2022 12 18: Advent Love
Sunday Sermon: Alan Storey
A few weeks ago I referred you to The Red Hand Files. The Red Hand Files are Nick Caves’ public reply to questions / letters sent to him. Here is his latest that I think tandems today’s Gospel reading rather well. For were it not for angelic intervention a socially “disgraced” Mary would have been dismissed by a so-called religiously “righteous” Joseph and no Gospel would have followed. Throughout the ages men have often been deaf to the truth of angelic liberators. With righteousness weaponised, the rejection of women have followed. These rejections are the real disgrace!
“Yesterday, I was listening to your BBC interview, and the interviewer asked you to discuss the distinction you make between spirituality and religion – I’m interested in this distinction too, and it’s something I wrestle with.
What do you do when you’re a woman who would like the kind of spirituality with rigour that religion affords, but your faith, and much of its rigour is stacked against your sex? What to do, when the faith you were raised in continues to make decisions that isolate women, and prevents women from being fully themselves in the church and the world?
I haven’t been to church, or even prayed for a long time. I’ve been angry at my church because women continue to be discriminated against, and because not all of us were safe there.
Christ is still compelling for me – and while congregations are still mostly made up of women – how do the rest of us practice within a church that we know hates us.”
CLAIRE, SOUTH GOLDEN BEACH, NSW
In many ways, the figure of Jesus is the radical and mystical embodiment of female energy. It is there in the blood thread of suffering that runs from his birth to his death, his emergence bereft of male seed, the mercy and forgiveness he displays and teaches, his nurturing, shepherding love – all of this feels female in its essence. I think perhaps the biggest mistake the church made was to distrust, dismiss and undermine this implicit female energy that pours through the gospels and the idea of spiritual belief itself.
I can see why you would reject a theology that seems to have taken that free-flowing spirituality and imprisoned it within an intolerant and hostile masculine construct.
Even though I go to church when I can, I am by no means an advocate of organised religion. Like you, I struggle with it. However, I feel the church I attend allows me a lasting structure that can contain my unbelief and belief both – that is to say, my love for the motion, direction and energy of faith, albeit nested in a certain skepticism of its ultimate destination.
Certainly church has its challenges, and it may be the last place you might find Christ, if that’s what you’re looking for. But, for me, a church service affords me a place where I can, for an hour or so, put aside my uncertainty and sit within a gathering space – a place of communal and timeless yearning, imperfect though it may be. There are times when my rational mind clamours in and I wonder what I am doing there, yet there are other times when I am genuinely lifted up by its mothering energy – the words and music and liturgy – and I find those ever-present whispers and intimations of spiritual activity, that both haunt my life and give it meaning, to be quite beautifully affirmed. There within that institution I feel the sacred and feminine essence to be revealed.
Claire, as I said, I am not an advocate for the church one way or the other, and I wish I had a better answer for you. Sometimes it feels as though part of the work of a spiritual life is to discover a way to transcend the imperfections of the religion itself and attune oneself to its essential nature. This is what I try to do. In any event, I wish you all the best and thank you for your letter. I am sure many will relate to it.
“It is sometimes inadvertently that a revolution takes place. An effect of extreme gentleness, barely different from other moments, and then life suddenly catches fire, is ablaze. But burning with inexplicable gentleness. As if suddenly you were taken by the hand along a precipice and needed not only to walk along the edge but to dance, and yes, you dance without fear or vertigo as if the very space took refuge in you, and then as if, upon arriving on the other side, everything had changed, but without violence. Is the intimate revolution of this kind?”
She then goes on to tell a short story of a young Italian soldier. It is a story of surprising ordinariness, “barely different from other moments”, yet I find myself reading and re-reading it with a growing sense of wonder. With each reading it “suddenly catches fire” and the “surprise holds” me.
A young Italian was drafted into the army during the First World War. For months he hid in the mountains with his comrades. They had almost no provisions left. The order was to defend the mountain pass at any cost. Feeling a sense of absurdity that he tried to hide from the others, he kept a journal. One night he noticed the movement of troops in the pass on the other side of the cliffs separating the narrow valley, and he thought that all was lost. The offensive would occur the very next day, that much was certain, and he knew he and his comrades would not have enough ammunition. That night, without his comrades knowing, he decided to venture as close as possible to the enemy camp. Halfway there he almost turned back; he heard a song rising from a gramophone. The surprise held him. He was so moved by it that he decided to come forward until he was seen in the open, a sign of surrender in his hand. He was captured immediately and brought to the officer of the German army. The record was still playing. They both knew the tune. The voice that rose from the recording had an unusual gentleness. The German officer talked with this man all night. Risking everything, the Italian explained the position of his troops, their certain death, and put their fate completely in his hands. The German officer let him leave in the morning. And he never launched the attack. He went in the direction of another valley, leaving them time to withdraw and make their escape. This is a story of gentleness.
This story involves no less wonder than sipping wine from a water-filled-cup and no less surprise than the Creator of the cosmos “contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man” (Charles Wesley).
