffee today is especially good!’

Tony felt he was being set up for a sting and so asked if there was anything he could do in return.  Expecting to hear that the man could do with a few dollars, he was surprised to be asked for a hug (he really would have preferred the few dollars!).  So he carefully and gently embraced the man, keeping him a little separated.  As he was about to let go, the man grabbed him in a full bear hug and drew him close then placed his head on Tony’s shoulder.  There he stood for what seemed an eternity.  Tony Campolo grew increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed as people walked past and looked at this strange sight – a man in a suit being hugged by a grimy, filthy streetperson.

As his embarrassment grew into panic á voice suddenly reverberated through 2000 years and into his head.  It said. ‘When I was hungry you gave me food.  When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink.  When I was sick or imprisoned you visited me.  When I was naked you clothed me.  When I was a homeless derelict on the main street of town you gave me a hug!’  These words, without the last line, come from Jesus and the story in Matthew 25:31-46.  He is talking to crowds and the story makes the point that when we act out love towards the least of those around us, it is as if we are doing for Jesus or to God.  These acts of simple love and care are what true faith is about.  True faith in the way of Jesus is to make visible the invisible through love.  It is to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, visit imprisoned and sick, clothe the naked…  This is the way of God’s Reign.  This is the way of Jesus, a way of life that gives life to the world through love, hope, grace, justice, inclusive community and peace.

Tony Campolo heard these words in his ears and recognised that this invisible, derelict man had given him a gift of connection.  He suddenly realised that the man was a human being, loved by God and in his face he would see reflected the face of Christ.  He was not hugging a filthy, derelict man but one in whom was the presence of God, one created in God’s image and one of the ‘least of these brothers and sisters of mine on earth.’

All around us are invisible people or people made invisible by our society’s leaders.  The asylum seekers who are locked away are made invisible.  The poor are squeezed into regions of the cities of the world where the desperate go and everyone else ignores – they are invisible.  When cities host the Olympics, for example, they remove anyone who might embarrass the city before the world – they are made more invisible.  The indigenous people of the world are pushed out of mainstream life, out of the way, and made invisible – perhaps then we won’t have to deal with their difficult questions and problems.  The elderly are hidden away, as are those who live with mental illness, disabilities or serious health problems.  The lonely, afraid, eccentric, genius and prophetic (who aren’t understood) and many others are pushed aside or made invisible until love shines across their path and radiates through them to bring them into life and hope, peace and joy.

When we open our eyes (or have them opened!) to see the invisible, the ‘least ones’, and reach out in love, they will find life – and so will we!  We will find the Christ in our midst and these are always sacred and holy moments.  The least may also be among the creatures of the earth and the earth itself, often despised and abused.

When you love the least of these, you love the Christ, God in our midst!

By geoffstevenson

Jesus’ Stories Turn Everything Upside Down – and Give Life!

On one of my relatively infrequent forays onto facebook I discovered an article by ABC Radio host, Richard Glover.  Richard is not religious and makes no claim to be so but this article was a defence of Christians.  He wonders, aloud, why there is such hostile derision and attack against people of belief.  He meets it whenever he has a religious person on his show – there are calls and texts and emails ridiculing the person and howling against Richard for having ‘religious nutters’ on the show (sadly sometimes the people he talks to are a little strange and present with very odd views on faith and life).  He says, “Yet on many of the things many Christians care about, they have lost the debate. They’ve lost the debate on Sunday trading, they’ve lost the debate on abortion and – here’s another thing many care deeply about – they’ve lost the debate on asylum seekers. (They believe, don’t you know, that refugees should be treated as human beings.)

Marketplace economics is now the God of our time, and its priests are Microsoft, Apple and Google. There’s more religious iconography around during Halloween than is now permitted at Christmas.

