Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Happy and angry and uncertain

I did something radical today. When I drove into Gisborne for lunch (‘cos it’s my day off and I can do things like that on my day off) I left both my mobile phones behind!

(In case you’re wondering, I have two mobiles because one is mine and the other belongs to the church and I carry them both rather than forwarding calls from one to the other because having the two helps me to know who I’m meant to be when I answer a call. Avril-the-Minister is much more mature and helpful and caring than just-plain-Avril.)

On the way home, singing along to Paul Kelly’s Stolen Apples and dancing as much as is safe when driving a car, I realised that I was feeling an amazing sense of freedom because for two whole hours I had been absolutely uncontactable.

(The last time that happened I was in Rome without a working mobile, and that wasn’t actually a relaxed experience. Fascinating, energising, exhausting, fun – but in no way relaxing.)

I had to overcome a fair sense of guilt about being footloose and phone-free. What if something happened? What if there was an emergency? (I’m still struggling with the difference between serving God, which is what I do, and being God, which I’m not.)

I also discovered that I was happy because I was driving my car.

I’ve developed an appalling relationship with my car. Cars are (in ascending order of concern) expensive and dangerous and environmentally unsound. But I’ve fallen in love with The Pod, which is small and cute and lets me listen to Radio National and/or Paul Kelly as I travel.

I’ve also become one of those  people who attribute a personality to their car. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I have caught myself thinking that The Pod (Poddie for short) understands me. It’s an inanimate object! I do spend an awful lot of time in it. In fact, I spend more time with my car than with any human being, benefit of having four congregations in the country, so maybe attributing a personality to it is just a sensible way of avoiding loneliness.

On another topic altogether: Compass. What the hell was that? I ended up so angry at the utter stupidity of this program on the Uniting Church that I ate half a packet of chocolate biscuits and couldn’t sleep for hours afterwards. (Which may have been because of the biscuits or it may just have been because of the anger.)

What is the point of focusing on the two extreme ends of the church while ignoring the 90% of church people who are in the middle? That doesn’t give any sort of picture of the Uniting Church. Great picture of the “progressive” end and the “Assembly of Confessing Congregations”, but if the program was going to be about the outliers it should have said that.

I like the progressives, particularly their attitudes to language and gender and sexuality, but I also think the Trinity is the single most exciting theological doctrine ever, and I’m never giving it up, which seems to be a problem for my progressive status. Really glad that there are progressives out there, but they are at one end of the UCA continuum.

And then there’s the bloody Assembly of Confessing Congregations. One statistic that they did share last night was that the ACC claims 5% of UCA congregations as members. 5%! Why the hell are they getting media coverage then?

Although – I did not know that the Uniting Church still had Boys and Girls Brigades and the footage of them marching in their uniforms makes me laugh every time I remember it.

One of the things that really angered me was the opening sequence, when they compared footage from the First Assembly with footage of what seemed to be a local 30th anniversary service to imply that in thirty years the UCA had dwindled to an aging remnant. If they had any journalistic integrity they would have compared the worship at the First Assembly with, oh, I don’t know, THE WORSHIP AT THE MOST RECENT ASSEMBLY IN BRISBANE LAST YEAR. The one with the singing and dancing and celebration and admittedly over-cute Da Vinci Code parody, which packed out the venue.

Anyway, not a happy viewer.

But, must confess, did not watch with careful attention because I spent lots of time messaging or calling Heidi (Stabb, rather than Strack – hello, Heidi Strack, looking forward to meeting you in person!) to vent at her. I recorded most of it (after an initial “how does this DVD recorder thing work” moment) so at some point I’ll have to sit down and watch again. But that will probably entail eating the rest of that packet of chocolate biscuits, so I might put it off for a while.

On a third topic: it had to happen sometime. I got to Lancefield yesterday right on 10.30 and discovered that my sermon and liturgy were back on the pulpit in Romsey. Fluttered around trying to work out whether I really needed them or if I could just wing it, and decided that because it was communion Sunday I couldn’t just wing it. After doing Ministry and Sacraments at the UFT I should be able to do a Great Prayer of Thanksgiving off the top of my head with all the right elements, but I was pretty sure I’d have a mental blank when the time came. So the Chair of the Lancefield Congregation drove back to Romsey while I started the service and tried to take it as slowly as possible.

I had to ad lib the Prayer of Confession, which was okay, and then we had a pause in the service while we debated to which tune to sing “O, for a thousand tongues to sing”. By the time we’d had the discussion and the vote and sung all six verses my sermon had arrived. Which was good, because I was nervous enough about the sermon as it was. I don’t think I’m as good preaching on death as I am preaching on life. If you want to read it, and comment very, very gently, here it is.