The epicentre of the story’s surprising wonder lies deep beneath the surface of expectation. “Their certain death” escapes certainty. The story’s surprise rests in what does not happen rather than what does happen just like a tree spared from the woodcutters axe. The tree stands today as it did yesterday. Nothing has changed and yet everything is different. The tree, though rooted in the same soil is now rooted in a new story. The story of what could have been, but wasn’t. The tree, though not dead, inherits the wonder of new life.
So it is with the soldiers. Though not dead, they too inherit new life. This new life is birthed out of a gentle revolution. A gentle revolution that involves radical risk taking, courageous vulnerability and musical invitation that travels over enemy lines and creeps beneath ideological uniforms to build a bridge between enemy hearts.
I share this story of gentle revolution with you at this time in the hope that it can help us to see the Christmas story as one of gentle revolution that catches fire precisely because of its surprising ordinariness: A peasant girl giving birth to a baby in poverty, yet held by the musical invitation of God’s loving favour.
In growing wonder,
2020 12 20 Alan Storey
Advent Evangelism: Graced to Grace 2
It seems that Covid-19’s second bite is bigger than its first bite. “The Western Cape has more cases confirmed in the second wave, than compared to the first wave.” This is according to Dr Keith Cloete, the Head of the Department of Health in the Western Cape. My own anecdotal evidence confirms this. I know far more people with COVID-19 during this second wave than I did during the first. I also know of more people this time around who have died, and others who are struggling in ICU.
As many have said, if we are not careful over this Christmas time this could be our last Christmas. For this reason, we will not be having any in-person services at CMM. Our services will remain via zoom, including Christmas Day at 10 am. We will re-assess this situation only when there is a marked reduction in the spread of COVID-19.
Please remember to wear a mask, wash hands and keep at least 1.5 m away from each other. This prevention trinity is the kindest thing we can do for each other at this time. In the short term this will remain true until we have all received the vaccine. In the medium to long term, if we do not radically change the way we humans do life on earth, we can expect more lethal and frequent pandemics in the future. The choice really is, change or die.
Tragically not everyone agrees with the science. Some think COVID-19 is a hoax and sadly only find out it is not when they struggle to breathe. We may debate each other, but reality does not debate. Reality reigns. Gravity will bring us down every time.
Equally disturbing are those who are anti-vaxxers. History shows that vaccines are nothing short of miraculous in the way they have reduced death rates. From the mandatory smallpox vaccination in the 19th century to the polio vaccine of about sixty years ago, the world has been spared much suffering. Yet from the beginning of vaccines there has been opposition by a minority for a number of reasons, many of which continue to motivate anti-vaxxers to this day. Namely:
- The assault on people’s autonomy.
- Government overreach.
- “Religious” reasons around “de-fouling” the natural order or a supposed link to the “mark of the beast” or the school that says, “simply have faith”.
- Suspicion of big pharmaceutical companies’ manufacturing the problem or at least exploiting it.
We can go to the internet to find out the latest anti-vaccine theories and how they have been debunked, especially around the measles-mumps-rubella vaccines supposed link to autism. This continues to circulate even though it has long since been shown to have zero merit. With equal ease however, we can go to the internet to have any number of conspiracy theories validated. I guess this is a case of, “we will find whatever we are looking for”. This points to another deathly virus plaguing the world: the spread of misinformation.
Anti-vaxxers are not the only stumbling block to the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccination. Rich countries have placed hoarding orders (some countries have ordered up to six times more doses than their population size) making it almost impossible for poor countries to secure enough vaccines.
In the wilderness of old, the freshly freed slaves from Egypt learnt that hoarding stinks of death. When some have too much, others will have too little. One would therefore have hoped that we would have learnt something from COVID-19, that we are all interdependent, and that we are only as healthy as the sickest among us, but sadly not.
It reminds me of the story of the 10 lepers who were healed by Jesus and only one of them returned to say thank you. This person was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). They were all united together when they suffered leprosy together, but as soon as they were healed, other divisions, like ethnicity, came to the fore. Separating them again. In today’s situation a nationalism and classism, rather than a world-wide humanitarianism, now determine who will be first in line for vaccine treatment.
This past week South Africa together with India and later supported by Eswatini and Kenya, requested the World Trade Organisation TRIPS Council that certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19 be waved to ensure greater ease to acquire the COVID-19 vaccine. This was not agreed to. Unsurprisingly, the debate was pretty much split along economics: rich countries vs poor countries.
Time is running out for the human species to mature. To literally grow up and recognise the real reality (that does not debate, but reigns) of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all of life. Only then will we end the apartheid between nations that selfishly secures privilege for a few at the exclusion and exploitation of the many. In short, a mature human person recognises that all people are family. For this reason, we pray: OUR Father / Mother in heaven… To take that three-letter word seriously is to change the world we live in.
If you would like the Zoom link for Sunday’s Service – please email: email@example.com
Grace and peace to you and through you
One of the means of grace that holds our lives together is friendship. Friends who know us and love us for knowing us. To be known is one of our greatest needs. To be loved is another one of our greatest needs – if not the greatest. Yet these two great needs often clash as we wonder to ourselves: “if they really knew me would they still love me?” This is the haunting question that true friends answer for us. Friends by definition both know us and love us and herein lies the grace that holds us.
The poet and philosopher David Whyte explores friendship in his book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.
In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.
The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armoured personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.
Over this holiday time – gift your friendships with your time.