Wednesday, 6 November 2013

A sermon from Korea on Luke 19

Sermon preached at St John’s Anglican Church, Busan during WCC 10th Assembly as part of the weekend congregational visits to local churches
(You can read mor about how I got on in this friendly local congregation in French here)

Text: Luke 19

When I was young I liked to climb a particular tree in my parents’ garden. I could hide there and be quiet.
The gospel tells us that that Zaccheus was a small person. He couldn’t see over the heads of the holy and pure religious people. They seemed all to be taller than him. These other people also all seem to judge him. Despite one meaning of his name being “pure”, for them he is a sinner: he collects taxes, makes money dishonestly for himself, collaborates with the occupying Roman power.
When Jesus comes to town Zaccheus can’t see what’s happening, so he climbs a sycamore tree. He climbs the tree not because he wants to be quiet but because he wants somehow to be part of the community. 2,000 years ago in the towns and villages of  Palestine a synagogue was not necessarily a building but simply a gathering, an Assembly. Often a tree, a sycamore tree, would be the place where the gathering would take place. So by climbing the tree Zaccheus shows he wants to be part of the community, of the assembly. He wants to at least see Jesus, even though he knows others call him a sinner, even though he knows his own life is not all it could and should be.
And then the story changes, Jesus looks up at Zaccheus in the tree and responds to his desire to be fully part of community by saying “come down I’m going to stay at your place today”. Zaccheus would never have dared to invite Jesus because of how other people would criticize Jesus. But Jesus brings this criticism on himself with his surprise self-invitation.
By calling Zaccheus down from the tree and inviting himself to his house, Jesus transforms relationships within that community, obliging those religious people who think faith is all about judging other people as sinners to think again. Their smallness of thinking needs to be transformed, Zacheus’ money oriented way of thinking also needs to be transformed.
In the midst of a crowd which does not seem to be completely sympathetic, Jesus shows courage and great generosity of spirit. Zaccheus is a son of Abraham, God’s coming kingdom is open to all, not only to those we may think of as pure.
If we are still trying to categorize people into who is sinner and who is saved then God’s generous and challenging kingdom may still be a long way off.

Zaccheus responds to Jesus’ visit and call by being prepared to face the future with less personal wealth, seeking reconciliation and restorative justice with his community. Although he is still small in stature, Jesus’ call makes Zaccheus see that he too has an important part to play in the big story of the kingdom of God. He can walk tall rather than hide up a tree.

I read this story and I wonder whether bankers and money lenders in our own time who have cheated people and countries out of money in the world financial crisis will one day have the humility to recognise the need for transformation in the way the world does business.

I have come to Busan for a gathering, an Assembly. Christians from all over the world, several thousand of us including many young people, from more than 320 Christian churches have come together, to pray, discuss and study together as members of the World Council of Churches. Our meeting is not taking place underneath a sycamore tree but in the Bexco convention centre. But the worship space where we gather does have a tree – though not a sycamore - representing the tree of life from the book of Revelation, it is a symbol of hope for the justice and peace we pray that God is leading us towards.

At the World Council Assembly we have listened together to stories of great pain and suffering from around the world – fears about climate change in the Pacific, stories of women repeatedly raped in war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sufferings of the peoples in the Middle East and of the Christians there, the deep desire for unity and just peace here in Korea, the call to consume less if our fragile green planet is to survive … the list is long, the sufferings and questions are many
Sometimes we have felt like the one speaking in the book of Habakuk
“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?”
Yet there have also been stories of hope and transformation: of men and women acting together to put an end to the culture of rape and violence, of emerging new grassroots ways of tackling disease; of entrusting young people with leadership; of people finding the language to speak to one another across religious and cultural divides; of small people finding that they can see and do things, and that their contribution is important.

We also listen to greetings from Christian leaders of different families, from his all holiness Bartolomeo, Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, from Pope Francis and on Friday morning from Archbishop Justin Welby who (amongst other things) said this:

“I am enjoying a sense of wonder at my small, my tiny place among God’s great Church, which draws together women and men, young and not so young, lay and ordained, from different continents and cultures and different church traditions.”

I was very moved to hear an important church leader speak about his small, tiny place in God’s church. In our world so obsessed with celebrities and people who are rich and famous and big, it is so refreshing to hear a leader talk about having a small place. Recognising that we are small yet important to God and loved by God, is part of the process of allowing ourselves to be transformed by the kingdom values of repentance, justice, peace and generosity.

Jesus is waiting for our desire to become part of those he is gathering, he invites himself into our lives transforming our suffering relationships, our difficulties about how to put things right in our own lives and in the world. Through his courage we too find courage. He is not a famous world brand trying to sell us something, he is the way, the truth and the life. Christ opens the doors of God’s generous kingdom of grace and acceptance for us and for all humanity, and he bids us to become people of the way, following his example of forgiveness and transformation.

God of life lead us to justice and peace.