Sermon on Luke 20:27-38

Today, for the first time in the Gospel of Luke, we meet the Sadducees. We’ve previously heard about Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, the priests, and the scribes; now we encounter another group within Judaism.

First-century Judaism seems to have had something in common with twenty-first century Christianity. While there was broad agreement about many elements of the faith, like the fact that Yahweh was the one and only God, there were many theological and philosophical differences between Judaism’s different branches. One of those differences was the debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about which scriptures were authoritative. For the Sadducees, an aristocratic group made up of members of the leading priestly families, the only authoritative teachings were found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, the ones attributed to Moses. For the Pharisees, the law included all the books in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Pentateuch and the prophets and the writings, as well as oral tradition.

One of the results of this difference was that the Pharisees, on the basis of the later writings and oral tradition, argued that resurrection was possible. The Sadducees, looking only at the Pentateuch, argued that death was the absolute end and the only life after death people had was through their descendants.

Jesus is drawn into the middle of this debate. With their story about the woman with seven husbands, the Sadducees want Jesus to make a choice between resurrection and the teachings of Moses.

The Sadducees’ question is a theological quibble. It trivialises the relationship between God and humanity. The story of the woman with seven husbands is meant to be ridiculous; the Sadducees are using levirate marriage to make belief in resurrection seem absurd. The origin of levirate marriage was the idea that people only had an afterlife through their descendants. If a man died without descendants, then it was the responsibility of his brother to raise children for him. What the widow thought about this was never discussed, but given the dangers and difficulties of being a childless widow in that society it might have seemed a reasonable form of social security. Levirate marriage was apparently wide-spread, practiced by the Assyrians, Hittites and Canaanites as well as the Israelites. It waspart of the Pentateuch, accepted by both Pharisees and Sadducees as part of the Torah, so if Jesus said anything against it, he would be seen as challenging the law of Moses. On the other hand, if he tried to argue for both Levirate marriage and resurrection, he would be seen to be supporting the ludicrous conclusion that this poor hypothetical woman was going to find herself with seven husbands in the afterlife.

Jesus avoids the trap laid for him by giving the Sadducees two answers to their question. The first points out that the whole premise of their question is wrong. Whatever resurrection life is like, it’s not just a continuation of life as we know it. New life will not be like life in this age, and marriage is an institution of this age. Jesus argues that after resurrection humanity will be like angels, which wouldn’t be an answer that pleased the Sadducees, since they didn’t believe in angels. The logic is that marriage, perhaps especially levirate marriage, is for the purpose of procreation, and since the resurrected don’t die, they have no need to marry and have children, either. The Sadducees are erroneously assuming that earthly institutions will continue in the age to come. Jesus says they won’t.

The second answer deals with the Sadducees on their own ground. They believe that only the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures are authoritative, so Jesus turns to the Pentateuch for an answer to them. “God is the God not of the dead but of the living”. Even in death God is with us, therefore we must be with God, therefore we must exist in some way.

So, what will that existence look like? What is resurrection? In what sense are the patriarchs alive? In what sense will we, if we’re found worthy of a place in that age, be alive? The gospels actually tell us very little about resurrection from the dead. We’ve seen in Luke’s gospel Jesus raising people from the dead, but that isn’t resurrection. Those people, the son of the widow at Nain and the daughter of Jairus, were brought back to ordinary life and presumably both died again, although we can hope that they died finally of extreme old age in their beds. They weren’t resurrected. The only person we see resurrected in the gospel is Jesus himself, and the Christian understanding of resurrection is first of all about who Jesus is. But this short discussion gives us some insights into what resurrected life is and is not.

There is in this story no idea of an immortal soul, the idea that body and soul are separate and that when the body dies the soul continues in some form or another. That was an idea popular in Greek philosophy, and it was often tied with ideas that the body was bad and the soul was good. That’s not a Christian idea. We know that bodies are good, not only because that’s how God created us, embodied, but also because the Word became flesh, God became incarnate. Nor in Christianity is there any automatic immortality of the soul. Bodies are not mortal and bad, while souls are immortal and good. And so resurrection is not some natural power we have.

What we do have here is the certainty that our relationship with God survives death. Jesus is strongly affirming the idea that there is some sort of life after death; that our life does not necessarily end in death. This is why we have what the funeral service describes as “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection”. We do die, there’s no question, but God gives life to the dead. Just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob still had a relationship with God in the time of Moses, so we can still have a relationship with God after our own deaths, a relationship created and continued through God’s love and grace. This is why in the funeral service we’re able “to affirm the Christian conviction that while death is the end of mortal life it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God”.