Given that situation, it mystifies me why some people get so tense about those who still believe in the Bible. Surely – for we non-believers – our very lack of belief should allow us to relax when hearing the Christian message. What’s it to us? We could even find ourselves compelled by the occasional idea,…”

I agree with his assertion that the modern high priests belong to the marketing and corporate world.  The powers that control us are not religious, nor even party political.  They are media moguls (Rupert Murdoch for instance), media personalities who say things that we unquestioningly believe because they sound so sure, and the advertisers who convince us of our need and then sell us answer to our problem before going on the create our next dilemma and feeling of need…

I remember US New Testament commentator Ched Myers saying that Wall Street, Hollywood, Disney, Madison Ave… have taken on the role of creating and telling stories.  They are framing the way we look at life and tell our stories and they are defining the stories we tell and believe.  When we lose our story we have nothing left, which is why the Aboriginal people of this land are struggling so hard to hang onto their stories and rediscover those lost stories.  Without their stories they lose their soul, their essential understanding of who they are, the memory of their people and their life.  Richard Glover ends his article by saying, “As a non-religious person, can I whisper a few things that I believe to be true?  Many millions of people much smarter than me – and maybe even smarter than you – have believed in God.  To deride someone else’s spiritual beliefs is, at its simplest, a lack of manners. Have some respect.

The big questions of meaning and existence have not been settled so definitively that we can deride the answers achieved by others.  And the stories that human beings have told themselves again and again – stories from the Bible, from Homer’s Odyssey, from the Aboriginal Dreamtime – are a trapdoor through which today’s human beings can connect with the collective wisdom of the humans who went before.”

Our stories help us to remember who we are and what is good, right and the way for us to journey through this life we are given.  There are many competing stories that challenge us and disrupt our engagement with the story at the centre of our lives.  We are continually caught in the place of uncertainty and doubt, confusion over what might be the best, most powerful or effective story – the world of media has powerful tools to form our minds and push us towards an end that is self-serving of those with vested interests, wealth and power.  The story we read in Jesus and the traditions of faith disturb our complacency and uncertainty and invite us into a way of love, justice and relationship with people and the earth.

The story from Matthew’s Gospel this week (Matthew 25:14-30) tells of a wealthy man who goes away but leaves his wealth in the hands of 3 slaves/servants who are expected to look after his interests.  They are each given responsibility according to their ‘power’, their ability and capacity.  The first 2 who received larger amounts went off and doubled the amount given them.  They engaged in the business of allowing the power of money to be released and flow.  They move with it and it moves with them.  At the end they grow the capital and the Master is pleased because he reaps where he doesn’t sow and gathers where he didn’t scatter seed.

The third man is fearful and uncertain.  He knows the stories of his master and fears he will lose the little he has responsibility for so he hides it and protects it.  When the Master returns the money has done nothing.  It’s innate power and potential has not born fruit because it has sat in the ground (or wherever he hid it).  The Master is angry and casts him out.  This is a strange story!

In many ways the Master does not represent God and the talk of money working and growing and of rewards given to those who participate in cut and thrust of the market economy, of business-as-usual in the world is anathema to the person of Jesus and his message elsewhere.  Perhaps if we can separate our notions of money, capitalism (which was not the economic principle of Jesus’ day) and prosperity, we may be able to hear something else hiding in the story.  Perhaps money is a symbol, like oil in the story before it, of something else.  Perhaps money is a symbol of something with usefulness and power when used – maybe God’s Spirit at work in us?  The concept of having money hidden away ‘in case’ means money will not be working or used in any effective manner.

The 3rd man reveals his fears and anxieties by hiding the money away.  The essence of the Master and his realm of power and influence is halted at this point and the ‘spirit’ of the Master is lost as this man becomes a barrier to possibility.  The 1st 2 servants go with the flow.  They try what they can and participate in the Master’s realm and way.  The money does it thing and grows in places where perhaps it hasn’t been before.  This sounds a little like God’s Reign or the Spirit of God who pushes into places where Good News has not been before.  The Spirit of God moves through people as we open ourselves to the possibilities of God.

