Something seems to be slipping

(Sermon at Pilgrim Uniting Church, Sunday 16th July 2017)

Something seems to be slipping…

As you may know, I’ve been in North America, and the last part of my travel related to my role as President, DIAKONIA World Federation, culminating in a very successful DIAKONIA World Assembly in Chicago, an event held every four years. It was interesting to be in America and to experience first hand how things seem to be slipping. Not just there, but here. Attitudes have become hardened about ‘them and us’. Actions have been emboldened in the changing landscape of our culturally and religiously diverse world.

DIAKONIA World Federation celebrated 70 years since it began, with diaconal associations pledging to work together in post World War II Europe. This didn’t happen in isolation. The war was certainly a catalyst to firm up the commitment to work together. But the movement towards collaboration that would transcend political borders and cultural boundaries had been happening for decades. It was also reflected in other efforts to work together – the formation of the World Council of Churches (1948), the formation of the Church of South India from several Protestant denominations (1947), the United Nations (1945), the Lutheran World Federation (1947), and so many more formed in the immediate post-war period. There was a hopefulness about the way human societies would choose to work together.

But something seems to be slipping, notch by notch…

At one of the gatherings of diaconal workers that followed the DIAKONIA Assembly in Chicago, we came to learn about behaviour towards workers (mainly African-American and Hispanic people) in the university cafeteria that left a lot to be desired. Yelling, derogatory and demeaning comments, and a sense of white privilege and entitlement. Completely incongruous with the espoused values of diaconal workers. When one of the leaders learned about this situation, she reflected that the behaviour seems to have been unconsciously absorbed – as if by osmosis – from the rhetoric of political leaders, media commentators, as well as broad societal changes. People now felt they had permission to behave differently towards others who are ‘not like us’. It was deeply distressing: even committed and faithful Christians can lose their bearings, be swept along by the currents of change rather than be the lighthouse reflecting God’s way of truth, justice, compassion and mercy.

Something seems to be slipping, notch by notch, day by day…

And back home, I became aware of public behaviours that should outrage us but somehow have become part of the new norm. You may know about Yasmin Abdel-Magied, a 26 year old mechanical engineer who was named Queensland’s Young Australian of the Year for her work in founding Youth Without Borders, an organisation that helps young people work for positive change in their communities. She is also a Muslim. On ANZAC Day she dared to suggest that it may be appropriate to remember other people fleeing from and suffering as a result, of wars today. It’s not such an extraordinary thought, but the reaction against her has been extreme. Yasmin became a target. A media commentator (Prue MacSween) said if she had a chance she would run over her! She endured daily death threats, changed her phone number, moved house, and now has left Australia altogether. (Julia Baird, ABC’s The Drum) said: “Her savaging has been so grotesque in its meanness, ugly in its intolerance and alarming in its violence, that it’s obvious something else is going on, too – something has been legitimised and unleashed. Racism, sexism and Islamophobia make a potent brew’.

Something seems to be slipping, notch by notch, day by day, media story by media story…

One of the speakers at the DIAKONIA World Assembly, Rev Dr Michael Kinnamon, has recently published a short book, ‘The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear’. The introduction reads:
‘…contemporary (American/western) society is saturated with fear, fear that is out of proportion to the actual threats we face. Such excessive fearfulness leads to attacks on the wrong targets and to the misdirecting of finite public resources. It turns suspicion into a virtue, thus making it harder to interact constructively with others’.

Kinnamon quotes former President Obama (1): ‘Fear can lead us to lash out against those who are different, or lead us to try to get some sinister ‘other’ under control. Alternatively, fear can lead us to succumb to despair, or paralysis or cynicism. Fear can feed our more selfish impulses and erode the bonds of community…it can be contagious, spreading through societies, and through nations. And if we let it consume us, the consequences of that fear can be worse than any outward threat’. Kinnamon noted that when a nation is afraid, it allows an incredibly elaborate security apparatus to be set up that then has a stake in keeping the public perpetually afraid.

People of faith have an important word to say to a fearful culture. How we do our theology matters in the incredibly fast-paced and pluralistic world we live in. And how we deal with our own fear.

Today’s reading from Romans can easily lead us into a simplistic, dualistic way of understanding our human nature. On the one hand we’re doomed because we’re mere flesh, a physical being, trapped in sin. On the other hand, the spirit is good, but requires us to deny the flesh, or to see the sinfulness of the flesh. And therefore we need Jesus to rescue us from our sinful state. And thereby hangs many a conversion conversation. Familiar?

But let’s begin with God. God is love. Source of all being. Mother. Father. Parent. God’s love is infinite and eternal. And when we speak about God’s love as divine energy, we speak in terms of Spirit. And when we speak about God’s love embodied, we speak about the one we name as Christ, revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in a particular time and place. God’s energy appeared as matter. Word made flesh. The embodiment of God’s love.

Now here’s where it moves to us… we too are finite reflections of God’s infinite love, just as Jesus was. God’s spirit, which we see in him, is in all of us. We, you and I, all of us, are part of God, members of the cosmos, instances of the embodiment of God’s eternal and infinite love. We find our place of belonging in God. We can let God’s goodness be our goodness: our goodness is our Godness. Christ appearing as Jesus comes to show us this. (2)

Paul believes that here and now humans can live in the Spirit, that believers in Christ live in a new eco-system, a new place structured by Christ, by the Spirit, where the orientation is towards life and peace. It is the best expression of faith in God, when we allow the focus of our lives to be about God’s life and peace. Paul contrasts this with the way that denies life, denies love, denies peace, denies freedom. When our lives are preoccupied by fear, and fulfilling our own needs, wants, and desires, we cut ourselves off from the joy and love that is all around us.

Something is slipping. Surely we see the signs all around us. We need to name them as such, rather than being persuaded by and swept along by them. When we limit our own understanding to that of being ‘mere mortals’, we restrict ourselves to the power of our fears and desires. It takes a leap of faith to open ourselves to life – to take the risk of opening ourselves to the wonderful and unpredictable Spirit that flows so freely and with such life all around us. To live in the Spirit is to allow God’s infinite power to live in us, to be able to love others as Jesus loved.

Let us spend some time in silent reflection, to be aware of God’s Spirit in our company, beckoning us to recognise ourselves as those who carry within us and between us the hope of God’s infinite love within our finite lives and the seeds of love, justice, mercy, compassion, hope and forgiveness.

It will change our lives, it will change the world.

May it be so. Amen.

(1) Presidential prayer breakfast, Feb 4, 2016
(2) adapted from reflections by Steve Garness-Holmes, Unfolding Light