But apart from this hope of the resurrection and conviction that God continues to love us after death, we don’t have a lot of information about resurrection life. This makes it a bit surprising that throughout history so much time and effort has gone into speculating about it. Christianity has sometimes been accused of being a “pie in the sky” religion, focusing on what happens after death to the detriment of what is happening in life, even encouraging people to accept injustice and suffering during life in the belief that all will come right after death. I do believe that in the resurrection people will live lives of justice and peace, but the gospels never suggest that that hope can be used to justify injustice and violence now.

One thing we don’t find in this story is a theology of marriage. That’s not what Jesus is giving in his answer to the Sadducees. The basis of the argument that there’s no marriage after death seems to be that marriage is for procreation alone, and with no need of children to provide vicarious immortality, there’s no need of marriage, either. Most married people I know would argue that there’s a lot more to their relationship than the creation of their own personal immortality in the form of their children. And the church agrees that this isn’t actually what marriage is about. The wedding service talks about marriage as founded in God’s loving nature; reflecting Christ’s love for his Church; providing companionship and comfort; possibly including caring for children; and helping to help to shape a society in which human dignity and happiness may flourish and abound. These are all very good things, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason that these good things shouldn’t continue after the resurrection. However, we also need to recognise that, as I’ve just been saying, we do know very little about what resurrection life will be like. Maybe after the resurrection the love and companionship and comfort and commitment that in marriage are shared between two people will be shared between everyone. We don’t know. But marriage is not what this story is about.

It’s a fascinating coincidence, or not a coincidence, that the lectionary gives us this reading about resurrection life today. Today is the 89th anniversary of the guns falling silent on the Western Front. Between nine and thirteen million people died in the First World War. The war was followed by the Spanish Flu Epidemic, which killed millions and millions more. One of the results of these deaths was an intense interest in spiritualism, in contacting the dead. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was just one of the people to consult mediums hoping for messages from those he had loved. In his case, they included his son Kingsley, who had died of the flu after being wounded on the Somme. Conan Doyle was convinced that he’d been spoken to by his son, who he said was now living in a spiritual body a life very similar to the one he’d lived in a physical body.

Christians are neither spiritualists nor Sadducees. Unlike the spiritualists, we don’t believe that we are immortal souls trapped in physical bodies for whom death makes no real change. Death is real, we do die, and we know very little about what happens after death. But unlike the Sadducees, we don’t believe that this death is the end. We have that sure and certain hope of the resurrection, having seen in Christ’s resurrection the first fruits of those who have died (1 Corinthians 20.) We believe in life after death as a gift of God, knowing that the relationship God forges with us transcends death; that God can raise the dead to life as easily as God gives life in the first place.

We are mortal and we die, the Sadducees were right about that. But they were not right to argue that death is the end. As Paul wrote to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-9). Whatever else we know or speculate about the resurrection life, we can hold on to that. Thanks be to God.

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November 12, 2007 - Posted by | Life, etc., Ministry

9 Comments »

  1. I really like your sermon, and intend to read it again tomorrow. It is most thoughtful – that is not quite adequate. I expected the Compass programme to be worse. Other churches include a great variety of opinions and beliefs – why pick on us? “sure and certain hope” IS a strange phrase. I am looking forward to being at your ordination. God bless

    Comment by Elizabeth | November 12, 2007 | Reply

  2. Avril, you say: I got to Lancefield yesterday right on 10.30 and discovered that my sermon and liturgy were back on the pulpit in Romsey.

    I laughed out loud because I’ve been there and done that, only I was in Gerang Gerung and my sermon and liturgy were in Dimboola. In the olden days, there was always the dreaded “blue book” (three communion liturgies, none of which I liked much) to fall back on for the communion liturgy, so I winged the sermon. I think I did it two or three times during my ministry in Dimboola. I just said “I’m here, but my sermon, prayers etc are on the pulpit in Dimboola. If I appear to be struggling a bit at times, you’ll understand why.”

    Haven’t had time to read the sermon, but I hope you’ll share your rage with the ABC. FWIW, there are a number of other people who also didn’t like the program.

    Comment by Judy Redman | November 12, 2007 | Reply

  3. I’m very proud of you for leaving your mobiles behind! You should do that again sometime.

    And that’s a very good sermon.

    Comment by Heidi (Stabb) :-) | November 12, 2007 | Reply

  4. Regarding the Compass program- I’m certainly with you on that one. I thought that they did a bit of a Richard Dawkins on us by focussing on the minority extremes, rather than the majority moderates… At the end of the program I thought “oh, is that IT?! where is the content?”