I wonder how these stories that Matthew has been telling us this last year have formed our minds and hearts.  I wonder how these stories counter the conventions of our world and disrupt our thinking and action.  If we wrestle with these stories and allow them to grow in our minds and hearts they will form us, change us and impel us into new ways of being for the sake of God’s Reign of love and justice.

By geoffstevenson

The In-Breaking Moment That Changes Everything!

What experiences have you had where life breaks into the routine, normal progression of time?  Everything is rolling along pretty much as expected and time moves forward in its ordinary manner, you are focussed on the normal routines and events of life when all of a sudden something stops you, stops time and everything breaks open in a good or disturbing way.  There are the moments when business as usual breaks open with unexpected occurrence and discombobulates us.

I remember a day when I was about 9.  My mother and brothers were preparing to walk to some local shops to get something from the newsagency for someone’s school project or something like that.  Just before we left, our neighbour rushed in and told mum there was an urgent phone call for her.  These were the dark ages when not every home had a phone.  Our neighbours were the contact point for emergency phone calls.  Mum rushed in and she was gone  for a little while.  I wandered over to see what was happening.  Mum was talking with our neighbours and shew as upset.  I was concerned and walked closer.  She saw me and said: ‘Pa has died.’ Pa was her stepfather and the only grandfather I had left.  He and Nan came over every Friday and were a big part of our lives.  I was stunned and numb.  I can’t remember what I did except I must have walked back home.  I couldn’t tell my brothers.  I couldn’t speak the words.  Soon after mum came in and told them.  It was then that my own tears flowed.  I can’t remember how my brothers reacted – they were younger and perhaps a little more removed than I.

Time stopped in that moment. We still walked to the shops because we still had to get whatever it was we needed but I didn’t care.  I wasn’t there.  I was in another place.  I remember, many years later at a retreat when I was at theological college.  The leader gave us some things to read and listen beforehand.  They were thoughts from a Christian Educator and writer called Frederick Buechner.  He told the tragic story of waking up one morning and looking out his upstairs bedroom window.  He was shocked to see an ambulance and police car in front of his house.  He tentatively walked out of his room.  All was quiet.  As he walked down the stairs he heard soft voices.  He discovered that his father had killed himself in the garage through the night.  For the young Frederick time stopped.  Everything normal and usual stopped and the routine, business as usual moments of his naïve childhood days ceased to exist.  In another sense, time began as he understood that life was finite and pain, struggle, tragedy were all part of life.  There were things that happened that could not be taken back, changed, fixed.  There were moments that broke in and disturbed the quiet, gentle passage of time and nothing would ever be the same again.  This idea made sense – the moment that ‘time began’ or the moment I saw life as it was not from the more naïve, bliss-filled childhood perspective.  It was the moment that chronological time stopped and a Kairos moment broke in.

Kairos means the right, correct or opportune time, the special moment unrelated to the chronological passage of routine, business as usual time.  Kairos is the special moment that awakens us to something else.  It is the break-in moment when ordinary time breaks open and we see something different, new.  It is a transformative moment in that it leaves us changed in some small or significant way.  It is perhaps the moment of a tragic event, such as the death of my grandfather, or the tragic death of two boys the other day when a car ran into their classroom.  We are left grieving and confused, angry or lost.  We are overwhelmed with the enormity of the event and the changes it ushers into our lives.  Sometimes the Kairos moment is breathtakingly wonderful.  The births of our children were events that changed me forever.  The experience of these miraculous, wondrous moments were quite amazing and broke into the ordinary moments of life in a profound way.  The experience of profound wonder or joy or meaning can change us.  They become Kairos moments that disturb ordinary time and life.  We often associate Kairos moments with the in-breaking awareness of God’s presence.  This isn’t to say that God orchestrates tragedies, for example, but is experienced within these profound or disturbing moments as a presence of sacred hope, love and grace.  In the midst of confusion or grief, joy or wonder we may encounter the very real presence of God.