(c) Jane Stranz

Friday, 3 May 2013

Buy a book against the luxury of hopelessness

So one of the joys of Germany are the bookshops, and one of the joys of the Kirchentag is the huge bookshop. I love this poster – Faith needs books! Fortunately even with a large suitcase I cannot buy everything I would like, nor should I. But the thing I love about wandering around tables of books I’m not going to buy are the thoughts that just the titles set off, they tend not to be particularly profound.
Yesterday evening I did buy books for my faith, (more about them soon) but I stopped myself buying yet more Dorothee Sölle, though I sense I would love to have her complete poetic works ... (hint it is my 50th birthday later this year) But one title of hers really struck a chord with me “Against the luxury of hopelessness”. How dare we live without hope. Is it the affliction of the well-off to live without hope? Maybe. Perhaps affluent societies, particularly those built on the ethic of competition, with work for many being a desperate experience of social-darwinism. Yet how does telling those who cry out their hopelessness that their cries are a luxury, help them or make help progress. I have neither bought nor read the book ( I feel I ought in honesty to add – yet …) I thought of the hopeless situation in Syria. I thought of my own battles in recent years with a sense of personal hopelessness. Had that tearful and painful battle been a luxury?
Walking away from the temptations of the bookshop, I wondered about the luxury of being hopeless and thought back to that time when I had felt hopelessness so acutely and realised that in many ways I had throughout that time continued to be hope-filled and to continue to hold out hope for others – at least in my preaching. Perhaps some of what I expressed at that time was self-indulgent. 
The Kirchentag theme is “as much as you need” Soviel du brauchst ... perhaps when we indulge in hopelessness then it is a luxury. Many in the world living in truly hopeless situations are busy - getting angry, saving their children, their neighbours, protecting themselves, fleeing and looking for enough food and water to make it through the day. they do not have the luxury of hopelessness.
I suppose the cynical me wonders about the false hope sometimes marketed to us like a commodity. I don't need much of that at all thanks. Enough I am looking forward I sense to another trip to the book tables before leaving Hamburg ... luxuriating in the commodity of buy books about luxury. enough for now.

Remembering feisty lives of those history almost forgot

I'm at the German Protestant Kirchentag in Hamburg. It is as always, brilliant, stimulating, prayerful.
And this is the way it goes, I receive insight from others ...
Dr B attends a Bible study given by Margot Kässmann on the parable of the unjust judge and the widow in Luke 18. Later he tells me about it, brings me the text, telling me not only about the Dorothee Sölle poetry Kässmann interwove into the study, but also talking about the example of Elisabeth Schmitz, who during the years of National Socialism tried repeatedly to convince Karl Barth and others leading the Confessing Church of the need to take up the cause of non-arians in Germany. In 1935 she wrote and published a pamphlet anonymously Zur Lage der deutschen Nichtarier. It was a lucid and sadly prophetic description of what was likely to happen to Jews and others under the National Socilist regime. She sent it to many of the leaders in the Confessing Church. You can read more about her in the German entry on wikipedia and I've quoted in full the passage from Kässmann's Bible study which mentions her at the end of this post.
What moved and shocked me was this - I should know about Elisabeth Schmitz. Decades ago I wrote a dissertation about the Confessing Church and Anti-Semitism. I got a special mention from the jury for what I wrote. Of course that is because at that time my academic adjudicators were as ignorant as I was, few people had heard of Elisabeth Schmitz, copies of what she wrote were just coming to light but were being wrongly attributed to another feisty women of that generation, Marga Meusel. When Schmitz died in 1977, just seven people attended her funeral ...

The witness of so many feisty women and men is lost.
I'm not going to say more, there is no moral to draw from this story, but I am thankful for the researcher's who have brought her writing and action back to us. That speaks to me of resurrection.

Here is the quote from Kässmann's Bible Study yesterday. Perhaps I should add that Bible study in this Kirchentag context was for 7,000 people.
Vor 80 Jahren ergriffen die Nationalsozialisten unter Adolf Hitler die Macht in Deutschland. Eine beispiellose Vernichtung aller Errungenschaften von Humanität und Aufklärung, von Menschenrechten und Religionsfreiheit sollte folgen. Wenige gab es, die das früh erkannten. Ein Beispiel ist für mich Elisabeth Schmitz.
Von 1933 bis 1936 korrespondierte sie mit Karl Barth und versuchte, ihn zu einer Stellungnahme zur so genannten „Judenfrage“ zu bewegen, was dieser aber ablehnte. Im September 1935 verfasste sie ein Memorandum, in dem sie forderte, dass die Bekennende Kirche sich für die entrechteten Juden einsetzen sollte. Sie schrieb unter anderem: „In einer kleinen Stadt werden den jüdischen Kindern von den anderen immer wieder die Hefte zerrissen, wird ihnen das Frühstücksbrot weggenommen und in den Schmutz getreten! Es sind christliche Kinder, die das tun, und christliche Eltern, Lehrer und Pfarrer, die das geschehen lassen!“
Sie wollte den Text auf der dritten Synode der Bekennenden Kirche 1935 vorlegen, aber die Synode beschäftige sich nicht mit der „Judenfrage“. Als Elisabeth Schmitz 1977 verstarb, waren sieben
Menschen bei ihrer Beerdigung ...
Offenbar hat auch diese Frau genervt. Die Kirchen als Institutionen haben in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus versagt, als es darum ging, die Verfolgten, zuallererst die Juden, aber ebenso Kommunisten, Homosexuelle, Zwangsarbeiter, Zeugen Jehovas und viele andere zu schützen. Selbst die Bekennende Kirche. In ökumenischer Gemeinsamkeit aber haben viele Christinnen und Christen Widerstand geleistet gegen Willkür und Unrecht. Das ist ermutigend. Nicht nachlassen. Weiter beten! Und weiter denken!