    Interestingly we had the Theological College Valedictory Dinner on Friday night, and there was discussion in anticipation of the program around one of the faculty tables. Alistair Macrae (who also happens to be President elect of the UCA Assembly) was heard to comment that neither he nor Gregor Henderson (current President) were consulted or contacted to give any input or opinion to the program.

    Which again raises the question of journalistic integrity- what kind of professional would produce a program on one of the largest Christian denominations in the country and not even consult with any of the leaders to get their information?

    Comment by Caro | November 12, 2007 | Reply

  5. Journalistic integrety? Outdated concept surely. If I had been making the program I wouldn’t have interviewed any of the leaders either. Party line is boring no matter how true it may be. Even Compass sees that focussing on two extremes makes a more interesting and provocative story than reporting on the mainstream.
    As a former Anglican I grew sick of the two extremes portraying the church as something it wasn’t and quickly learned to ignore any statements from either side. Now I just don’t care.

    Comment by Pete | November 13, 2007 | Reply

  6. Okay, journalistic integrity. Maybe it’s because I spend most of my life listening to Radio National, but I still have this sense of journalists as good people seeking to present the truth, ot at least get their facts right. Hence my disappointment at the Compass story. The other reason I’m disappointed is because it was a Compass program. I don’t in any way expect the Herald-Sun to ever say anything good about the UCA, and I’d be a little worried if they weren’t misrepresenting us – but Compass?

    Chatting to Nicole today about the lack of consulting any church leaders, she pointed out that if they had talked to Gregor or Al they would just have presented them as stereotypes: Gregor probably the grieving widower at this point and Al as the Christian radical. But that would still have given people a better idea of who we are as a church than what they showed.

    Pete, you’re probably right, but I still care about how the UCA is presented. Maybe it’s a completely selfish concern, given my status in the church, but it hurts when we come across as mad.

    Anyway, I’m really, really tired after a day at the “Preaching and Teaching in the Year of Matthew and Moses” Conference. Going to watch some Quantum Leap and then get and early night, ready for more Matthew and Moses at an ungodly hour tomorrow.

    Comment by avrilhj | November 13, 2007 | Reply

  7. Now dancing while in command of a vehicle?! 😉

    I hope you’ve rung/e-mailed Compass.

    Is it the year of Matthew and Moses as well as Rudd and Swan?

    Comment by Olivia | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  8. Hope cannot be “sure and certain.” If you know something’s going to happen, then it isn’t hope, it’s knowledge.

    Comment by Paul Martin | November 16, 2007 | Reply

  9. I am really angry after reading your little rant above – stating that the 90% of the uniting church is not represented in the Compass show – I would suggest you visit that 90% in most congregations (in Tasmania at least) because they are very old and dying off. It is not some glorious group that is humming along quite nicely and on the whole, from my fairly subjective observations, having little impact in the communities where they are.

    I grew up in a Methodist church with by far the largest sunday school in my town about 100 in the 70s- there is now no sunday school and no youth group there. that is true for most UCAs in that area.

    The truth is that most of the UCA is in a lot of trouble – it has not been able to reatin people under 40 in most congregations.

    To state they should have shown the celebebrations at assembly is also very sad – everyone there had to be there – and many of them the people who have led the UCA to the state it is in now. They encourage each other about how glorious and brave they are – but in fact have produced leadership that very few on the local level feel connected with.

    When i first came into the life of the UCA, after coming to faith – I was more excited and more dedicated to the concept of the UCA than any other young person I knew. The idea of 3 churches coming together for the sake of Christ and unity excited and inpsired me beyond anything. I have visited many UCAs in Australia – and by far they are lifeless placed steeped in conservatism in their practise regardless of their theology.

    I would catergorise myself as evangelical in the tradition of wesley theologically and am SO tired of the inability that people have to the critcism of the UCA from within and without – we sure can dish it out to government but become very angry if it is done to us.

    Anyway if have ranted enough but feel that the key point you make is incorrect about the UCA – i feel that there are many in the church who will trust (sadly) the UCA leadership regardless of what they say -liberal or orthodox. That generation is dying off probably part of your 90% ( I would say about 60%) They will be sitting in a UCA pew till the day they die and nothing will move them.
    I feel this is tragic for them and the church – if people like yourself, who are lining up to be ministers are conitinuing the ‘more of the same – let’s just be positive’ then the church is in a lot of trouble.

    Comment by kerry beswick | December 19, 2007 | Reply


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