This week’s gospel story is about 10 bridesmaids, 5 of whom are wise (because they carry extra oil for their lamps, anticipating the unexpected) and 5 who are foolish (because they have no extra oil and expect nothing different to happen).  It comes from Matthew 25:1-13.  In the ordinary course of events in a Middle-Eastern wedding, a bridegroom will come and collect the bridesmaids and they would go together to the bride’s home and take her to the wedding and feast.  The groom in the story was delayed.  The greek word is based on chronos and suggests his delay was a tarrying and delay was nothing special but a delay in ordinary, business as usual time.  It wasn’t a kairos delay, a tragedy etc but part of ordinary life events.

As the delay went on the bridesmaids slept and their oil burned down.  When the call came that the bridegroom was on his way they awoke and gathered their lamps.  The foolish bridesmaids saw their oil low and asked to borrow some but the wises ones suggested there was too little to share and told them to go to the markets and buy some.  The 5 foolish bridesmaids live by the wisdom of business as usual, the routine of the world around.  They expect things to happen as they should and don’t anticipate a kairos moment.  This is developed by the idea that they go to the markets, even though it is late at night.  The markets are part of the normal market-system of the world as it is – the status quo of ordinary order.  The point is that they do not expect anything unusual to happen and are not ready for the in-breaking of a life-changing kairos moment.  In Matthew’s story this is a ‘God-moment’ and they cannot, will not, see something different or new, wondrous or life-changing.

The groom arrives whilst they are away and the wedding goes on without them.  They are shut out and miss the moment, the feast and the new thing of God that is happening in the world.  One commentator suggests: Faith is not about believing correct thoughts.  Faith is about trusting in Jesus, which, in turn, means living in the new reality he teaches – not status quo, business-as-usual living, but rather living in “the way” of Jesus, in anticipation of God’s kingdom, by affirming the absolute equality and dignity of all people, and hanging in there with it even when it appears that God is far away, or that the bridegroom has been delayed.

This is a wonderful passage that challenges us to be open to the new thing of God breaking into our lives, our world and it challenges status quo, business-as-usual of life.

By geoffstevenson

How Much Iceberg Does Your Tip Have?

I think that it was Paul Keating who famously called an opponent, ‘All tip and no iceberg.’  It was a clever retort and I suspect could be judiciously applied to several leaders across the world.  More and more we are seeing a depth of vacuum in Donald Trump.  He is all smoke and mirrors, all tweet and little substance.  He changes ideas, opinions, rhetoric on a whim to suit his audience and mood.  All tip and no iceberg.

Donald isn’t the only leader who could be described thus, he is just of the highest order in the most powerful and prominent position.  There are many public figures who are all bluster but their rhetoric rarely translates into action.  There are many more people who sit on the sidelines of life and offer all manner of advice and pontifical opinions but rarely extract themselves from their metaphorical thrones to live out their rhetoric.  Perhaps this pertains to all of us at some times?!  I am as opinionated as anyone on my particular subjects and themes but that does not mean I know what I’m talking about or have any expertise grounded in practice. For many years I was manager of my son’s junior cricket team.  The last time I held a cricket bat in any form of competitive seriousness was… well it was a long time ago and it was truly without glory.  I was an unheralded disaster in my one and only competitive season of cricket and fared little better in the schoolyard.  I was a little more able in catching and bowling but still not in any competitive arena.  This never prevented me from offering an opinion and ‘expert’ advice at training or on game day.  Thankfully the actual coach had an excellent understanding of the game and continued to play at a high level.  Much of my shared wisdom with the boys came from listening to and watching Tony or reading a book or two and then parroting back the advice with assuredness and care.  It was a very solid case of do as I say because I do know some theory but absolutely do not do as I do because it will not go well!

There is a place for theoreticians and those who have studied and know the truth about various subjects but perhaps our society has an overabundance of those who ‘know’ and too few of those who ‘do’.  Conversations happen and opinions are tossed back and forth everywhere from the local café to radio talkback and opinion pages in newspapers to facebook, twitter etc to political forums and public debate.  Everyone has an opinion or at least adopts an opinion and argues feebly or well for its endorsement, whether it is justified or not.  Even when ideas and opinions equate to truth, however we may assess that, if it is not grounded in life lived or action taken then it is like eating fairy floss – all fizz and little substance.

This week’s Gospel Reading comes to us from Matthew 23:1-12.  It comes as the tension around Jesus heats up.  In the last days of his life he has been tested and opposed by religious leaders seeking to take him down.  At every point they seek to tie him up and trap him so that public opinion and legal recourse will be aligned against him.  Having sidestepped their traps and turned rhetoric against them, Jesus turns to the crowds with strong words of warning:  Beware the hypocrites!!  He affirms that the religious leaders are knowledgeable.  They know what is right in the laws of God.  They have studied, debated and wrestled with the law and the prophetic writings of Jewish faith.  Listen and learn.  BUT, says Jesus, do not do what they do because their words and actions fail to align – they are all tip and no iceberg; all talk and no walk!

The religious leaders know the right things, at least in a theoretical way, but they cannot and will not live out the implications and reality of what God is on about.  They will not follow God’s way from theory into action.  They will not embrace the transformative way of God in the world.  They won’t live out a faith that is real and engaged – it is merely faith as giving ascent to some truth.  There is no life-engaging belief in this God who will make all things new and bring hope, life and joy.  It’s a bit like me telling the boys how to bat but never picking up a bat and striding to the crease.  I have a whole bunch of ideas, opinions and even facts about what to do but never actually do it.

This reality pervades our society.  I spoke to some people the other day who work for a government department helping people in the midst of the crises of life.  I wondered aloud whether the government ministers in charge of these departments have a clue what they are doing.  One of the people laughed in a mocking way and suggested that if they spent even a week at the coalface, listening and responding to real people with real needs, then they would do some very different things.  Members of the local Rural Fire Services in the Hawkesbury know that some of the bureaucrats in the city have a bunch of theory but little practical understanding of bush fires and hazard reduction because they are removed from practice and stand apart from the reality.  Some of their knowledge is true and good but it is divorced from practice and so they never engage and never really understand, even though they make decisions that impact communities – for good or bad.

Many people are spectators in the game of life, with opinions divorced from reality or knowledge not grounded in praxis.  This applies as much to the church as anywhere.  Many of us have the theory and theological belief systems but that belief is more about giving ascent to a truth.  Not everyone practices and applies the truth they claim to believe.  Belief is removed from practice and trust in the Living God who is mysterious and wondrous beyond our comprehension.  This God calls us into a life of lived belief and trust.  It is a life grounded in love and justice that aren’t simply believed with the mind but lived in the real world – enacted by people who claim this belief.  Too often we argue over theology or practices in worship, church or life but don’t move to the next step of embracing belief and faith into a life lived.

As we hear this story from Jesus we might realise that as it progresses Jesus will soon find his own life at a crossroads – literally a cross.  In reality he has already moved beyond the point of no return and is headed towards the point where his whole belief system, grounded in words and action, will be put to the test.  Is Jesus all hot air, all tip and no iceberg?  Will he walk the talk or fade into irrelevant obscurity?  Jesus puts his life where his mouth and beliefs are.  He puts his whole trust in this one God whose love, grace, justice and way he seeks to incarnate in his own life and being.  He walks to the cross and embraces the truth he believes in his very being and gives his life for the sake of this reality of God.  Jesus demonstrates the profound depth of his words in this passage where people of power and glory are all tip and no iceberg, all talk and no walk.  He invites his followers to move beyond being passengers and to engage in life lived; to embrace a way of life, a living faith of love and justice rather than a theoretical belief system.  Jesus invites us to live the faith, embrace a life of love, justice, hope and peace.

By geoffstevenson